A Journey To Death at Carl Freedman Gallery is so brutally truthful, it brought me to tears

So long as I’ve been “aware” of contemporary art, Tracey Emin has been there, half a generation ahead of me. She has excavated her life and articulated feelings around subjects that had felt unspeakably private, from adolescent sexuality to the menopause. For many women, myself included, her work has offered a kind of companionship. An affirmation that rather than being ashamed of difficult and painful experiences, we might instead force them into public conversation.

Sexual assault, devastating heartbreak, ambivalence around motherhood, grief and longing have all made their way into her art, whether as films, quilts, neons, sculptures or paintings.

Her short film Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995) takes us back to Emin’s time as a sexually precocious teenager in Margate, Kent, when her dreams of winning a disco competition were destroyed by men shouting “slag” from the sidelines. In How it Feels (1996), she describes her experience of a horrific botched abortion.

As she has got older, Emin has been characteristically upfront about ageing. In 2019, she exhibited dozens of photographs taken in the middle of the night during the bouts of insomnia many women experience around menopause. They showed her getting reacquainted with a changing face, which appeared crumpled, exhausted, in some cases even bruised. She was taking a long unflattering look at herself.

More recently Emin has preceded me through something less anticipated – major abdominal surgery and a stoma. She has been through a lot: a huge operation for squamous cell bladder cancer, during which her bladder, uterus, ovaries, lymph nodes, her urethra and part of her vagina were removed. She now lives with a urostomy bag, which with characteristic frankness, she has shown in photographs, and discussed in interviews.

Of course I cannot and do not equate my experience with hers. Still, Emin’s documentation of her transformed body, and a digestive system dependent on medical paraphernalia, has resonated enough to feel painful. I am filled with admiration for how open she has been about her treatment, her fears, and her coming to terms with a body that once danced and seduced, but which is now decorated with tubes, bags and body fluids.

Tracey Emin’s Even Saying Nothing Is a Lie (2021) (Photo: Counter Editions, Margate)

The huge physical impact of surgery has made it hard for Emin to get back into the business of painting again. Trauma had an impact, as did the proximity of death. Interviews the artist gave in 2020 suggested that at that point, things were touch and go: she worried she might not make it past Christmas. At the end of the following year she was given an “all clear”.

Emin used to say that she thought with her body. Little wonder that it has taken a while for her to think her way back to being an artist again.

A Journey to Death – a three-room exhibition of work made by Emin over the past year – has just opened at Carl Freedman Gallery, adjacent to her Margate home and studio complex.

When I visited ahead of the opening, the roar of conversation could be heard through the door of Emin’s studio: the artist was holding a joyous gathering for friends, the first since her surgery. The celebration was less for the exhibition than the bare fact that she was alive.

The opening room is of smaller lithographs the dimensions of a bathroom mirror, as though we are standing beside Emin as she scrutinises herself. Made in 2021, in these spindly blue-black pictures she is feeling her way through to a route back into art. Most express pain, though there is also hope: the faces of her kittens Pancake and Teacup appear in one, as emblems of life that will go on.

Text makes its way into her work, as it so often has in the past. “It was inside – always inside,” she writes, the words hovering above her head in Even Saying Nothing is a Lie. It’s a vivid, horrifying expression of a haunted body: the realisation that a hostile presence has manifested within, attacking silently from the inside.

Tracey Emin’s The Mistress From Death (Photo: Ollie Harrop/ Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate)

Emin is an intensely physical artist: so much of her earlier work has been about the violation of her body. There is an obscene continuity here, in this emotionally honest work addressing the successive violations of cancer, surgery, and the tubes and bags that keep her alive.

In the two following rooms come a rush of works made earlier this year, delving into pain and the spectre of death in sombre tones of black and grey. All are monoprints made on an enormous scale.

Emin had to paint each screen in an hour in order to print from them: it’s a high-stakes process. The resulting images have the loose, gestural quality of painting, but a curious flat blurring from the printing. There is something oddly spectral about them: they are transferred traces of marks.

In Mistress from Death, Emin reimagines herself as the Haitian-born performer, Jeanne Duval, mistress of the French poet Baudelaire, who was painted by Edouard Manet in 1862 as a small dark figure lying within an ocean of full white petticoats.

By the time of Manet’s painting, this captivating woman was debilitated by syphilis and losing her eyesight: she would die later that year. In presenting herself above those vast skirts, Emin marks out her autonomy – she is nobody’s mistress, and nobody’s subject – but like Duval, she is frighteningly aware of her mortality.

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The moon is a recurring emblem: the insomniac’s bedfellow. It hovers behind her head like a halo, or hangs low above her pained and crawling body.

Emin has always placed herself centre stage in her works, but the feelings that she explored in the past positioned her body in relation to other figures through sex, love, companionship, filial attachment, longing or regret. A monumental bronze sculpture of a recumbent figure made the year before her cancer diagnosis – I Lay Here For You (2019) – will be installed next month at Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh. Here, the body is still a site for love.

Like The Moon, You Rolled Across My Back (2022) by Tracey Emin (Photo: Ollie Harrop/Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate)

In the new works, the isolated figures look instead to themselves. The antagonist is within. In the darkest image here – The End of the Day – Emin presents herself crestfallen and defeated, the centre of her pinched face reduced to a tense cross. It feels like an expression of exhaustion, despair, being thrown onto inner resources that you are no longer sure will carry you forward: at the end of the day all you have is yourself. It brought me to tears.

Emin’s work has always dealt with extremes: no emotion is left half felt, no memory unexplored. Even that title – A Journey to Death – is dramatic. It might seem a curious choice for someone whose life has apparently been saved, but it is also brutally truthful: she is still on a journey to death, as we all are.

On a bright day in Margate, a long queue formed outside the gallery ahead of the opening. Some had travelled hundreds of miles to be there. As an artist whose raw material has always been her own life, Emin’s experience of pain and illness has touched an extraordinary number of people. It felt like a historic event: Emin’s return, transformed.

Tracey Emin: A Journey To Death is at the Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate, until 19 June

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