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Monday, 18 June 2007

Dirty Linen

Something rather strange has happened: a review of an artist whose work I have not seen has caused me to re-examine my response(s) to an artist with whose work I though I had come to terms.

The stereotypical response to modern art ("My five year old could do as well!"), has long since suffered modification in the face of artifacts from the likes of Damien Hirst (the shark in formaldehyde is technically beyond the range of most five year olds) and Tracey Emin (You wouldn't want your five year old to tackle her subject matter) to the slightly more accommodating, "But it's not really art is it?".

I must confess to having been unsure of my own response(s) to Emin. Was she merely out to shock? The thing about that infamous bed, for example, is that it only shocks because it is her bed. The same bed exhibited as a statement about some aspect of, for want of better expression, the seamy side of life, would have been acceptable to many who were offended by the knowledge that it was hers.But hers it is. In fact everything is hers, or has been so far. So what's behind it all? Is it therapy? But if it is therapy, should it not be more private? Less in our faces? Much art is therapeutic, of course. Some would say all art, but I might have a problem with that "all". Certainly there is a line between art and therapy, which some art straddles and some does not. I might concede that in Aristotelian phrase all great art purges the soul of the negative passions with which it conjures. Certainly, too, Emin's work is there on the front line of that great divide, sometimes straddling it, sometimes not quite managing to do so - in my opinion.

This year Emin has been our representative at the Venice Biennale. The various reviews that I have read of her exhibits have been less extreme than we have become used to over the years: less laudatory, less condemnatory. Kinder, certainly. But at the same time they have tended to compare her unfavourably with an artist in a nearby pavilion, Sophie Calle. Calle is in many ways, it seems, the French Tracey Emin, the High Priestess of what my mother would have called "dirty linen being washed in public". A while back, Calle was the recipient of a dumping text message from her boy friend. It seems to have had a profound effect on her. After a couple of days she showed it to a friend, seeking suggestions as to how best to reply. Then she showed another friend. In fact, she ended up sending copies to a hundred and seven friends and acquaintances, asking them to analyse the text in the sort of terms they would habitually use in their professions. So an editor considered it in terms of its use of grammar and style, an etiquette consultant for manners, and so forth. But what began as therapy (successful therapy, as it happened, for "the project replaced the person"), became art. The resulting hundred and seven texts constitute her exhibit at the Venice Biennale.

When I first read of this (not having read the texts, of course), I thought what a brilliant idea! It was an idea that seemed to suggest all manner of possibilities to me - even if a philistine or a pedant might have been forgiven for suggesting that the work was verging ever so slightly, towards the literary rather than the visual arts, but that is another story. My next thought was: How Tracey Emin-like! And then: What if it had been Emin who had "produced" (collated?) these texts? Would the critics and commentators have bestowed the same compliments upon them?

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