At the Giardini, the wooded park where the Biennale’s national pavilions are all set out in world’s fair style, the British pavilion occupies what you might call a high ground of the Old World. As you approach, France is on its left, Germany on the right. The salmon brick and white marble neo-classical pavilion, with its columns and balustrades, suits some artists better than others. I suspect it worked well for Howard Hodgkin in 1984 and perhaps even for Rachel Whiteread ten years ago. I imagine Gilbert & George had some fun with it too in 2005.
But it’s a framework too imposing for Tracey Emin’s negligible show, “Borrowed Light”. Actually, “Borrowed Light” is several negligible shows, collected under a single umbrella. One consists of watercolors on lined notebook paper that Emin made in the early ’90s, not long after an abortion that the watercolors grow out of. Another is a series of fair to middling monoprints with debts to Klee and Schiele. There are also some larger oils and drawings. The best work is four wooden sculptures made from sticks attached to form makeshift towers eight feet high or more, totems of ramshackle desire. The worst? That’s easy — the wall that displays a maudlin neon text in scrawled handwriting. “You put your hand across my mouth/But still the noise continues/Every part of my body is screaming/Smashed into a thousand million pieces/Each part/For ever/Belonging to you.”
What can I say? You can’t even use art as an excuse for something like that. People like to complain that irony is the bane of 21st century culture, but don’t forget sincerity. The English Romantic poets, who played a crucial role in legitimizing intense personal feeling, have a lot to answer for. There’s a straight line that runs from Keats and Shelley to Emin’s signature work, that appliqued tent bearing the names of “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.’’ Emin’s admirers say that her critics fail to understand that she’s requiring us to confront and discard our fastidious disdain for sentimentality. I think I’ll hold on to mine. I suspect that her work will look to the future the way some of the more insufferable pre-Raphaelite painting looks to us now.
Not that it matters what anyone thinks about her. Emin’s career long ago reached escape velocity, at least in Britain, where she’s beloved by some people for wearing her ragged heart on her sleeve. Earlier this year she was even elected to the Royal Academy of the Arts. There are times when you find yourself wondering if Marcel Duchamp had it right when he said it’s a good idea “to destroy art before it’s too late.” And to think, when he said that he hadn’t even heard of Tracey Emin.