LEIGH ROBB shares the power of language by Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin said that she had always wanted to ‘see her name in lights’.

The scrawling cursive purple-and-red palette of Save Me, 2018, harks back to the artist’s first-ever neon work and sign for the façade of her eponymous museum – The Tracey Emin Museum – which she ran in a small shop on busy Waterloo Road, London, between 1995 and 1997.

Emin has used electric neon since that period, illuminating and scaling-up her poetic handwritten excerpts with a medium usually employed for commercial signage and advertising. Pastel-coloured light tubes are shaped to mimic Emin’s own handwriting, spelling out her declarations of love, desire, fear, or disappointment.

Born in London in 1963 to an English mother and Turkish- Cypriot father, Emin grew up in Margate, where she was first attracted to the bright neon signs of the seaside resort town. She studied at Maidstone College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London, before her breakthrough as one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the 1990s.

Since that time Emin has risen to become an internationally recognised doyenne of contemporary art, in 2007 selected to represent Britain at the 52nd Venice Biennale with the exhibition Borrowed Light. In the same year, she was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts as a Royal Academician. In 2011, she was appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal College of Art, London, and in 2012 she was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to the visual arts.

From her small low-fi neon sign for her self-styled museum, to her most recent large-scale neon installation – I want my time with you, 2018, a twenty-metre-long text work for London’s St Pancras Station – the evolution of Emin’s use of this medium over the last twenty-five years also mimics her transformation into a celebrity figure.

The artist’s ‘diaristic’ one-liners, characteristic of her neon works, emphasise her attentiveness to language and the personal narratives within her practice. ‘I love writing’, Emin says, ‘I think every artist has a backbone to what they do. For some it could be photography, painting, the ability to make a formal sculpture stand, but for me it is writing’.

The ambiguous quality of the phrase, ‘Save Me’, renders it open to many readings – from a silent but burning plea by the artist herself, to one collectively echoed and universally felt. Similarly, the statement in neon light could be read as either a vulnerable cry for help from the dark, a seedy red-light district proposition or a prayer for spiritual redemption. In Save Me, a signature work in neon, the hand and voice of the artist are ever-present and imploring.

Save Me, 2018, is the first work of Tracey Emin’s to enter the collection.

Leigh Robb is Curator of Contemporary Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 35.