A 20-year retrospective that confirms Tracey Emin is not a great artist instead reveals a great British character and a fascinating storyteller, discovers Moira Jeffrey
Tracey Emin: 20 Years, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art ***
TRACEY Emin's first solo exhibition, at London's White Cube in 1993, was ironically named My Major Retrospective. Back then she thought it might be the only show she ever did, so she set out her stall with disarming frankness. Despite her first-class degree from Maidstone and her two post-graduate years at the Royal College of Art, she was something of an outsider in Cool Britannia, a messed-up girl from provincial Margate who reached art college with no qualifications and an extreme personal history: of material comfort and subsequent poverty, of abuse and a certain reckless sexual freedom. Her work laid the truth of that life bare to an audience not yet inured to misery lit or confessional culture.
Now, some 15 years later, when she really does have a major retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, with the low-key yet triumphant title of Tracey Emin: 20 Years, the question is whether she has any more to say, whether the work has lasted and whether it is going anywhere.
Emin is one of the more prominent demons of our time, vilified, feted and absolutely central to the media's love/hate relationship with culture. Her gallery talk (tickets for which cost 10, which feels outrageous for a Government-funded gallery) sold out within an hour.
She has a column in the Independent, has been dressed by Vivienne Westwood and has the requisite best friends – David and Elton, and the painter and Hollywood director Julian Schnabel. We're told these days that she is a member of the establishment. Yet when you reflect on her painful self-exposure and public criticism, you wonder whether the price of admission can have been worth it.
Oddly the person she reminds me of most these days is Cherie Blair. Both working-class girls who have excelled in their male-dominated fields. Both criticised as greedy and needy. Both apparently blighted by a confessional urge and an uncertainty about whether their achievements can stand alone or whether they need the material trappings of success to bolster them. Importantly, both are inextricably associated with an era which now seems to be drawing to a close.
Some of Emin's works have survived the test of time, many haven't. Most of the strongest pieces are from her earliest era. There are the boxed and mounted mementoes of Uncle Colin, who died in a car crash, his crushed Benson and Hedges packet found in his hand. The letter that Emin writes to him posthumously. The grim inventory of My Abortion; a hospital tag, a piece of tissue soaked in blood. These are still unique and exciting works, described by the author of her own misfortune, fresh with the audacity of suggesting that a messy, precarious female existence had as much right to space in the pantheon as Hockney's cool homo-eroticism or Lucien Freud's brutal sexual gaze.
My Bed, Emin's most notorious work, just feels grim. It's not the stained sheets so much as the collection of ordinary detritus. It's the fag packets and nails scissors as well as the condoms, the horrible smell. It's not that it isn't art, so much as the fact that there is so little art to it. When it was shown at the Tate in 1999, in the full glare of Turner Prize publicity, it did at least seem to have a kind of ferocity to it. Now, in a small gallery made gloomy by the adjacent oppressive black wall, it just seems a sad, imprisoned little object, a kind of dead end in art-making, and a horrible, emotional dead end for an artist who definitely needed to grow and move on.
The rickety wooden rollercoaster, It's Not The Way I Want to Die from 2005, however, is a lovely thing. A precarious assemblage of wooden stilts and rails rammed into an incongruous fireplace on the gallery wall. Its brittle presence and driftwood aesthetic reminds you of the vulnerability of a young Emin, its open nostalgia signalling the patent risk of work that seems to look so profoundly backwards.
Much is often made of Emin's skills and experience as a printmaker, but the jagged line of her monoprints becomes tiresome when you see them all together. While the subject matter once seemed fresh, her prints, drawing and painting don't move on so much as relentlessly transcribe the same events again and again.
I still think her best work is in video, the two short films CV and Why I Never Became A Dancer setting out her life story vividly, with poetic precision. It's a classic tale of triumph over adversity, the small-town girl who escapes her past. In the latter, the seedy glamour of Margate, the apparent hopelessness and dreams of escape are beautifully evoked. When the film ends with a joyful Tracey dancing to a disco classic, triumphant and free, you can't help but egg her on.
Tracey Emin: 20 Years confirms that Emin is not a great artist. She is, however, a great British character and a compelling storyteller. The registers that she works best in: the autobiographical, the conversational, the bleakly poetic belong to the world of literature not visual art. Her blunt autobiographical collection Strangeland is the most satisfying creative work she has done. Ultimately Emin's best work remains her self, an immensely tricky and at times disarming person and an astonishing survivor. If you can't always love her art, you can't help but cheer that she made it out of Margate.
• Until November 9