Beyond the body: Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus

Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus
Tate Liverpool, exhibition runs until 3 September

(Image Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, Saatchi Gallery, used under Fair Use)

What is it about Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' that captures our imagination? Is it the fact the mundane objects recognisable from our own lives have made their way into a gallery? The depressive phase it encapsulates? Or is it the uproar it caused among the artistic community in the late 1990s?

For me, one of the most compelling things about the piece is the absence of the artist figure. We are only left with the curated remains of three days, which gives the piece a transient feel, a glance into a time and situation that is no more.

I also feel that 'My Bed' provides a powerful juxtaposition to 'traditional' or 'classical' art which is overflowing with nude forms, particularly female. In Emin's work, the viewer is denied the ability to gaze on the woman's form that has long since moved on and left us with remains. There is a palpable sense of the woman missing from the scene.

It is the removal of the body that makes this work so suited to the pieces by William Blake that surround it, as unusual as the pairing of Emin and Blake may seem on the surface.

Although, the body is present in Blake's work, it is often obscured, contorted or vanishing into it's surroundings in a state that appears particularly transient when he depicts spiritual bodies.

(Image William Blake, Nebuchadnezzar, 1795-c1805, from Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND)

For example, in the work 'Nebuchadnezzar' Blake poses his figure in a somewhat animalistic way, with veins in the leg mirroring the tree in the background , and elongated beard and nails melting into the surrounding scenery.

Likewise, in 'Soul Hovering Over a Body Reluctantly Reluctantly Parting with Life' (1805), both the soul and the body are drawn so faintly they almost disappear into the blank paper behind with an airy barely- there quality. While, in his copper plate prints of Dante's Inferno, Blake contorts and merges together the various sufferers in hell, making it hard to make out where one ends and one begins.

At the far end of the gallery Blake's work is further complimented by a selection of Emin's gauche paintings that abstract female nude bodies so that at first glance they are barely recognisable. As if to further obscure her subject, in 'All for You' in this series, the face of the subject is bloated out with frenzied stokes in thick black ink. I can't help wondering if 'All for You' is an ironic title, as the painting denies the viewer a whole view or 'all' of the subject.

What further emphasises the sense of abstraction, obscuring and absence of the body in the works is a soundtrack of opinions on 'My Bed' from Liverpool residents that visitors can listen to as they make their way round the gallery. It seems rather apt that our guides to this work are disembodied voices, who have experiences the work before us.

Had a chance to visit this exhibition? I'd love to hear your opinions of it!


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