Tracey Emin Promises to Love You

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If you’d asked me a month ago, I would not have considered Tracey Emin a likely candidate for a public art commission. Nevertheless, her project, I Promise to Love You, appears on 15 Times Square billboards every night in February for three fleeting, romantic minutes.

Tracey Emin - I Promise to Love You
Tracey Emin, I Promise to Love You
Photo by Ka-Man Tse, courtesy of The Times Square Alliance

Beginning at 11:57 pm, an old timey film-reel-style countdown takes over the video billboards, replacing the elaborate, hyperreal ads that normally fill the screens. Then Emin’s six messages-vulnerable, unselfconscious, declarative phrases, as if notes to a lover-begin to scrawl across the signs, animated to look like they’re being hand written by an invisible giant hand. They say, for example, “I promise to love you” written inside a large red heart, “You touch my soul” and “I listen to the ocean and all I hear is you.” The sequence of these notes lasts only until midnight, and then it’s back to hyperreality.

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Each of Emin’s phrases derives from one of her neon sculptures that, in turn, are designed to look dashed off by hand: when “I can’t believe how much I loved you” appears in neon and in Times Square, it includes a hastily(-seeming) crossed-out mistake, of course a planned element in these media. The digital billboard images recreate the effect of the neon versions of the same phrases, with the blurry glow and fuzzy edges.

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S[edition], which co-presents the Times Square installation, is offering these video versions of the neon sculptures-the same ones running on the billboards-for sale as digital editions. You can watch the animations, including the crossed-out mistake effect, on their website.

Tracey Emin, I Promise to Love You Photo by Ka-Man Tse, courtesy of The Times Square Alliance
Tracey Emin, I Promise to Love You
Photo by Ka-Man Tse, courtesy of The Times Square Alliance

See that big cloying sign for the Disney Store under Emin’s billboard? That’s why I wouldn’t have thought Emin a feasible choice as a public artist in contemporary Times Square. Not that I Promise to Love You ended up controversial or objectionable at all, but her larger body of work and the public profile she has forged over the years remain aggressively un-Disneyesque.

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One of the first generation of the so-called Young British Artists, Emin achieved art stardom in the UK and abroad with her confessional self-exposure and radical exploitation of the seediest aspects of her private life. The tone of her work has always had a quality of the teenage girl’s diary, all hopped up on the meaningfulness of her travails. That is, a shockingly precociously sexual and off-the-rails louche teenage girl.

But this is not to disparage her work, rather, on the contrary. Though it’s easy to make fun of Emin, her work can be ravishing, especially her work in embroidery and printmaking (loosely resonant with these billboards through her use of text). Even when not necessarily beautiful-and, of course, art doesn’t need to be beautiful to be good-the work is smart and difficult in the best sense.

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Emin - My Bed
Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998

Among her most famous artworks are Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, a camping tent appliquéd with lots of names (which I’ve mentioned before), and My Bed (1998), an installation consisting of the eponymous piece of furniture heaped with rumpled, stained sheets and surrounded by liquor bottles, cigarettes, condoms, soiled panties… you get the idea. A self portrait photograph from 2000, I’ve Got It All, shows Emin sitting on the floor with her dress hiked up, the better to clutch a pile of money to her crotch, a mass of coins spreads between her legs. (She was included in the 1999 “Sensation” exhibition, but received less notoriety than she might have, at least in the US, because Mayor Giuliani’s manufactured childishness over Chris Ofili’s work overshadowed everything else.)

What she has to say on the Times Square billboards is certainly toned down in expression, but still consistent with the public persona developed in the racier, more extreme years of her career: airing her private sentimentality in public, awkwardly raw demonstrations of emotion. The too-earnest declarations on these billboards can seem greeting card-appropriate and full of Disneyesque banality, but only out of context with her earlier provocations.

Unfortunately, I Promise to Love You is out of context. Completely sheltered from any challenging (or interesting) aspects of her ≈ìuvre and zipping by in a flash to accommodate the arbitrary three-minute window, the project comes off very much as a set of Valentine’s Day greeting cards-Emin’s turn on the billboards during February is no accident. This is a shame and a waste, but also inevitable; artwork like Emin’s can only be possible as public art in Times Square out of context and implicitly (or explicitly?) sanitized. I blame Disney.

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Emin’s signs are part of an ongoing series of artists’ video installations on Times Square billboards called “Midnight Moment.” Past projects for “Midnight Moment” have featured work by Yoko Ono, Bel Borba with Burt Sun & André Costantini, Erika Janunger and Robert Wilson, among many others. The Times Square Advertising Coalition and the Times Square Alliance‘s public art arm, Times Square Arts, established the “Midnight Moment” series last May, and work with the billboard owners, the artists and other presenters (often those artists’ promoters or representatives). Times Square Arts bills the series as “the largest coordinated effort in history by the sign operators in Times Square to display synchronized, cutting-edge creative content on billboards throughout Times Square every night.”

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