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Frieze Writer's Prize 2011

Zoe Pilger is the winner of this year’s writer’s prize

frieze magazine is delighted to announce Zoe Pilger as the winner of this year’s writer’s prize. Pilger has been commissioned to write her first review for frieze magazine, to be published in issue 144, and will be awarded £2,000.

The judges for 2011 were novelist Hari Kunzru, the art historian and critic Katy Siegel and senior editor of frieze, Dan Fox.

Hari Kunzru said of judging the prize, ‘It was fascinating to read the long-listed entries, partly because one realizes that the review is a very formal genre, and rewards tightness and clarity. It’s hard to make clear, confident judgments and to find a voice that is distinctive and free of jargon, while still being rigorous. I think our winners display these qualities.’

Katy Siegel added, ‘Reviewing the submissions – reading carefully, thinking about style, content, voice, judgment – made me realize how much I miss the feeling that criticism matters. And also that there’s no reason for it not to matter; stripped of its earlier modern gate-keeping function, there is a world of other things that art criticism can do, and other reasons I like to read and write it.’

frieze received more than 300 entries from around the world. James Cahill is the runner-up, with his review of Pablo Bronstein at the ICA, London. Also highly commended are: Nicolas Linnert (US), Maria Marchenkova (US), Theo Reeves-Evison (UK) and Tessa Zettel (Australia).

Frieze Writer’s Prize was established in 2006 and is presented annually. Its aim is to promote and encourage new critics from around the world.

‘Love Is What You Want’ – Tracey Emin
Hayward Galley, London

‘Love Is What You Want’, Tracey Emin’s retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery, is both a cry in the dark and a cliché, a trip to a seedy philosopher’s cave and a celebration of pain to rival that of the martyred saints. The self-obsession is undeniable, but so is Emin’s style, her great wit, and her success in turning sadness into art.

The show draws its title from a piece that hangs on the upper floor; a neon blue scrawl surrounded by a pink heart (Love Is What You Want, 2011). Emin’s romanticism runs like a luminous thread through all her documented despair. The sleaziness of her slogans, inciting and reproaching, pleading and accusing, situate the voyeur on the outskirts of England, in a sea-side town called Margate: “I grew up with neon in the cafes, the bars and the nightclubs, and all along the Golden Mile of amusement arcades.” The open space and tawdry lights of Emin’s landscape are repeated on a loop, as though the voyeur had stumbled into her drunken imagination. The act of remembering here seems violent.

In Riding for a Fall (1998), Emin meanders on a horse along Margate beach at sunset. Deep orange spreads across the horizon as the song lulls the voyeur into a false sense of progress. In fact, the horse is going nowhere; the clip returns and returns so that Emin is forever scowling or smiling in her black lacy bra, the cowboy hat triumphantly perched on her head. Despite the lulling rhythm of the song, Emin isn’t riding for a fall. She stays put on the horse until the end of the film; she survives.

Love is her faith. Scenes of departure and reconciliation are dramatized according to a romantic logic, which belongs equally to the Romantic tradition of the early 19th century and the sentimentalisms of Hollywood movies. All The Loving (1995) is a box filled with acid-coloured underwear and a pair of animal-ears. Each side is appliqued with pronouncements of doom and hope. ‘All The Love I Have Destroyed’ becomes ‘All The Love I Have Made… And I Still Want More’. Shagging is rendered delicate by the antiquated phrase “making love”; the garments in the box become tokens of intimacy. Regret is crushed by on-going appetite. Is this a feminist declaring her right to free love? Or a testimony to the fact that no love is free?

When Emin explicitly references the feminist canon, her work seems trite; a bad imitation of artists such as Meret Oppenheimer, who challenged feminine propriety long ago. Emin’s The History of Painting 1 (1999) shows four glass cases of used tampons; the effect is disgusting rather than thought-provoking. Despite the textual adornment (“I made that blood – And the inside of my body cast those shapes”), the work conforms to the popular image of Emin as a shameless opportunist. In comparison, the ritualistic elegance of Sophie Calle’s work, which redeems much of the crassness of its content, is absent from this exhibition. Even without the famous bed, Emin’s mess is everywhere raised to a ruling principle of life and yet no depth is offered. The tampons look like they should be flushed down the toilet.

On the other hand, many of the small paintings on the top floor of the gallery are exquisite. Rose Virgin (2007) is a nude self-portrait in subtle greys and yellows; the flesh papery and pure. Trying To Find You (2007), a white sculpture made of wood and jesmonite, shows a figure crawling towards someone or something. The idea of the blind search seems to resound at the heart of Emin’s work; the effort to claw back what is lost or discover what is yet to be. Scratchy drawings such as Making Love To You In My Mind pose interesting questions about absence and imagination; about the need to lose in order to create.

While love and sex in Emin’s world become solipsistic acts, the attempt to reach out is always present. Her heartbreak is both mundane and illuminating; it is democratic. Perhaps this is why many women view Emin as a guilty pleasure, an artist who you’re not supposed to relate to. She is the spectacle-woman, screaming and humiliating herself alone, on a stage for all the world to watch.

Zoe Pilger

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