Contemporary art Exhibitions Fairs USA

Loud and proud: Emin makes US debut in neon

The Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami hosts the British artist’s first exhibition in America

Tracey Emin, Angel without You, 2012. Photo: © Tracey Emin, Courtesy White Cube

Miami is a home from home for Tracey Emin, who grew up in the English seaside town of Margate—which, like the city in Florida, is known for its neon signs (although admittedly they don’t have much else in common). For the artist’s first US museum show, the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami is hosting an exhibition dedicated to her neon sculptures: “Tracey Emin: Angel Without You” (until 9 March 2014).

“The thing about Miami is that I don’t need to persuade people that neon is worth looking at; neon is part of their psyche,” Emin says. “It’s the same with me growing up in Margate; I understand why neon makes you feel good. The fact is, I like the people who grew up with neon. They are my people.”

The exhibition includes 67 neon works spanning 20 years, as well as Emin’s first video, Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, which was acquired by the museum in 1998—the first work by the artist to be bought by a US institution. The neons of Margate’s “Golden Mile” of amusement arcades are captured in the film, in which Emin describes her early teenage years, hanging out in cafes, drinking and experimenting with sex. Bonnie Clearwater, who left the Miami museum in September after 18 years as its director and chief curator but is overseeing the show, says she was drawn to the video for its “true emotion”. There was “nothing cynical or ironic about it”, Clearwater says.

Emin’s handwritten neon works are equally heartfelt. “People who are critical about my neons and say they are just sentimental tripe, I say: so what? I’m very romantic; what’s wrong with that?” Emin says. “People sometimes say my neons are like clichés, or like something they’ve heard in a song before. But actually, you haven’t. And that’s why they are popular; they are part of how a lot of us think. I’m just coming out with it really loudly and proudly, and in neon lights.”

The sculptures on show range from the rudely irreverent (Fuck Off and Die You Slag, 2002) to the romantic (I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear Is You, 2011) and the poetic (She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea, 2012). But Clearwater says that viewers will experience the works as vibrating colour and light before they read them. “Typically, people see Tracey’s neons one at a time,” she says. “In this exhibition, they are going to be installed in groups. The experience is going to be like entering a Rothko room.”

If Emin’s first US solo exhibition feels overdue, that’s because it is. The museum is able to host the show thanks to an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that means it will not have to travel—Emin intensely dislikes touring her exhibitions (she says that her last touring show, which opened in Edinburgh in 2008, was so exhausting it made her ill). The artist also auctioned five new neons last month, raising $185,000 for the museum. Given the chance, Clearwater says she would have staged the show seven years ago. “It was a matter of getting into the queue so that Tracey could give it her all,” she says. “And she’s done exactly that; she’s given it her all.”

Tracey Emin: Angel Without You, Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, 770 NE 125th Street (until 9 March 2014). Opening hours: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 11am-5pm; Wednesday: 1pm-9pm; Sunday: 12pm-5pm. Website:

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