Page 12, 26th August 2011

26th August 2011
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Page 12, 26th August 2011 — Tracey Emin’s art is subtly pro-life
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Organisations: Legion of Mary
Locations: London, Margate

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Tracey Emin’s art is subtly pro-life

Mary Kenny

There have been some raised eyebrows in response to David Cameron’s acquisition of a Tracey Emin “installation” at 10 Downing Street.

The neon sign “More Passion”, which is worth £250,000, belongs to the Government Art Collection. One civil servant said it made the entrance to the Terracotta Room at No 10 “look like a nightclub”.

Mr Cameron is a great fan of Tracey Emin, who famously came to celebrity with an art installation of her unmade bed, and with a tent embossed with the words: “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With.” Art critics can be excoriating about Ms Emin, who was born in Margate of Turkish-Cypriot parents. The Daily Telegraph’s Richard Dorment says that he “hates her work”, and the legendary Brian Sewell described Emin’s unmade bed as “a squalid relic of concupiscence and misery reconstructed in self-pity”. He wrote that she only became famous because she “played the drunken slut” and described her as “illiterate” and “crude” and her work as a farrago of “deliberate outrage and offence”. And yet, there is one surprising aspect of Tracey Emin’s work, which is showing currently in a retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery (coming to an end on Monday, August 29).

It includes some of the most powerfully anti-abortion material I have ever seen. One exhibit shows a half-crocheted baby shawl, which is called: “The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl.” That pregnancy was aborted, as were others, but Emin has used a word here that is generally banned by abortion providers: “Baby.” (You are supposed to use the impersonal “products of conception”.) Her abortion exhibits are harrowing, but you cannot fault them for honesty. One is just a framed manuscript entitled “My abortion 1990” in which she writes: “When I came round in the recovery room I was crying and in pain. I couldn’t beleave [sic] what I had done, I had killed the thing which I could have most loved. ‘Forgive me tiny little thing... Forgive me...’” There is even more explicit material about how she found a “Featus (sic)” which had been left behind after the operation, and she came to feel “it had never wanted to leave me”.

Some of Tracey Emin’s exhibits are startling, and a little too raw at times, but she also brings a kind of passionate truth to a subject that is generally so euphemistically described as “choice”.

It’s easy to criticise priests when they are giving sermons from the pulpit and we’ve all done it – there is even a website in Germany now which suggests you “rate” your local priest according to eloquence.

It’s another thing, however, getting up there yourself and giving an address. Especially when you are facing a congregation of 3,000 souls.

I was invited to speak during the Knock Novena last week by Fr Richard Gibbons of the parish. I protested that I was not an appropriate person for such a project, but he pressed me, and I remembered the advice from AA: “Sometimes you should just give service.” The Marian shrine at Knock in Co Mayo attracts huge numbers of pilgrims each year, especially in the month of August, commemorating the apparition at Knock in 1879 (which was seen by 15 people, whose testimony remained strikingly consistent).

It really was a privilege to be there for the beautiful Masses in the basilica. There was such an ambience of grace that one couldn’t but be touched.

A speaker always needs a text, and I took the faith in action of Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, as described in Finola Kennedy’s terrific recent biography Frank Duff: A Life Story. Back in the 1920s Duff opened hostels for men down on their luck, for lone mothers and for prostitutes, leading a tremendous movement of the laity which subsequently spread worldwide. Ed Stoppard was compelling as the doomed Jewish lawyer Hans Litten, who in 1931 put Adolf Hitler in the witness box in a courtroom (in the Sunday night BBC Two drama The Man Who Crossed Hitler).

Hans Litten believed in the rule of law and bravely tried to uphold the traditions of German law – which would collapse with the rise of Hitler.

Yet seldom does drama portray Adolf Hitler accurately. Ian Hart caught his petulant and temper-tantrum side, but never hinted at Hitler’s seductiveness.

That’s the salient point about the power of evil: it’s seductive, sometimes mesmerisingly so. The serpent in the Garden of Eden didn’t roar; he seduced. Hitler had a chilling magnetism. Churchill always refused to meet him because he was wary that he might be drawn into that magnetic field.

Until an actor portrays Hitler’s seductiveness, rather than underlining the ranting and raving, we will never understand people’s support of the Third Reich.

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