Thursday 12 November 2015

I listen to the ocean

Tracey Emin is one of those artists for whom the term 'art wank'* seems entirely appropriate. For many years I did not get, or want to get, her work. She seemed to me a self-obsessed celebrity artist who was only interested in shock-value.

Recently I had a browse through her on-line collection, and it was a revelation for me: all of her work is about the REAL inner landscapes of people, the ones we never share publicly, that even our soulmates only rarely glimpse. In this context, the obsession with her own sex life makes sense. Emin can only authentically represent her own inner world. There's a huge gulf between our public and private lives. Masturbation only has shock-value because of this gulf. 

'I listen to the ocean and all I hear is you' (2011) is an example of the gulf between the outer and inner worlds. A traditional artist would look at the sea, and interpret it for the viewer. Meanwhile, Emin is saying, actually I'm not even looking at the sea; I can bearly hear it above my thoughts; all I can see is

a great big neon sign flashing in big letters that I am thinking about someone I love.

This work captures the complexity of human emotions: it evokes a scene both sad and joyful, and it challenges traditional art to give an honest picture of how we really see our world and each other.

This work was part of an exhibition called 'Here today', about human impact on the environment. This is odd, as my first impression of Emin's piece was that it addressed the environment's impact on the human. If 'I listen to the ocean...' is intended to be interpreted in the context of the exhibition, what does it tell us? Perhaps something about our limited understanding or appreciation of our environment, because there are always more important human concerns encroaching on our attention.

* I'm not sure whether 'art wank' is actual term or just something my mate Jed likes to say.

Image credit

'I listen to the ocean and all I hear is you' (2011) from


  1. * p.s. Rough translation of the term 'art wank': vulgar, elitist, and not intended to give pleasure to anyone other than the artist! (Although in Emin's case, the term is appropriate for other reasons: her particular choice of, er...hum, subject matter.)

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