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Tracey Emin The passion of your smile

As an artist who places her own life at the centre of her practice, Tracey Emin is renowned for working within the historical lineages of expressionism. Across a range of media, she offers cyphers for memories and emotions that can be frank and poetic, intimate and universal. Using personal experience as source material for her work, she explores ideas of self-portraiture and narrative disclosure, both intimately bound up with her biography.

These trends are continued in The passion of your smile, 2013, originally commissioned by W Magazine for a George Clooney portrait series produced to publicise the film The Monuments Men (2014). Emin sent the actor a list of questions, including, ‘How often do you get homesick?’ and, ‘Who or what was the greatest love of your life?’ and combined elements of his answers into the enigmatic expression, ‘The passion of your smile’. As Kitty Hauser wrote in The Australian on 28 March 2015, once made into a neon sign, these words, ‘in Emin’s trade- mark handwriting … form a kind of portrait of a man she never met. It is also a self-portrait, like all of Emin’s work’.

The passion of your smile intimates a close relationship between the artist and the viewer, with Emin speaking directly to her audience. The eponymous phrase points to the difficulties of disclosing subjective thoughts and emotions. Although the declarative nature of the statement renders it seemingly self-evident, the work invites questions – Whose smile? What indicates passion? – which invite the viewer to reflect on the nature of emotional life, to ask what it is that drives us, to find what excites and inspires us. Identified with the joy of a smile, the work offers a succinct defence of the need for empathy in contemporary life.

Emin has used neon as a medium since the early 1990s. Her method involves juxtaposing simple and intimate handwritten text with a form that traditionally serves more commercial or utilitarian purposes. Her pastel-coloured light tubes, bent to mimic the artist’s handwriting, spell out illuminated thoughts and feelings: passions, love declarations, hopes, disappointments and fears, or sometimes insults. The words cover the emotional spectrum, in effect repurposing a medium with connotations of impersonal communication to serve as a means of unhindered expression.

Text-based neon signs have been current in modern art since the 1960s, but whereas artists such as Bruce Nauman used moulded letters and neutral capitals, Emin’s works are always made using her signature hand script, emphasising the personal nature of their commentary. In contrast to the use of neon by conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Emin’s The passion of your smile, along with her other neon works, employs text that seems to be autobiographical and conversational. This practice makes her not only someone whose work can be uncannily touching – through its honesty and self-denial – but also makes her a cultural phenomenon of contemporary society, where voyeurism and self-invention play an essential part.

Christopher Williams-Wynn, former intern, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria, and doctoral student in the department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, United States (in 2015)