In 1999, Tracey Emin rocked the art world when she was short-listed for the prestigious Turner Prize
. The work that got her there was My Bed
. Transported directly from her bedroom, it was Emin's real-life bed—the one to which she'd confined herself for days following a rough breakup. Strewn with empty liquor bottles, soiled underwear, and ominously stained sheets, My Bed
was perfectly emblematic of Emin's particular synthesis of confrontation and vulnerability. She became well known in the mid-90s for Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995
, a tent appliqued with over 100 names. The title of the piece was deliberately provocative. Emin is known for being brash and exhibitionist. She's cultivated the persona of the tousled trollop, unafraid to flaunt her love of sex and drink. But among the names in the tent were her grandmother, with whom she used to fall asleep while listening to the radio, and two numbered fetuses, representing the mother she never came to be. There were also boyfriends, lovers, and relative strangers who'd "shagged her against a wall." Emin's work is raw and wounded, tinged with the kind of bravado that isn't fooling anyone.
Now approaching 50 and going through "the menopause," Emin has been reevaluating her identity as a sexual being and redefining her ideas about love. Throughout the month of February, I Promise to Love You, an installation in Times Square, has seen Emin's thoughts scrawled across the Manhattan sky. Emin has been working with neon for years, crafting tricky little double entendres like "Her soft lips touched mine and every thing became hard." I Promise to Love You has employed massive LED screens above Times Square to display a selection of Emin's neon messages, each appearing a bit at a time, as if being written by some giant, unseen hand. Given that the project coincided with Valentine's Day and concerns itself with love, it's tempting to read the work as soft—a love letter from Emin to the public and pretty red hearts for the tourists to photograph. But with messages like "Love Is What You Want" and "I Can't Believe How Much I Loved You," I still sense the wounded Emin. These aren't messages for February 14. These are the thoughts we have every other day of our lives.