Is Anal Sex Legal? and its complement, Is Legal Sex Anal? (Tate T11889), are pink neon signs made in Emin’s signature handwritten text, spelling out the words of the titles. They are mounted on the wall, above head height, either individually or together. There is no set relationship between the two works. They were produced in an edition of three. Tate’s copies are the artist’s proofs.
Emin has made several paintings (now destroyed) depicting a couple having anal sex. She has commented:
It can often be painful; it feels like a violation. But if you love someone and that’s what you’re really into, you feel brilliant. My anal sex drawings aren’t recent; I am probably remembering what it was like. I had one relationship which was all about that. In the years I was with him I think I only had vaginal sex twice ... Women are not allowed to enjoy anal sex. Well, a lot of women are never going to get it because they are not ready to accept the fact that they like it. They’ve probably never been with a partner who would face up to wanting it. A lot of people don’t know how to do it properly, that’s the other thing. But my Nan told me it used to be the major form of contraception. I’m sure that 100 years ago it wasn’t a problem.
(Quoted in Morgan, p.60.)
The question Is Anal Sex Legal? partly refers to a legal anachronism resulting from the vague Victorian ruling against homosexuality (the Labouchere Amendment of 1885) which made no direct reference to anal sex. By a similar anomaly, although it has been historically taboo, no legal rulings have ever been specifically directed against heterosexual anal sex. Much of Emin’s work describes sex graphically in words and images. In a text work, Exploration of the Soul 1994 (Tate T11887), she describes her early sexual experiences, including rape at the age of thirteen. In another text work, Tracey Emin CV 1995 (Tate T07632), she describes more pleasurable sexual experiences followed by two traumatic abortions. She has made many drawings and monoprints depicting masturbation, desire and abandonment. The question ‘is anal sex legal?’ captions a drawing stitched onto a quilt made in the same year as the neon, Garden of Horror (private collection). Here the words ‘Welcome to my Garden of Horror/ and you know I love you’ sum up the artist’s attitude to love and sex. She has explained ‘love isn’t always gentle’ (quoted in Morgan, p.58).
Text-based neon signs have been current in art since the 1960s. Is Anal Sex Legal? recalls several neon works by the American artist Bruce Nauman (born 1941), particularly when coupled with its inverse, Is Legal Sex Anal?. Nauman’s works, None Sing Neon Sign 1970 (Sylvio Perlstein Collection, Antwerp) and Run from Fear, Fun from Rear 1972 (Froelich Collection, Stuttgart), use simple inversion to highlight connections and absurdities within language. Another work, Raw War 1970 (Sylvio Perlstein Collection, Antwerp), uses inversion to emphasise the nature of war and is intended to be illuminated when war is occurring. In these neons, the text appears in simple, neutral capitals. By contrast, Emin’s neon text works are always made in her signature handwriting, emphasizing the personal nature of their commentary. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Cover My Body in Love 1996 (private collection) and Fantastic to Feel Beautiful Again 1997 (private collection) speak in the artist’s voice but take on the quality of a logo or a cry for everywoman. The neons are frequently made in pink, a colour associated with femininity, but they often express feelings and thoughts which are not traditionally voiced in art.
Ten Years: Tracey Emin, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2002, reproduced p.29 in colour
Neal Brown, Matthew Collings and Sarah Kent, Tracey Emin, exhibition catalogue, South London Gallery 1997, reproduced pp.56-7 in colour
Stuart Morgan, ‘The Story of I’, Frieze, issue 36, May 1997, pp.57-61