Is Legal Sex Anal? and its complement, Is Anal Sex Legal? (Tate T11890), 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.
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 during her teenage years, 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, Garden of Horror (private collection), made in the same year as the neon. 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). Although Emin has commented on the positive aspects of anal sex (see Is Anal Sex Legal? Tate T11890), in view of her personal history, the question Is Legal Sex Anal? may have more sinister undertones. If the word ‘anal’ is read in the way it is commonly used, as a pejorative adjective derived from Freudian analysis meaning uptight, the question may be wondering whether normal sex is boring. This evokes a rebellious adolescent mentality, in which rules are made to be broken, with possibly destructive results.
Text-based neon signs have been current in art since the 1960s. Is Legal Sex Anal? recalls several neon works by the American artist Bruce Nauman (born 1941), particularly when coupled with its inverse, Is Anal Sex Legal?. 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. Emin has explained:
I want society to hear what I am saying ... For me, being an artist isn’t just about making nice things or people patting you on the back; it’s some kind of communication, a message ... about very, very simple things that can be really hard. People do get really lonely, people do get really frightened, people do fall in love, people do die, people do fuck. These things happen and everyone knows it but not much of it is expressed. Everything’s covered with some kind of politeness, continually, and especially in art.
(Quoted in Morgan, p.60.)
Ten Years: Tracey Emin, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2002, p.29
Neal Brown, Matthew Collings and Sarah Kent, Tracey Emin, exhibition catalogue, South London Gallery 1997, pp.56-7
Stuart Morgan, ‘The Story of I’, Frieze, issue 36, May 1997, pp.57-61