Why you don’t have to agree with the sentiment to admire Tracey Emin’s I Want My Time With You

Tracey Emin unveils her 20-metre-long work, I Want My Time With You, 2018. Picture John Stillwell/PA Wire.
Tracey Emin unveils her 20-metre-long work, I Want My Time With You, 2018. Picture John Stillwell/PA Wire.
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It might be unashamedly anti-Brexit, but if Tracey Emin’s I Want My Time With You provokes a debate, we might all benefit says Sarah Freeman.

When the Royal Academy and St Pancras International commissioned Tracey Emin to create a new artwork to hang on the station concourse they knew that the result would likely be controversial. This is after all an artist whose previous work has been variously inspired by botched abortions, alcoholism, and her own chequered love life.

Artist Tracey Emin's new 20-metre-long work, I Want My Time With You. Picture John Stillwell/PA Wire.

Artist Tracey Emin's new 20-metre-long work, I Want My Time With You. Picture John Stillwell/PA Wire.

And yet when I Want My Time With You arrived for installation it looked, superficially at least, a little tame. There was even a 1950s innocence about the bright pink neon lettering and Emin said it symbolised the romance of the railways, those Brief Encounter moments we all dream of, but rarely experience.

However, as the first of yesterday’s trains pulled out on their way to the Channel Tunnel, it became clear that those words suspended above the Grand Terrace had another meaning.

“I’m deeply saddened that Britain is going to be demoted to a tiny island floating around in the North Sea,” said 54 year old Emin, who has never hidden her emotional allegiance to Europe. “Essentially, it is a great subliminal message sent out to the rest of Europe... I want my time with Europe. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and leaving Europe will speed that up.”

The commission was a joint celebration of the 150th anniversary of St Pancras International and the 250th anniversary of the RA and while Leave voters might question whether it was the right location for such an anti-Brexit piece, Emin was quick to distance herself from any specific political allegiances.

“I’m not a supporter of Theresa May at all,” she added, perhaps slightly unnecessarily. “I’m not a supporter of the backbench Conservatives who are living in the dark ages. I never have been.

“I wouldn’t even support Labour at the moment. I support society. Whatever is best for society at the time and at the moment we don’t seem to have anybody that is doing the right thing for the kind of future I believe in”.

The work will remain at St Pancras until the end of the year, which will be enough time for everyone to decide whether they think it’s a thought-provoking addition to the trans-European commute or an unhelpful interlude in the Brexit debate. What’s certain is that it’s not the first artwork with a hidden meaning.

Three years ago artist Nelson Shanks admitted that he had sneaked in a nod to Monica Lewinsky when he was asked to paint an official portrait of then President Bill Clinton. Held in the National Gallery, the work which pictures Clinton next to a stone fireplace looks fairly ordinary, boring even.

However, to the right of Clinton is a shadow, which Shanks has since claimed came from a blue dress he placed on a mannequin near the canvas when it was being painted. The artist said this was meant as a reference to the infamous dress Lewinsky wore during one of her trysts with the president and shows that even the most apparently straightforward of art can have a much more interesting story to tell.

Which brings us back to Emin. The unveiling of I Want My Time With You was slightly overshadowed by the artist’s admission that she had been sexually harassed by a fellow female artist, but in the days and weeks to come it will develop a life of its own.

It will also start a debate. Not one that will shape our exit from Europe, perhaps, but a debate nonetheless. Those conversations may be about the romance of the railways or they may be more political charged as Leavers and Remainers explore their own post-Brexit feelings.

To be honest it doesn’t really matter. I Want My Time Again has already got people talking and ultimately that is the definition of great art.