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Leah McLaren

If there's such a thing as a blood sister, Tracey Emin may be mine Add to ...

I am standing in the Hayward Gallery in London, staring at one of Tracey Emin's tampons.

At least, I assume it's hers. Like everything else in this 20-year retrospective of Emin's career, entitled Love is What You Want, the tampons - there are six of them, bloodied and solemnly encased in glass boxes - are simultaneously banal and astonishing bits of the artist herself: intimate fragments of a larger, more ambitious artwork in progress that can only be titled Being Tracey Emin.

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"The tampons were inside her and now they are out," I think, shuddering slightly. Beside them is a letter, written by the artist, describing her menstruation in unsqueamish detail. It recounts how she never bled much to begin with, and now bleeds even less. That's because Emin, the quintessential Young British Artist, is now 47 and verging on menopause. I feel a creeping sensation of embarrassment.

Not for Emin, but for myself. It's an odd thing, after all, to be standing in a public gallery staring at another woman's tampons, contemplating her periods.

But this, of course, is the whole point of Emin. Just when you think she's at her most vulgar, pointless and excruciatingly solipsistic, she is actually at her best. Her work succeeds not just by getting our attention, but by daring us to look away.

I remember watching a television documentary about Emin just after she burst onto the art scene, back in the late nineties. Her first major work, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 was a tent appliquéd with what was, suffice it to say, not a short list of people's names. It appeared in Charles Saatchi's Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, which introduced the world to a new generation of British artists and to such notorious works as Damien Hirst's floating shark and Marcus Harvey's iconic image of serial killer Myra Hindley painted using casts of a child's handprints.

While the show itself was seminal, Emin was the artist who emerged from it a bona fide celebrity. This was not because she garnered the most critical respect, but because she had the guts (or poor judgment, depending on your viewpoint) to mouth off drunk on live TV.

Her next major work, which should have won the Turner Prize in 1999 but didn't, was entitled My Bed. I remember reading anything I could about it at the time, devouring photos and essays deconstructing the significance of Emin's mass of twisted bed sheets, cigarette butts, used condoms and soiled lingerie.

I wasn't the only one riveted by the work. It was the turn of the millennium, a time when everyone in the world seemed suddenly compelled to bare - and compare - their souls. If it wasn't Alanis Morissette howling about sex acts performed on her ex-boyfriend, it was Bridget Jones's counting out her one-night stands in fags and units of Chardonnay. Sex and the City had not yet degenerated into a show about shopping.

Like so many young women, I gawked at Emin's bed not because it was shocking, but because it looked so much like my own.

Since then, I've become less comfortable with public confession - both at dinner parties and in this space. But not Emin. Over the years, she has honed the craft of Too Much Information into high art. The current exhibit is proof that she has no intention of clamming up, now or ever - and thank God for that.

Her body features prominently in new works and old - long legs splayed, giving birth to sprays of flowers or jackpots of foreign currency. There is even a video collage of her masturbating - an image that sums up the self-pleasuring "little death" of her life's work so far.

We see the evolution of her embroidered blankets - the "womanly arts" being one of Emin's favourite mediums - bearing slogans misspelled, and unprintable in this newspaper. The most recent one, like much of the exhibit, is an anguished meditation on motherhood (Emin is childless) with the words, "I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone."

Emin can be frustrating at times - she's self-pitying and sentimental by turns - but only in the way all mad, loud, deep-loving girlfriends are. Examining her body of work, I had the feeling of psychoanalyzing an old friend who'd hit a rough patch. The lack of impulse control, the need for attention, and the ability to charm and seduce are all part of Emin's self-destructive pattern, one that is inextricably intertwined with her ability to create.

Like a dutiful and secretly fascinated confidant, I sit riveted through her video diaries of promiscuity, STDs, her botched late-term abortion and subsequent breakdown.

I learn that she lost faith in art for a time, only to find it in a most ingenious way: by sending out 80 letters asking friends to invest £10 in her creative potential. In return, subscribers received a number of pieces of correspondence. These letters are now works of art in and of themselves, many exhibited here alongside her other works.

And so the cycle of Emin's life continues - her self-exposure serving as both the medium and message of her living, breathing body of work and flesh. It's a body I've seen altogether too much of over the years, and yet I still can't bring myself to look away.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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