Walking into "Tracey Emin: Angel Without You” at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), North Miami turns day into night—literally. The entire exhibition space is painted black, the better to show off Emin’s exquisite neon art in suitable Miami colors like soft pink and baby blue. The exhibition is the first American museum show devoted to the work of the British artist. It is also the first show to center exclusively on her work with neon.

The British bad-girl artist gained acclaim and notoriety for her installations of her dirty unmade bed and a tent that held the embroidered names of everyone she had ever slept with inside it. Her work in neon represents a sharp transition in her career which began in 1995 with her work The Tracey Emin Museum, which is included in the MOCA show.

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Installation view of artwork by Tracey Emin at MoCA.

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Turns out that neon was always in her sights, as she makes clear on the MOCA website: “I have been working with neon for 18 years. It was something that came to me really early on as I grew up in a seaside town of Margate in the UK. Neon was everywhere, so it was never a material that was alien to me, as I would imagine it would be if you grew up in the suburbs.”

“Tracey Emin: Angel Without You” explores the ways neon has played an essential role in the development of Emin’s work, according to the museum. The show presents over 60 works from the past 20 years, although it is not meant to be a retrospective.

The exhibit consists mostly of words and phrases that range from romantic to obscene; there are also neon “sketches” of nudes and birds and flowers. One video, “Why I Never Became A Dancer”, from 1998, screens in a side room and shows the awkward but uninhibited Emin stomping and dancing around an empty studio to a disco song.

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"The Kiss Was Beautiful" by Tracey Emin. Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman.

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Walking through the cool glow of the show, I almost expected to see a full-serve bar. Love-worn and lusty, neon words glow against the black background: “The Kiss Was Beautiful”; “Sorry Flowers Die,” with the first line scratched out in neon; “I listen to the ocean and all I hear is you”; “Only God Knows I’m Good”; and “I Know I Know I Know.” Is she talking to the viewer? To herself? To a lover? The words can be read in many ways.

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"Our Angels" by Tracey Emin, 2009. Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman.

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On the MOCA website, Emin notes, “I write a lot and when I was younger had a great deal of enjoyment reading 13th century esoteric love poems. Many of my neons are love poems but not being sent to one individual but to many. Other neons appear to be full of anger but actually it is humor, some things just shouldn’t be seen in neon."

“Most of my neons are left open ended so the viewer can interpret them how they wish, e.g. ‘I never stopped loving you’ (2010),” Emin continued. “This could be a declaration of love that goes on forever and ever or a statement that the person was made to stop loving someone else. Some letters work better in neon, some words work better in different colors, but essentially it is about getting the balance right between the sentiment and the garishness of neon.”

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"Sorry Flowers Die" by Tracey Emin. Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman.

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Her early drawings and sketches contained many of these same phrases, though she also worked in painting, sculpture, embroidery and film.

Emin grew up in the UK, studied printmaking at Maidstone College of Art in Kent, and furthered her education at Royal College of Arts, London, earning a master’s degree in painting. Her first commercial gallery exhibition was held at London’s White Cube Gallery in 1993. Her U.S debut took place in 1999 was held at Lehmann Maupin.

Her infamous installation My Bed was exhibited at the Tate Gallery, and she was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, an annual award presented to a British visual artist under the age of 50. In 2007, she was chosen to represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, becoming only the second female artist to earn that honor.

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Tracey Emin artwork outside MoCA.

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"Blinding" by Tracey Emin, 2000. Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman.

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In January 2013, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Emin a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. These achievements seem all the more remarkable for an artist as raw and controversial as Emin, and a society as famously prim and proper as the British.

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Tracey Emin photo. Courtesy MOCA.

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 There was a book release party at the Fontainebleau Hotel during Art Basel Miami for Emin’s “Angel Without You” (Skira Rizzoli) published in conjunction with the MOCA exhibit. Several of the limited edition line of luxe beach towels emblazoned with one of her neons, available at the museum gift shop, were artfully arranged poolside.
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Tracey Emin towels. Photo courtesy Fontainebleu Hotel.

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At the book release party, the Brit turned expatriate Emin announced she had bought an apartment in New York City, haven fallen for the city after her art was featured in Times Square Art’s Midnight Moment video screening in February 2013.

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Tracey Emin neon screening at Midnight Moment in Times Square. Photo: Times Square NYC.

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BASIC FACTS: "Tracey Emin: Angel Without You" will be exhibited through March 9, 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), North Miami, Joan Lehman Building, 770 NE 125th Street, North Miami, Florida 33161. www.mocanomi.org.

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