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What She Did For Love: Tracey Emin Hearts Times Square

British artist's first American public-art piece will inspire passersby to kiss—or cry

Every night next month, at the stroke of 11:57, Tracey Emin will restore neon and romance to Times Square. On more than 40 screens large and small, for a span of three minutes, her six messages of love will spell themselves out, digitally animated to appear as if being written by a giant unseen hand.

Urgent and plaintive, they’ll inject the Great White Way with the red glow of passion—not necessarily requited. “Love is what you want,” says one. “I can’t believe how much I loved you,” says another.

Tracey Emin, still from I Can’t Believe How Much I Loved You.


At precisely midnight, the screens return to their normal duties as space for clients of the Times Square Advertising Coalition, which last May began lending three minutes a day to the Times Square Alliance for late-night public-art projects. Curated by Times Square Arts, this “Midnight Moment” has featured works ranging from Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace signs to video paintings by emerging artists Taxiplasm and Jonathan Henry.

Tracey Emin, still from When I Hold You I Hold Your Heart.


Though timed for Valentine’s Day, Emin’s love messages have been a staple of her art in recent years, including the More Passion sign that was installed at 10 Downing Street in 2011. Other love neons are currently on view at White Cube in São Paolo and at Lorcan O’Neill in Rome; others were shown by the artist’s New York gallery, Lehmann Maupin, at the last Art Basel Miami Beach (where, she notes, P. Diddy bought I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear is You).

Another, coincidentally, is on the cover of our February issue: Stay tuned for Barbara Pollack’s cover story on contemporary artists who tell stories of romance and heartbreak.

Speaking on the phone from her London studio, the artist agreed that those themes are her specialty.

“I’m really brilliant at unrequited love,” she says. “I haven’t had a relationship for years. It’s totally inspired my work.”

Tracey Emin, still from You Touch My Soul.


While the “neons” in Times Square tell the same tales as the real ones, there is no neon in them at all. The digital animations were created for s[edition], one of the platforms that have sprung up in recent years to offer multiples by big-name artists that the general public can afford. The concept of s[edition]—started by Robert Norton, former CEO of Saatchi Online, and Harry Blain, founder of Blain|Southern—is to produce limited editions (complete with certificate of ownership) that exist only in a digital format. Damien Hirst, Shepard Fairey, Jenny Holzer, and Yoko Ono are among the artists whose works, for prices ranging from $8 to $1600, can be downloaded to devices, gifted to friends, and shared on the site’s social networks. (Emin’s digital neons, which are in editions of 2,000, are priced at $80; three new works will go on sale Thursday starting at $16 each. The price rises automatically as the edition continues to sell.)

Tracey Emin, still from I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear is You.


The artist, who grew up surrounded by neon signs in Margate, likes the idea that her high-tech animations will instill a retro feeling in Times Square, evoking the neon lights of the past.

“I wonder if people will stand underneath them and kiss and have their photos taken,” she says.

Tracey Emin, still from I Promise to Love You.


She conjures the phrases when she is swimming, or traveling. She knows she hits one when “it’s got to be a line for a song. And it isn’t. It’s as if I’d heard it before, but I haven’t.” She also considers the demands of the neon format, in which the glass is blown and bent to mimic her distinctive script. “There are certain letters that just don’t work that well esthetically,” she says.

Tracey Emin, still from Love is What You Want.


While the messages can be seen as a valentine to New York, they can also be considered a calling card for an increased presence on this side of the Atlantic. In April Emin arrives for a stay in Chelsea, where she will be working with the Louise Bourgeois studio. She has a show opening at both branches of Lehmann Maupin in May. Her first South American museum show is on view at Malba in Buenos Aires; her first U.S. solo museum show opens at MOCA North Miami in December.

Back at home, Emin is enjoying a growing public role as philanthropist and Royal Academician. Late last year the Queen appointed her Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her contributions in visual arts, an honor that sparked a small media frenzy.

Emin is curious how her comparatively low public profile in the U.S. will affect reaction to her public-art debut here. “If I was to do it in Piccadilly Circus it would cause a big fuss in the U.K.,” she comments. “I wonder how it will be in Times Square.”

Click below to see a digital neon in action.


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