The pain of intimacy, raw physicality, love, sadness, loneliness: British artist Tracey Emin’s trademark themes run through her new Hong Kong show “I Cried Because I Love You” — her first in greater China.

A mix of painting, embroidery and neon, the exhibition comes at a time when, despite the economic downturn in China, collectors in the region are becoming increasingly knowledgeable and focused on who they want to buy — and Emin is on their shopping list.

Her new show coincides with the launch of Hong Kong’s Art Basel Tuesday, which sees collectors descend on the city as it increasingly establishes itself as an art hub for Asia.

tracy emin
Photo: White Cube.

More than 4,000 artists will participate in Art Basel itself, held at the harbourfront exhibition centre, with a host of events on the sidelines tapping into the creative buzz.

Emin’s show is split across Hong Kong’s Lehmann Maupin and White Cube — galleries with long-standing relationships with the artist.

“Everybody’s loved someone so much that it hurts… you feel that it’s going to kill you if you don’t see them. It’s about that feeling of love and understanding love,” says Emin, whose show opened Monday.

A large stone near Emin’s studio in the South of France is one thread running through the exhibition — the artist “married” the rock over the summer in an impromptu ceremony.

tracy emin
Photo: White Cube.

Emin said the stone is a metaphor for her tendency towards “impossible love” and its shape figures in some of the exhibition pieces.

Her work has already sold well since White Cube opened in Hong Kong three years ago, says Irene Bradbury of the gallery.

“She’s made her mark out here. Collectors are becoming more knowledgeable and attuned to who they like, who they want to follow… from Western galleries, alongside great artists that are developing here,” she adds.

Bradbury says there will likely be discussions about an Emin exhibition in mainland China in the future, but for the time being the artist is about to take a year out from exhibiting to focus on her work.

Female voices

Cindy Sherman and Joana Vasconcelos are among leading female artists on show at Art Basel, which now also has its first female Asia director, Adeline Ooi, who took the helm last year.

“It’s both amazing and maddening, wonderful and urgent that many women lead art fairs, run non-profits, are important artists,” says Gina Wong, founder of Hong Kong’s independent art space Experimenta.

But she adds there is still a glass ceiling at the top, where “art institutions and art collections are headed and owned by men”.

tracey emin
Tracey Emin. Photo: Wikicommons.

Emin has been a provocative female voice since she first came to prominence with “Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With” and “My Bed” in the 1990s.

Part of the Young British Artists movement of that era and labelled an “enfant terrible”, she has now been recognised by the establishment — she received a CBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013 for services to the arts.

Her work has evolved with the years, she says, particularly the images of her own body.

“For a long time I drew myself as I was when I was about 20. About three years ago I suddenly realised ‘Oh my god, I’m not a size zero’,” she says.

Despite acclaim and collectibility, however, Emin says she still feels nervous about the way her work will be received.

“I never have been taken seriously in certain echelons of the art world,” says Emin, who believes great art “should make people stand still and be quiet”, even for a few minutes.

“When I die, I hope I close my eyes and say: ‘I did it’.”

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