When we hear the word ‘home’ the first thing many of us will imagine is the place where we grew up. We might start to reflect on the memories we have there, and the people we share them with. The word becomes synonymous with childhood joy and warm familiarity. However, in reality the feelings we have towards a hometown are often far more complex and contradictory than this picture suggests. There are few pieces of art which capture this ambiguity better than Tracey Emin’s 2010 I Never Stopped Loving You, a neon love letter to the town she spent her teenage years determined to escape.

Emin designed I Never Stopped Loving You as a direct address to the seaside town of Margate, where she spent the majority of her childhood and teenage years, and which she thinks of as ‘home’. Although it subsequently entered a period of decline, the Margate that Emin grew up in was a popular tourist destination – renowned for its sandy beaches and bustling seafront. The bright signs of the latter left a considerable impact on Emin, who explains that she is drawn to the “feel-good factor” of neon. Indeed, Emin is far from the only artist to be inspired by its colourful glow. However, while others have played on the commercial – almost impersonal – nature of neon in their art, Emin has tended towards the exact opposite.

“The glowing pink letters capture not just one artist’s experience, but a universal sentiment”

Emin’s declaration of love for her hometown came almost two decades after she first began working with neon signage. Emin’s signs are renowned for their ground-breaking use of her own handwriting, which gives the impression that the art has been lifted from a diary. The extreme visibility of the light in contrast with the confessional nature of the words has served to shock viewers. In particular, Emin has used neon to explore sexual and romantic relationships, often seeming to speak directly to a partner. Her most famous neon work features the phrase ‘I Promise to Love You’ in bright red, surrounded by a heart shaped bubble. Emin’s sign for Margate could be read as a continuation of this approach, as the sign’s ambivalent wording seems to suggest a romantic relationship. Indeed, Emin actively invites the viewer to draw this comparison. The artwork serves to demonstrate that Emin considers her relationship with her hometown to be as pivotal in her life as any of her romantic connections.

The inclusion of Margate in her neon art series, along with the sentimental nature of the phrase ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’, seem on the surface to express Emin’s deep love for her hometown. However, Emin’s work is in fact far more ambivalent in its attitude. This is abundantly clear when I Never Stopped Loving You is compared to her 1995 film Why I Never Became a Dancer. Like her neon signs, the film is inspired by Margate, and focuses on many of its distinctive seafront buildings. The voiceover Emin provides, though, recalls her teenage unhappiness, and the unhealthy relationships she engaged with as a result. In fact, by the film’s conclusion Emin declares that she’s leaving Margate – at which point Sylvester’s upbeat ‘You Make Me Feel’ begins to play. The viewer is left with the clear sense that it was only by moving away from home that Emin was able to achieve the freedom she desired.


Mountain View

Nations, novels and new beginnings

In light of Emin’s earlier work, I Never Stopped Loving You takes on a new meaning. The ambiguity of the phrasing is now understood as a reference to Emin’s past: she never stopped loving Margate, despite the traumatic experiences which led her to leave the town. The production of the sign demonstrates the extent to which her feelings towards ‘home’ have changed. Meanwhile her determination to display the neon publically, rather than in an exhibition, demonstrates her belief that her feelings will be shared by others. The glowing pink letters capture not just one artist’s experience, but a universal sentiment.

Thus, in Emin’s work, ‘home’ emerges not just as a place, but as a complicated series of memories and emotions. I Never Stopped Loving You is certainly a declaration of love, but one which acknowledges the artist’s complicated history with her hometown. If Emin’s neon illuminates one thing, it is that our feelings towards ‘home’ are not static, but rather shift constantly over the course of our lifetime.