Published  15/01/2014

Tracey Emin: 20 Years

Tracey Emin: 20 Years

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
July-September 2008

After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art
Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott; Foreword by Linda Nochlin
Munich, Berlin; London, New York: Prestel, 2007

By Dr Janet McKenzie

'Tracey Emin: 20 Years' at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is, in spite of her fame, the first retrospective in a UK museum. She has been widely exhibited and much reported in the press, but the provocative nature of her work has attracted as much critical gossip as critical analysis.

Tracey Emin draws attention like no other living artist, for her work is primarily autobiographical, addressing uncensored issues of sexual abuse, the trauma of rape and abortion, with her sex life personified by the infamous exhibit 'Tent: Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-1995)' - with the names of lovers, friends, aborted babies embroidered onto the fabric interior of the igloo like space. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, 'My Bed', a double bed in a white space - semen stained sheets, underwear, condoms, cigarette butts, empty vodka bottles - seemed to exemplify a level of debauchery unknown in the hallowed precinct of a museum. Robert Rauschenberg had in fact put his bed in a museum in 1955, but where his bed was splattered with paint, Emin's has no aesthetic additions - no drawings or smears of paint - using the shock tactics of the ready-mades such as Marcel Duchamp's urinal, which he called 'Fountain', in 1917, only Tracey Emin puts more of herself on the line.

Emin doesn't shy away from the elements of life that terrify most people: instead, she sheds light on them. Voyeuristic and cathartic, masochistic and humiliating: Tracey Emin does it anyway. And somewhere in the process, she sends a message to her viewers, she sends words and pictures of solidarity. She is a symptom and a cure of our debauched society.1

Emin's work appears to have more in common with the performing arts; her passionate cries share the drama of Amy Winehouse and Madonna. In the Edinburgh retrospective, she has a video as a homage to Edvard Munch's 'The Scream', where her screams fill the exhibition as a raw expression. Madonna acknowledges the rage and protest in Emin's work, 'Tracey is intelligent and wounded and not afraid to expose herself. She is provocative but she has something to say. I can relate to that'.2 Jeanette Winterson observes, 'Emin's intensity, and her total and reckless commitment to herself and to what she does, is necessary for an artist; but it is also necessary for any human being who wants to live at the centre of their humanity, and not on its rim.'3

Emin says: 'Being an artist isn't just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back, it's some kind of communication, a message'. A review of the Edinburgh exhibition acknowledges the difficulty many people, particularly men, have with the rawness of her work. Jonathon Jones quotes Nicolas Poussin who complained of his contemporary Caravaggio, 'This man has come to murder art!' because his work failed to sublimate his subject matter in harsh reality and so failed to ennoble it in art.4

A magician such as Damien Hirst or Joseph Beuys makes everything symbolic. Emin's ready-mades, on the other hand, remain flat, unredeemed; she transfigures nothing. But in many ways Emin's achievement is the same as Caravaggio's: she rubs our noses in reality, in a way that subverts all our illusions, fantasies, snobberies and repressions, those barriers we put up between us and death.5

In an interview (2005) Emin conveyed a sense of desperation in needing a voice, and the art world have given her that and much more:

I've got to be an artist, it's all I've got. I need God like I need art; I need art like I need God. You can't always take your talent or your gift for granted. You have to really work at it and you have to push yourself and rationalise what you're doing. It's great to have a commercial market but it's no good having that as your justification for what you do. Everyone wants colourful, charged blankets from me. I've got people all around the world waiting for them ... I think that people just couldn't believe that you could make sculpture with your own tampons in it that looked so beautiful and wasn't offensive in any way. If I had cast it in plaster or bronze people would have got it; they would have seen it really differently.6

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art exhibition fills the first floor of the gallery and contains Emin's life's work of installations, neons, videos, photographs, sketches and the blankets, which although once dismissed critically, now sell for £850,000. The tent that made her name as an artist burned in the 2004 Momart fire is conspicuous by its absence. She felt unable to create another, in spite of being offered £1 million. Yet there is a level of incomprehension for many visitors that the exhibits are mostly notes designed to enable the process of coming to terms with trauma and a dysfunctional family and subsequent damaging relationships. There is the potential for art works of greater significance here, but many of the works appear to be works in progress. They are works in progress without the resolution, for example, that one experiences in the American artist, Kiki Smith who addresses important female experiences and does so with an originality and inventiveness that are absent in much of Emin's work.

Last year, Emin represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and was made a Royal Academician, a far cry from the enfant terrible image she acquired in the late Nineties when her work was included in Charles Saatchi's 'Sensation' exhibition. While Emin's spectacular publicity is unsurpassed in this country, she has received her share of vitriol as well. Richard Dorment, critic of The Telegraph, described her Venice Biennale exhibition as the worst exhibition he had seen in 22 years. The Edinburgh retrospective is in fact disappointing, in spite of its importance.

Emin is as much a writer as a visual artist: words feature prominently in much of her work. Her appliqué blankets, for example, are graphic banners - they hark back to the feminist revival and celebration of quilt making in the 1970s, as well as the political arena of protest marches, and grassroots participation. Slogans not poetry, placards not paintings, they also belong in the world of 'outsider art' as do her personal memoirs. Much of her work - where she employs a range of methods such as embroidery and etching, with a preoccupation with method, and which require skill - is rudimentary. Her embroideries are imperfect, like those of a young girl, large samplers in which to learn the different stitches. In Emin's life, learning the language runs parallel to learning basic survival in a life where abandonment and exploitation were repeated. In such technical terms imperfection is celebrated, a conspicuous lack of craft is apparent, where spelling mistakes and crooked stitching appear to be those of a child creating objects without close parental guidance or help. Her drawing is at times unsure and tentative; at times it conveys the pain of the charged lines that reveal the deepest pain, the rawest experiences are recollected anxiously through memory or subconscious wanderings. Emin's monoprints are smudged too, revealing her personal conflict above the desire to master a craft and yet she works constantly and in an obsessive mode.

Emin's drawings reveal a range of emotions and views - they are aggressive, prickly, and angry whilst also exposing her own fragility and vulnerability. It is not surprising then to discover that her work is particularly admired by young women, for whom Emin has removed barriers that often exist between artists and their viewing public. Drawing which is such a direct and ideal medium for the conveying of one's innermost feelings, in Emin's oeuvre, still lacks the energy and conviction that one might expect from an artist so determined to draw upon personal anguish. Her writing, in Strangeland, on the other hand, possesses a candour and frankness that many of the visual manifestations lack.

Strangeland was published by Tracey Emin in 2005 from a series of memoirs and articles written between 1994 and 2002.7 Together they make up a description of her life. 'Motherland' describes her childhood in Margate, 'Fatherland' describes the Turkish world of her father and 'Traceyland' the present-day London of her personal and public life. It has an uncompromising honesty, a lively prose, and is highly readable and impressive. The message is of courage, compassion, injustice and survival. 'Redemption through form', to quote the late Peter Fuller, has never been more appropriate. Emin's life, for all its horror and suffering, is told with humour and warmth. The reader is inevitably moved. In his essay for the Edinburgh exhibition catalogue, 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner', Julian Schnabel describes Tracey Emin's words as '... the loneliness, the fragility, the disappointment and honesty, the clarity of it all'.8 Of her work he writes:

Tracey's need to be honest supercedes all decisions in her life and art. The crystalline presentation of the most intimate and private emotions, are what she wants to share with us. Sometimes not easy to stomach, and at the same time precious, prismatic tears, poignant with loss, broken lines charting broken hearts and brokenness tied back together like a bundle of sticks supporting the weight of our disasters and victories as we pull ourselves together in the rain of our time here in and out of love.

I've always thought that there's no personal language, just a personal selection, and that goes for materials too. So in many cases, an artist is not the first to work with that material, but artists do make that material their own … And Tracey Emin's selection of what to present carries alchemic truth and magic.9

Tracey Emin was born in Margate in 1963 to an English mother and Turkish Cypriot father. Both were married to other people and had children, but Pam fell pregnant and had twins, Paul and Tracey. An unorthodox childhood, where Emin lived with her mother in a hotel owned by her father while her father spent three nights a week in Margate and the rest of the week in London with his other family. They spent time in Turkey in 1967 but returned to Margate in 1968.

When her father became bankrupt in 1972 the family went from relative prosperity to poverty very quickly. The hotel which was their home was boarded up and they squatted in a small staff cottage with extraordinary freedom or lack of supervision for a young child, as her father lived mostly in Turkey and visited only several times a year; her mother worked as a waitress. At the age of thirteen she was raped; the years between the ages of thirteen and fifteen she described as her 'shagging years' and she dropped out of school early.

Patrick Elliott described the significance of her work in terms of the use of subject matter such as this, 'You might find such agonizing, small-town moments recreated in films or in novels, but they are not the usual subjects of art, still less, art made by a woman. Emin's great achievement is to have drawn directly on her background - the sort of background that many share, but which remains uncharted territory in the world of art - and to have done so in a manner that is neither maudlin nor heroic.'10

Aged fifteen Emin moved to London for about a year, and then back to Margate where she applied for a Foundation Course in Fine Art at Medway College of Design in Rochester on the Kent coast. She had to do the fashion diploma due to lack of O-levels but did not do well in the course and did not enjoy it. When a rail strike prevented her attending classes, she worked at home and had something of a breakthrough, improvising and doing her own thing. She met Billy Childish who encouraged her to be more experimental and introduced her to the work of the German expressionists, Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch, all of whom have been important influences on her development. She did not visit exhibitions, knew little of the history of art; she visited the Tate for the first time at the age of 22.

On the radio she heard of the Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel where she applied and got a place based on drawings, collages and linocuts. She gravitated to the printmaking department whilst there, and later applied to do a full-time printmaking course at Maidstone College of Art. She loved it there and left in 1986 with a first class degree. 'Before I went to college I was uneducated and completely nihilistic. I believed that the world was a great big rolling ball of shit and I was stuck to it. And when I left Maidstone I had hope and faith in myself'.11

In 1987 she was accepted for the two-year MA course at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London. At the RCA she was deeply unhappy, and smashed up all her previous work. When a work was included but then removed from a group show there, she became violently ill, and destroyed her most recent work. Describing this crisis she recalls, 'I gave up painting, I gave up art, I gave up believing, I gave up faith. I had what I called my emotional suicide. I gave up a lot of friendships with people. I just gave up believing in life really.'12

There followed a new stage where she studied philosophy and attended exhibitions; she did not paint but made tiny monoprints with references to abortions she had had. Meeting artist Sarah Lucas led to further contacts in the art world, perhaps most importantly with other Young Brit Artists. Emin and Lucas opened 'The Shop' where they had studios upstairs and made a range of t-shirts, papier-mache sex toys and sewn objects. Emin still had not had an actual exhibition. She had embarked on a project where for £10 she would write four letters to her subscriber. Jay Jopling was one of her subscribers and it was his vision that enabled him to see great potential in Emin. He already showed Damien Hirst and had just opened White Cube in St James's in May 1993. Jopling asked Tracey Emin for a CV, to which she responded by attempting to embroider it onto a turquoise blanket. Jopling gave her an exhibition mostly comprising letters, diaries, memorabilia, photographs of earlier work; Carl Freedman had become her friend and advisor.

'Tracey Emin: My Major Retrospective 1963-1993' opened on 19 November 1993. Works included 'My Abortion' including a bottle of pills and a hospital wristband, a blood stained tissue. A homage to her Uncle Colin, a six-part piece, was also included: a moving, tough piece that included a crumpled cigarette pack that was in his hand when he died. A childlike letter expressing her sorrow, and how much she missed him were also framed. These pieces are in the Edinburgh exhibition, and they remain as poignant testimonies to Emin's originality and courage in flouting convention and societal expectations. White Cube gallery practically apologised to the public, '... these were relics, but relics of a damaged, dysfunctional soul rather than those of a saint'.13 In Time Out, the reviewer was obviously astounded by the frankness of Emin's work:

This is the show that every artist wants to put on but doesn't dare … It's the funniest and most disturbing show in town, a brilliantly simple idea which takes one step further the fashion for bringing real-life into the galleries … It isn't an ego trip. It's ordinary. It's the Tracey Emin show but here is Everywoman ... The show is radical, innocent, crazy, passionate and brave. A coup.14

The more details one has of Emin's crazy inspirational means of self-promotion, the more impressive her story becomes. After writing Exploration of the Soul (1994), for example, she advertised in Art Monthly for someone to provide a car for her to travel from West to East America to give readings from her manuscript/book. She succeeded, as her career has ever since. And in just 15 years from her first exhibition, she has a genuine retrospective, in Edinburgh, home to the International Festival of the Arts, but a conservative, dare I say inhibited, town nonetheless.

As Elliott has observed, 'By 2000 Emin was a celebrity. David Bowie interviewed her, Elton John and George Michael collected her work, Vivienne Westwood dressed her; she even advertised a brand of gin. She became a regular panellist and interviewee on television and radio shows, admired in equal measure for her passionate defence of art, her quick wit, her unpredictability and her candid views'.15

Tracey Emin's 'Retrospective' has not been appraised from a feminist perspective per se, and yet her work can only exist in a public museum as a consequence of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971 Linda Nochlin posed the question, 'Why have there been no great women artists?' In After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (2007), Nochlin wrote in the 'Foreword':

After the revolution comes the reckoning. Exactly what has been accomplished, what changed? What individuals or groups, previously repressed or ignored now come into the foreground, gain status and confidence? How has the nature of 'reality' itself changed as a result of the revolution, peaceful in this case, that took place, and has continued, as a result of the feminist movement in art?16

Nochlin revealed the conceptual inadequacy in the field of art history where 'natural' was defined as the white Western male point of view, which she described as 'the unstated domination of white male subjectivity'. Nochlin asked many key questions in the Seventies that precipitated debate on the issues that enabled the making of art; in turn marginalised groups demanded equal rights and opportunities. Feminism challenged women's roles in relation to the arts so that areas of experience, previously unthinkable for inclusion in a gallery or museum show, or even created in the name of art, were possible. Women's experiences in many spheres (autobiographical and from the point of historical appraisal) began to be included in exhibitions - Tracey Emin's Edinburgh exhibition represents how much these challenges have achieved. And yet it is perhaps significant that some of the finest contributions to feminist art, if one can use such a term, are from artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero who worked in relative anonymity for decades while they juggled the traditional roles of motherhood and family life, with few opportunities to exhibit.

Emin has made conspicuous sacrifices for her art, and now has achieved an iconic, celebrity status. What is not clear, at the age of 45 is whether her work will continue to develop to the quality and stature as artists such as those chosen for the recent Prestel publication: Elizabeth Murray, Judy Pfaff, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Marina Abramovic, Shirin Neshat, Ellen Gallagher, Ann Hamilton, Dana Schutz, Bourgeois and Spero. The work of these artists is discussed by four leading curators and writers on contemporary art: Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott, providing an exciting and positive contribution to women's art in the present time. The effect of the 2008 Emin exhibition and After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art is a feeling that women have an important voice, and a lot to say and that we will never be in a position to neglect the vital issues that these artists have addressed. They are empowerinand inspiring experiences.

1. Spens C. Tracey Emin – Icon. Scarlet, November 2008.
2. Ibid.
3. Winterson J. Foreword. In: Tracey Emin Works, 1963–2006 (with Carl Freedman and Rudi Fuchs). New York: Rizzoli, 2006: 7.
4. Jones J. Tracey was here. G2 The Guardian, 5 August 2008: 24.
5. Ibid: 25.
6. Tracey Emin interviewed by Karen Wright. Letters and Luggage: Tracey Emin unpacks her thoughts on love, God and needlework. Modern Painters, June 2005: 34.
7. Emin T. Strangeland. London: Sceptre, Hodder and Stoughton, 2005.
8. Schnabel J. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.
Tracey Emin 20 Years (with Patrick Elliott). Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2008: 11.
9. Ibid: 11.
10. Elliott. Ibid: 19.
11.Ibid: 21.
12. Quoted ibid from Carl Freedman, Tracey Emin Works, op cit: 67.
13. Ouoted by Elliott, op cit: 25.
14. Ibid: 25.
15. Ibid: 32.
16. Nochlin L. Foreword. In: HeartneyE, Posner H, Princenthal N, Scott S. After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art. Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel, 2007: 7.


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