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3am ESSAY: “Going Down” The Art of Tracey Emin

“…..I said I feel that if you want to learn about the world you don’t sit around reading maps all days. I had this attitude that instead of going to another country or travelling, you just slept with someone. You’d learn more about different places by sleeping with someone than you would do by actually travelling, or learning another language” (Tracey Emin)

by Adrian Gargett

COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

“I intend to scream, shout, race the engine, throw tantrums in Bloomingdales if I feel like it, and confess intimate details about my life to complete strangers…I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself that is, quite simply, the bitch philosophy” (Elizabeth Wurtzel) –

What ultimately gives Tracey Emin’s fiercely loving and exquisitely constructed works their surprising, governing character of optimism is a faith in ideas. If as she often wonders “How can anything be said?” it is only as part of a continuing torrent of searing eloquence.

The precipitous psychological complexion of her works are mirrored by the instability of their architecture. There is no invisible thread pulling you through, no triangular shape or closure that leaves the viewer satisfied. Contexts and settings are elusive; one is compelled to make sense of abstract problems in a condition shot through with expletive. In her work the past is painful and the future unknown. Thoughts surface in a blind and anarchic rage as she fixes on the miseries, the gawkiness, and the self-consciousness of a callow sense of alienation.

One militant aim of Emin’s oeuvre is probably to deconstruct sanitary delineations of artistic register as being aesthetically linear: this is why the work can move organically from a wittily clever analysis of media culture to the splendidly titled 1997 piece “Forget about Love”.

Emin’s work has addressed the invisibility of the feminine – both in life and art – the confinement of a female inner life into behaviourist “cut-outs”. There is the attempt to subvert the value-system that inferiorises a female perspective. In this respect she adopts the language of conceptualism but transforms it into something more personal.

Emin works internally, (via an internal logic), which promotes a downbeat and blackly humorous approach. There is a rhythm to her angst as well as a melody. Her ambition as an artist is to inspire others with her way of thinking, not to follow a rigid prescribed route – she wants to make work that other people could make if they felt like it.

Body, gender, sex – this is the thematic complex that motivates Emin. This “physical art” sets out to question traditional images of the body and the human condition. Taking “confessional” art to new heights of disclosure her work relates everything we could ever want to know about her life. Her sadness, happiness, weirdness are her art. An insistent narrative of bad luck, bad men, bad sex, bad betrayals and survival. Emin is dramatically honest in her work. An unusually frank artist telling us frankly about her unusual personal development. Boozy, direct, uninhibited, inspired by films, pop music, tough on men; she is the voice of the single urban female, telling it like it is. Emin possesses an unerring ability to “package” her personal anguish in a direct and lucrative manner. She has become a heroine for the disaffected generation.

Emin’s art is an attempt to find an intellectual and cultural validation for her fragile existential state. It does so in neon signs, drawings, notes, video appearances, installation/sculptures and photographs. The installation that brought her to public attention, and is fated to remain her signature piece, is a small domed tent inside which she has carefully sewn and embroidered the names of everyone she has ever “slept” with.

“The thing about the tent that really annoys me, when it’s in the media, is people just write it’s the names of my lovers. But it’s not..…It’s about conception, sleeping in the womb with my twin brother, up to my last friend or lover that I slept with in 1994. That’s what the tent’s about. It’s about sleep, intimacy, and moments” (Tracey Emin).

Emin is a diverse artist, experimenting with different and “found” materials, turning her exhibits into theatrical environments, always more interested in tackling the problems of her own life than the more limited problems of formalist art. She has always been interested in using art as a means of expressing and containing her emotions – the idea of a person being driven by personal neurosis to make works of art. She has plundered her own life to make art, and she has made it compulsively, without always calculating the end result.

Intellectually combative and with wicked humour Emin has made increasingly extreme references to personal abandonment, betrayal and her own struggle with neurotic and violent emotions such as jealousy, fear, stress and revenge. She has excavated her own experiences in detail, constructing exhibits that have disturbing psychological associations to her past and present states. In addition to three-dimensional works she has an extensive range of prints, drawings and diary extracts that run parallel to and sometimes provide inspiration for her installations, and an assortment of written works that, in varying degrees of formality, document her thoughts.

What makes Emin so in synch with contemporary culture is that she has consistently supplied a personal narrative, related to the traumatic events of her childhood/adolescence, so that her work can be read on one level like a confessional account, a response to the emotional trajectory of her life. However disturbing her revelations appear, they provide an engaging narrative for everybody else and they help to explain the underlying psychological motivations for her work thus far. Art becomes, as it always has for Emin, more about a life as art.

Many artists utilize and work with their experiences, memories and with the idea of childhood. They use this discourse about their lives alongside more formal concerns. Emin appears as one of the most inner-directed of contemporary artists, a totally fearless and original artist. By her idiosyncratic inventory of forms/materials/objects, almost by a process of voyeurism, Emin manages to show us some of the same emotions we recognise in ourselves. Even when she approaches melodrama the rawness of the feeling is controlled by the skill of her execution. She makes tactile contact with the emotion of her audience rather than a purely intellectual one. It is an art, primarily visual, but ultimately of the interior life into which vision leads.

Emin wants to “crack open secrets”, smash apart their power by communicating them to us, and admit to things you’d die to conceal rather than confess. The work is affecting, affectionate, nostalgic, neatly grouped; often based around a phrase, such as “I need art like I need God” (1994) (Written on Cliftonville sea wall), or integrated into a story or film project. It is unflinchingly genuine and direct, an emotional documentary offering us an examination of events and emotions that usually remain intrinsically personal. Tracey has turned her convulsive life into a tragic-comic art form and she has one subject: herself.

“Whether or not my art is the truth, or whether or not it’s honest, its real, it’s how I feel about a situation. I’m trying to work out something for myself, and then it goes into the world and becomes something else” (Tracey Emin).

The works she produces are cathartic, hedonistic, immediately intimate, self-obsessed, impetuous and vehement, and the manner in which she communicates is resolute and homogeneous; in getting angry, drunk, crying and then deciding to be tough.

“The true essence of this testament is to communicate an emotion……Trust your own memory….My art comes out of my real experience of life, it’s how I feel at the time. I have an emotion and I make it real” (Tracey Emin)

“Exploration of the Soul” her autobiography, charts her life from conception to her loss of virginity. The narrative includes a dramatic rape scene that relates, in detail, how, aged 13, she was violently “introduced” to sex.

Emin’s difficulties and extremities are well documented throughout her work – they “form” her work – yet her curious celebrity means she is better known for her perceived persona than for her art/ Emin’s confessional style lends itself to popular media; it is possible to paraphrase her long, detailed accounts until it seems that the work itself is made redundant. But that’s a mistake, it’s the telling that’s important, not merely the facts. The experience of watching Emin tell her stories on video is unforgettable: phrases and images inhabit your mind for days.

It is possible to see the piece “My Bed” (1999) as the final stage in a “Gesamtkunstwerk” to which Emin has given the generic name “just being Tracey”. That “My Bed” was in the Turner Prize included in the Tate, and is now in the Saatchi Collection is all part of what Emin calls, “the psyche of the nation”. “Big Brother would never have got on telly 10 years ago in this Country”, she says “Now everyone wants to get personal” …….The question is whether “Big Brother” is true: whether “My Bed” is truthful simply for being dirty.

“I’m not interested in things that rise above, but rather things that sink below. Anything that people don’t like” the highly influential American sculptor, Mike Kelly, has said. Kelly uses besmirched toy animals and stained ugly blankets in his best-known work, and his “dirty aesthetic” is discernible in the work of Emin and many other artists of her generation.

“My Bed” is a more complex work than it seems. Ultimately it raises questions about Emin herself. Firstly one has to consider the curiously “old-fashioned” morality of her work. An appliquéd blanket work called “I think it Must Have Been Fear”, like “My Bed” is about incontinence moral and actual. The blanket, like the bed, is stained with urine: it’s a piece of iconography, the inability to control one’s bladder a correlative for the inability to control one’s life. There’s something essentially Dickensian about this need to wade through excrement; the belief that “good” can only be found by touching bottom, redemption only in darkness. In addition there is a singularly Christian dimension, an idea that fascinated Emin. “For years, I made religious art”, she says “Then I destroyed it, I did, like, a thousand drawings of Jesus being crucified; I was very interested in Mary Magdalene, I did drawings of her at His feet; I did the Wedding Feast at Cana, and John the Baptist’s hand - just his hand. And I did lots of Depositions”.

The narrative behind the creation leading to “My Bed” is well documented, enough to say that Emin “was surprised to wake up from it. I’d been drinking, I hadn’t been eating for days; I felt like a twig when I got out, and crawled to the bathroom to get some water. Then I looked back and I saw the bed and I thought that’s it: I’ve got to do something with this. It was like a screen had come down between me and it and I knew it was art. It was a vision”.

The bed as revealed truth is a seductive idea, but it needs qualification. Firstly, obviously just what truth is being revealed? Emin herself distinguishes between different kinds: “The only truth is that is necessary is necessary truth. All the rest is contingent truth” The deeper significance though is that the bed’s whole “truth” resides in its personification of “Tracey Emin”.

For a generation of artists informed, primarily by popular culture, the particular brand of “bitch” femininity within Emin’s work locates it in a lineage via Camille Paglia and Elizabeth Wurtzel. Emin takes the material of problem pages and turbulent adolescence and turns it into a one-woman “docu-drama” with herself in the starring role. Emin has “taken” with the media, becoming an embodiment of this zeitgeist and thus is as qualified to model designer dresses, write candidly of sexual adventure, as to talk about her art. This is all part of contemporary fame, but what is it about Emin’s work (or her personality) that has singled her out from the others of her generation like Sarah Lucas/Georgina Starr/Gillian Wearing for the star treatment?

Part of the answer must lie in Emin’s extravagant treatment of herself as her principle subject – an all singing, all dancing, all-crying exercise in self-portraiture which recasts the artist as an actress playing out the roles of her different selves. For example in her early work, such as the fabulously direct diary entries she put on display – “Why do I swear so much?” - she asked on the walls of the first exhibition at the fashionable White Cube Gallery, entitled modestly “My Major Retrospective”.

Emin’s public description of usually private emotions had the immediate and morbid fascination of a documentary that engages with our curiosity to witness other people’s turbulent experience. Expanding her dramatisation of her real or imaginary autobiography, Emin explored the dramatics of her enterprise to incorporate distinct roles for herself – “Naked Photos – Life Model Goes Mad” - a series of nine photographs of the artist (1996).

Instead of single truths the viewer is led to appreciate an incredible fragmentation. The piecing together of an identity through a series of mementoes, and memories so there is always an infinite network of associations. Although Emin’s work is about constructing a history. As a viewer you have no initial knowledge of what exactly that project is. With any piece you can start from scratch, enabling a process or a relationship to proceed with the work, to begin and end in front of you.

Utilising her own memory and paraphernalia from her life as the “material” of her work Emin avoids the danger of simply indulging in a private therapy by examining her own mementoes to construct “a fiction” (which says a lot about her as well as distinguishing her). The audience is then left to value their own mementoes, showing they are just as significant as something that is widely considered as important. What elevates Emin is the way she has shaken off the conventional role of an artist and yet still exists as one; you do not necessarily have to be confined by studio practice.

In early works such as “Speculum of Other Women” (1985) and “This Sex Which is Not One”(1985) Luce Irigaray (and also in more recent works “Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche” (1991)) female sexuality is itself non-self identical, non-innumerable, not constituted of distinct and separate parts, not one but indeterminately more than one.

“…..She does not set herself up as ‘one’; as a (single) female unit. She is not closed up or around one single truth or essence. The essence of a truth remains foreign to her. She neither has nor is being…. The/a women can subsist by already being double in herself: both the one and the other. Not: one plus another, more than one. More than. She is “foreign” to the unit. And to the countable, to quantification. There to the more than, as it relates to something already quantifiable, even were it a case of disrupting the operations. If it were necessary to count her/them in units – which is impossible – each unit would already be more than doubly (her). But that would have to be understood in another way. The (female) one being the other, without ever being either one or the other. Ceaselessly in the exchange between the one and the other. With the result that she is always already othered but with no possible identification of her, or of the other” (Luce Irigaray) (1991).

Irigaray does not provide an account of female sexuality in its essence, or in a fixed form, but alternatively has worked on the paradoxes and consequences generated for female sexuality by a culture, a value system, forms of knowledge and systems of representations that can only ever take female sexuality as object, as external to the only set of perspectives presenting themselves as true – men’s. Female sexuality is that which eludes and escapes, that which functions as an excess, a remainder uncontained and unrepresentable within the terms provided by a sexuality that takes itself as straightforwardly being what it is.

Similarly Emin’s art locates in a space that continually evades direct interpretation within the traditional art/terminological framework.

Irigaray’s concerns are directed towards the establishment of a viable space and time for women to inhabit as women. Space has been historically conceived and functioned to either contain or obliterate the feminine Irigaray advocates that a reconceptualisation of the relation between men and woman – as is required for an autonomous and independent self-representation for women and femininity – entails the reconceptualization of representations of space and time.

Irigaray is referring to a tendency in phallocentric thought to deny and marginalize the debt of life and existence that all subjects, and indeed theoretical frameworks owe to the maternal body, their elaborate attempts to foreclose and cover over this space with their own projections. The production of a male world – the construction of an “artificial” cultural environment, the production of an intelligible universe/religion/philosophy/knowledge system and valid practices within that framework – is implicated in the systematic and violent erasure of the contributions of women and femininity.

The containment of the feminine within the negative mirror of the male self-reflection strips women of an existence either autonomous from or symmetrical with men’s – it relegates women to a position of support (or pre-condition to the masculine).

“I was your house. And, when you leave, abandoning this dwelling place, I do not know what to do with these walls of mine. Have I ever had a body other than the one which you constructed according to your idea of it? Have I ever experienced a skin other than the one you wanted me to dwell within?”. (Luce Irigaray – Elemental Passions (1992))

The containment of the feminine with men’s physical space is similar to the confinement of women in men’s conceptual structure: in consequence we recognise the refusal to acknowledge other perspectives/other modes of reason/other modes of construction and constitution that are possible.

For the feminine to be located in another space/or somehow reside in this space in a different way, it is clear for Irigarary that several significant transformations need to be effected. Particularly, a series of transformations in the ways in which female subjectivity and sexually are structured and woman's relation to the divine/the environment/culture are conceived and in the ways in which theory and artistic productions more generally are interpreted.

Irigaray’s claims about the specificity of female morphology and its independence from and resistance to masculine interpretation provides an examination of female sexed corporeality and the links between corporeality and conceptions of space and time, which proves of major significance to an explanation, in the feminine perspective, into female notions in experience, knowledge and art.

“If fascination with fabulous women of great mischief were not a real phenomenon, the media probably would have invented it” (Elizabeth Wurtzel – “Bitch” (1998))

Travelling backward, on the funfair railway that links the various terminals at Gatwick, is a great start: disorientating, engaging. A woman alone, yes; alien, certainly; attractive, of course – launched on a doomed adventure. The short ride, with its nicely posthumous chorus of robotic, pre-recorded voices, stands in for the aerial thrills of the Dreamland Park in Margate.

Tracey Emin, the artist, has a doll-like, Kabuki presence; high, thin eyebrows, always arched, astonished. Ottoman melancholy. Carrying on against expectations, against all previous experience. She lies with good grace, shifts her ground. It’s a performance, this life, and she’s committed to it.

In her first solo British show for four years “You Forget to Kiss my Soul” (May 2001) Emin emerges as a mature artist, not just a confessional diarist. There’s a generous imagination at work. Her marriage of rhetoric and dyslexia can be playful as well as furious. Emin proves to be tougher and more disciplined than her outspoken pronouncements might suggest. Far from filling the show with narcissistic images of the artist alone, she allows the gallery to be dominated by a helter-skelter surging almost as high as the ceiling. But there is nothing festive or self-congratulatory about this gaunt structure. Made of ordinary chipboard and wood, it is monochrome and derelict. Based on her childhood memories of Margate, it has long since been drained of any funfair exhilaration. Only the bronze swallow apparently flying away from this melancholy, desolate hulk can rest there with safety.

Margate suffuses the atmosphere of this show. Margate is everywhere in mood and texture. More than any previous Emin exhibition, this edgy low-tech display is haunted by the peeling seaside, lamented nostalgia and faded driftwood decrepitude of Emin’s town; her birthplace, her “inspiration”, her curse.

The funfair and pleasure ground, once a proper metropolitan excursion – now made redundant by the retail parks of Bluewater and Thurrock Lakeside – Margate basks in its “accidental” exposure to the limelight – dead-soul seagulls, wind pushing against windows, sweeping across deserted spaces, over the spectral elegance of the curved bay, the vestigial pier, or down on the out-of-season funfair. This split consciousness – chillingly beautiful glimpses of the actual cut against human pantomime – gives “You Forgot to Kiss My Soul” its structure. Elective schizophrenia: the futility of Emin’s fantasies and the suppressed rage of a life of exile and thwarted love. Denial becomes affirmation, negative capability. “I have stopped dreaming” she cries, “I’ve been dreaming all my life”.

The helter-skelter is utterly dysfunctional, a symbol of a turbulent adolescence. But it could equally apply to Emin’s life today. As she elaborates in a blanket work that describes her life as “Helter fucking skelter” Emin portrays herself as lost in the funfair both in her life as a celebrity and in her relationships. “You see it’s a spiral (sic) which goes down”. Scary, fragmented insults, sewn in radically distinct shapes and colours, accuse people of envy, plead “But I love You”, But they don’t exhaust the image of the helter-skelter, you don’t feel it has all been said. It is not confession. Its art.

Maybe Emin is admitting that she views her current fame as a source of paranoia, anger and indeterminacy. Is Emin really at war with herself, does she find herself assailed by an internal conflict between opposing element in her own nature? This ominous question is prompted by the video projected inside a shabby hut. Here shut away in a claustrophobic space, Emin casts the viewer in the role of voyeur. We find ourselves watching the artist herself, dressed aggressively in black leather jacket and boots, striding fiercely up a series of stairs to a top-floor that of a converted warehouse. Emin appears again inside the flat, but this time asleep in a dressing gown. She is woken up and alarmed by her angry doppelganger attacking the door and demanding to be let in. The timid Emin gets up, approaches the door, and asks in a fearful voice “What do you want?” She is replied by continued hammering and swearing from outside, envenomed now with kicks that threatened to break the door down. “I don’t want your fucking weakness, you piece of shit”, wails the black-leathered Emin, determined to eradicate her more peaceable self. Eventually the intruder Emin snarls “I going now but you’re always going to be afraid. You’d better keep your door well and truly locked”. Physical assault is averted, but we are left in the suffocating hut with the suspicion that the divided artist will be caught up in her mental turmoil for a long time.

Even as Emin admits us to the dramatisations of her inner turmoil, she never lets us forget that they are only fragments. She leaves the viewer trying to piece them together in the same way that she makes us move abruptly between large-scale sculpture and video to the patiently handcrafted media of appliqué and drawing.

Margate is a sanctioned nowhere a dumping ground for immigrants, runaways and inner-city exiles. Barter is the favoured form of commercial transaction. Temporary inhabitants with no stake in society, no voice in civic debate, forget language and struggle to survive. Kids learn English by parroting “10 Benson and Hedges” or “Fish and Chips twice, please”.

Tracey and Paul were Enver Emin’s “second family” in Margate. He already has a wife and family in London when he met Tracey’s mother Pam, but instead of divorcing, he simply maintained two households and commuted between them. Both sides knew about each other: “My late wife used to adore Tracey” when the twins were four she drove them and their Mother and Aunt and Grandmother across Europe to Turkey installed them in a hotel on the Black Sea, then drove back to London to collect his other family, installed them in another hotel and spent two months shutting between them “So it was all open and above board?” ”Yes” he agrees but Tracey butts in furiously: “It was never above board, Dad! It’s not above board to have two families, right?” She obviously picks this fight every time she sees him; she won’t ever let things be. That is why her childhood pain is always so fresh and available to her art. If a wound shows any signs of healing, she’ll pick the scab until it starts bleeding again. This is an incredible strength in her art – the way she can call up old emotions, feel old pains – but it must be quite a drawback in her life” (The Observer Magazine 22nd April 2001 – Lynn Barber).

In “You Forgot to Kiss My Soul” there is a rickety paint-smeared wooden ladder at the top of which is a wooden treehouse with a hole drilled in its side. The sculpture demands that you climb the ladder and look inside. What you see – a moment of great tenderness, filmed in an ersatz garden of paradise, out of which Emin’s sun-tanned Father has emerged to present his daughter with a large red flower. Framed in this way, the small act of love has acquired the power of a ceremony. A tender moment between a Father and Daughter has been transformed into a rite of passage. We are left in the end with a poignant feeling of unattainability. The mood at first seems idyllic and on reaching the camera the grinning man pushes the bloom towards the lens several times. But after making his loving gesture he turns around walks back along the path and disappears.

Frailty is the hallmark of this haunting show. Far from engaging with her celebrity status, she seems preoccupied with transience, isolation and loss. “You Forgot to Kiss My Soul” hangs like an accusation high on the far wall of the White Cube 2 Gallery, enclosed ironically by a pink neon heart. The same words can also be found at the end of a harrowing blanket-work, telling the story of a lonely and terrified woman giving birth to an unwanted baby who fails to survive. Emin’s obsession with childbirth runs through much of her work, and here provides the most alarming moment in a video conversation between the artist and her Mother. In order to experience this work the viewer is obliged to squat with headphones on a low primary school chair. Both women are seated at a table. Emin chain-smokes and presses her chocolate-indulging mother to answer disturbing personal questions about their relationship. They seem affectionate enough with each other at first, but then Emin forces her to admit that she nearly aborted Tracey and her twin brother, abandoning the plan only at the last minute. Under repeated questioning, her Mother also states; “I dread the day when you tell me you’re pregnant – it’d be a catastrophe”.

In contemporary culture utilizing beauty, feminine energy and sexual dynamics in the arena of popular consumption no longer renders one a “bimbo” – it is a strategic manoeuvre. In the space in which women invent personae, the one statement the female can make to declare strength and autonomy (her self as a “self”) is to somehow be “bad”.

“The bitch as a role model, as icon and idea, has moments of style and occasions of substance – it at times looks like just the latest mask, a game to play……but quite often it reveals itself to be about genuine anger, disturbance, fear…” (Elizabeth Wurtzel – “Bitch” (1998))

Certain women are capable of manufacturing fascination, every action implies/produces scandal/trouble. The female becomes interesting if she renders the impression that something is not quite right. In fact it is altogether more effective if she promotes an image that states that emotional turbulence and a core of instability constitute her emotional/psychological background.

For a woman it is never sufficient just to be an artist, just talented – the art is in the life – acting with charisma is what is effective.

In addition to the enormously appealing energy that is apparent in all aspects of Tracey Emin’s art, what marks its success is undoubtedly the message it delivers – the grim, hurt, angry and avenging message. It is above all, thoroughly desperate and undignified. Emin’s complete lack of shame about how crazy and disturbed she feels, combined with a frightening libertine fury, is what is unique.

What renders Emin fascinating is her firm refusal to be located within any traditional sociological or art historical interpretative framework. She has a powerful position that is apparent, she produces incredible artwork. However she does not feel that any of this is of consequence, in the context of her personal inner turbulence – indeed she is on the edge and she is not going to keep quiet about it. She is raving, she is sad she is mad, she feels betrayed and even if other’s share a similar fractured emotional psyche, she is not going to neatly keep is in perspective, because her pain is too important. She is going to scream and be disruptive at inappropriate moments. And ultimately when one can survey the trajectory of her art you are left with the feeling that Tracey Emin has achieved a significant position of dignified resistance by being true to herself and he impulses, however irrational and disruptive than by remaining in control.

“frankly, I have a tough time feeling that feminism has done a damn bit good if I can not be the way I am and have the world accommodate it on some level” (Elizabeth Wurtzel – “ Bitch” (1998))

“Sex is not love. Love is not sex” (Madonna – “Sex”)

As a sexual persona, Tracey Emin is unique in the contemporary arts. A brashly individualistic woman, harsh, aggressive and physical, with an imagination informed by an extensive knowledge of popular culture.

Emin’s volatile worldview comes partly from her ethnic history. In the Seventies suburbia rich, ethnic extended families collapsed into the tense, isolated nuclear family, which tried to legitimise itself into conventional British normality. The repression’s of suburbia produced many stars including Emin. Half-nice suburban girl; the other half a raving pornographic maniac. Emin’s creativity springs from these cultural conflicts. Her half Turkish/Cypriot family background, with its eclectic sensibility, was transplanted according to their father’s fluctuating fortunes.

Her geographical displacement was intensified by sexual displacement. Emin frequently speaks of her teenage anguish, her art is based on autobiographical musings, the seething longings and dreams of a prisoner in a suburban wasteland. Emin has similarities to previous female confessional poets, however she has turned her confessionalism towards “docu-drama”, a mode of survival and redemption rather than loss.

Emin’s work stands slightly apart from the predominantly conceptual, ideas based trend of most contemporary BritArt, her technique is not the sterile irony of post-modern “appropriation”. On the contrary, she daringly explores a raw stormy emotionalism, sudden tantrums that repel or terrify.

Emin combines the modernist themes of desolation and abandonment with a colourful childlike “spirituality” and the hostile but affirmative energies of a “bitch” persona. In her early work Emin appeared jittery and wild-eyed on an express train to self-destruction, however with her latest shows she has emerged as a more mature and confident artist. The undertone of bitterness and disillusionment seems gone. Her disappointments now have deepened her as a performer.

When Emin says defiantly, “Anyone who believes that what I do is on a whim is wrong: everything I do is conscious”, it is as much in reference to the way she presents herself as to the ingredients which she selects for her work. She often refers to herself by name, as if wanting to separate herself from the Tracey Emin that she has created – “People think they know me, but they don’t at all”

Asked if two versions of Tracey co-exist inside her, she replies, “There’s a whole fucking gang of people in there, I don’t know who I am”.

“You Forgot to Kiss my Soul” reveals that no amount of fame can alleviate the accumulated pain that continues to haunt her.

Tracey’s viciously manic downward spirals are fewer now that she has given up drinking heavily; especially spirits, but they still come. She has one the other night, triggered by a phone call. Someone rang her studio at 3 a.m., then hung up when she answered.

She dialled 1471, but the number was withheld. So she checked her mobile for missed calls, and then her mind started going.

“And I was really tired, just before that happened, but now I’m wide awake and on another journey. And from that paranoia, everything bad that’s happened in the past three years will come flooding back, one after another, and by the time it’s seven in the morning I haven’t slept, I feel sick, I feel anxious, and I’ve got a really important appointment at 11 that I’m going to mess up ‘cos I spent all night just going down, down, down. Someone makes a phone call, its probably just a wrong number, and the next minute, in your head you’ve got a lighted newspaper and you are putting it through someone’s letter box”.

Emin, above all, has re-invented feminist perspectives, she embraces the great female personae previously excluded: bitch, stripper, whore, and fashion model – flaunting an aggressive, sleazy eroticism. Her new feminist is a powerful, self-reliant personality with a sharp, unflinching voice.

“From earliest childhood, I saw sex suffusing the world. I felt the rhythms of nature and the aggressive energies of animal life. Art objects, in both museum and church, seemed to blaze with sensual beauty…..Pornography is a pagan arena of beauty, vitality, and brutality, of the archaic vigour of nature. It should break every rule, offend all morality. Pornography represents absolute freedom of imagination….” (Camille Paglia)

In the end Emin brings us to her own angle of vision. Yet, in a sense, the full secret of her consciousness can never be known; what we have seen in her work is merely just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Though the piece we see forms a cogent pattern, such mental states possess an ultimately mysterious quality that one cannot define. As Emin herself remains enigmatic, regardless of how much we understand about her, so are the objects that surround her, ultimately mute, isolated, rationally inexplicable. No matter how violently we try to take hold of it, the work can only be experienced: it cannot be known.







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