Golden years - Tracey Emin
This article is from 2008.
As the leading female light of Britart, Tracey Emin has been revered and rejected in equal measure. Writer and broadcaster Bidisha has a few words of scorn for the detractors and reflects on the already profound legacy she will leave behind
It’s been a swift and jagged rise for artist Tracey Emin. Margate’s lost babe-in-the-woods became a wild child, then a bad girl, then a woman on the edge and finally an international lady of renown, celebrating her establishment coronation with a show at the Venice Biennale last year. Along the way, she has created some of the most arresting and diverse work of the last 30 years. If her big-scale career retrospective at the National Galleries is anything to go by, the defiant honesty of Emin’s art and the worldly rewards of wealth, fame and critical acclaim rub along surprisingly well together.
Emin’s cultural position has always been full of contradictions. The outrage she attracts contains far more vulgarity - and far less integrity - than the work itself. Here’s a sample quote from a literary friend whose opinion I jogged: ‘That dreadful woman. I’m not interested in other people’s condoms.’ But the condoms and empty booze bottles from Emin’s famous ‘My Bed’ installation of 1998 are heavily outnumbered by her embroidered quilts, feverish-looking sketches, cutely candid neons and serious, haunted-seeming installations.
All these works display Emin’s sensitivity and intelligence. Even while they speak of wretched loneliness, self-doubt and pain, they are rendered with a lightness of touch, thoughtfulness of composition and delicacy of colour that makes them seem, for all their depth, like fragile and momentary beings. ‘My Bed’ is a case in point: critics were so desperate to rip down the Bridget Jones-style slattern behind it that they overlooked the intricacy of its design. Its faded colours, air of absence, comically sad-looking noose and carefully organised coils of junk make it resemble a faded frieze from the side of some forgotten mausoleum, a tribute to a gloomy king.
Emin’s work avoids base abjection because it has intellectual self-awareness. One of the photographic pieces in the exhibition, ‘I’ve Got it All’, shows her sitting legs apart, clutching piles of coins and bank notes to herself. It’s a clever spoof of the Tracey-feels-pain image, a winking acknowledgement that the boyfriend and home troubles of her early life have turned into the awkward question of what to do with all that annoying cash. The surface of the photograph is glossy, the legs lithe and bronzed. The visual language is that of a luxury holiday advert, except that the subtext - wealth - is made explicit. The riches that so many people dream of look rather pathetic when shown in their literal, non-mythic form.
There’s a good reason for the self-awareness in Emin’s work. Like her artistic contemporaries, she knows exactly what’s she’s doing. This is apparent in her interviews, when her articulate analyses of her own and others’ work reveal her acute understanding of her position within Western art history. She’s no ingénue, gamine or idiot savant, even though she’s been misrepresented (by fans and detractors alike) as a confessional heathen who happened to chance upon an embroidery needle and sew her dirty laundry to some gallery walls. This is far from the truth. Emin is rightly associated with the ‘Young British Artist’ generation of privileged creators who showed at the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition, kicking off a financial free-for-all in the late 90s art scene. Many important artists rode the wave, from Sam Taylor-Wood (who was herself graced with a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery) to Damien Hirst, Jenny Saville, Richard Billingham, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing and Rachel Whiteread. Because these artists were young and confident, they were seen as rebels, outsiders crashing the scene. In reality, they were the establishment, canny and ambitious, fully integrated into the trading network of galleries, shows and media coverage.
Accordingly, Emin’s work represents the culmination of various longstanding traditions. First, there is the emphasis on craft and the subversive reclamation of women’s expertise. Emin’s quilts aren’t produced with cute designs perfect for a virgin’s trousseau. Traditional quilts conceal and comfort; Emin’s colourful quilts reveal and confront. ‘Hotel International’ from 1993 resembles a cross between a commanding ‘Your Country Needs You’ war poster and a collection of travel stickers pasted onto an old suitcase. Emin traces her family’s history from her parents’ marriage to her own birth, from the romanticism of ‘Holy Trinity’ and ‘Istanbul’ to the kitsch lettering that commemorates the KFC in Margate. A later quilt, from 2002, sees the artist considering whether that family tree will end with her and how. ‘I do not expect to be a mother,’ read the stark words, ‘but I do expect to die alone. It doesn’t have to be like this.’
It doesn’t have to be like this, she says, but it is. The emotional realism within Emin’s work is directly linked to a second influence which has its roots in the feminist history of women testifying to their own experience, often against denial and disdain. There’s no sugared message of fabulous perfection, merely an intelligent, sometimes anguished directness. ‘Feeling Pregnant’ is an installation from 2000, in which an open cabinet of fresh baby clothes is made of untouched, untreated wood. Its design resembles a cross between a newly-made coffin, the bottom of a cot and a jumble sale display. It represents potential motherhood as full of tenderness, hope, dread and loneliness, all mixed up together. There is a concentration of complicated feeling which forces you to take the work seriously. A powerful installation called ‘Self Portrait’ is not, as you’d expect, a picture by Tracey of Tracey, but a rusted tin trough filled with sharp sticks and coils of razor wire. The whole thing is encrusted with grime. There’s no sickly feminine gloss: this is a shocking portrait of the artist as self-hater, artist as self-identified scum.
One of the charges levelled at Emin is that her work is all about herself, as the previous examples show. So what? That self happens to be intelligent, complicated and interesting. There is something obvious and oft-repeated to say about the misogyny which fuels the accusation. Antony Gormley can make endless casts of his own body and claim that they are Everyperson, even though the largest group of humans in the world is female and non-Aryan and does not resemble his tall, flat, long form. Yet Gormley’s assertion is not questioned. Ultimately, so much of the denigration of Tracey Emin amounts to what people have been saying to women for centuries: shut up, little woman, and get back inside the house.
I feel sorry for the haters, because they are immune to the great joy to be found in Emin’s work. This third influence touches upon a very English delight in landscape, in colour and natural beauty. In ‘The Perfect Place to Grow’, Emin constructs a cosy wooden hut high up on stilts, accessed by a little ladder, at the base of which are plants in pots. The plants are bursting with red flowers in full bloom, the hut is of a warm brown colour and the whole thing puts you in mind of summers spent trading true ghost stories in a treetop getaway. ‘A Working Landscape (In My Dreams)’ is a pale sketch of a woman lying naked amongst reeds and rushes while flowers crack open above her head. Their hue is so potent and concentrated that it sucks the pigment from the rest of the image.
Thus Emin’s work, although it is unified by its relation to her autobiography, demonstrates great versatility. The mastery which enables her to work with so many media is concealed modestly by a cheekiness that sits well with the fourth influence I’d like to identify: the postmodern satirising of industrial-capitalist signifiers. Neon signs are normally used for touting tyres or kebabs or strip shows, flashing impersonally on a busy street. In Emin’s hands they become a private extension of her scribbled love notes and half-remembered messages. Signs are meant to shout but Emin’s neon works whisper and trail off into laughter. A piece called ‘You Forgot to Kiss My Soul’ says exactly that in baby blue and powder pink, a scrawl inside a heart. ‘Tracey Emin Upgrade’ tackles that symbol of ultimate privilege: Concorde. Except here, that mighty metal seagull of the skies has become a wee papier-mâché model made from the peach pink pages of the Financial Times.
Yet despite the perks of success, it seems that Emin cannot resist looking back with horror. An installation of 2005, ‘It’s Not the Way I Want to Die’, depicts a scaled-down rollercoaster from a fairground in Margate. Its loop of warped wooden planks, stripped of paint by the salty air, resembles a rickety railroad, a boardwalk that goes nowhere. It’s a frail, sad piece; the spectator is gripped by nostalgic pain, claustrophobia and the fear that it will collapse there and then. I suspect that many critics of Tracey Emin’s work unjustly project the same analysis onto her: they think she’s a tired freakshow whose work goes round in circles. They underestimate her. This retrospective proves that Tracey Emin is the real deal, an artist of posterity, legacy and influence. And it’s only just beginning.
Tracey Emin: 20 Years, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road, 0131 624 6200, 2 Aug—9 Nov, £6 (£4).