Don't let media circus obscure Tracey Emin's talent
Adam Fraser's festival blog
This article is from 2008.
In this writer’s opinion, the most impressive show of the Fringe so far was the one which kicked off with a circus show on Friday morning (1 August). A media circus, that is, as Tracey Emin appeared in Edinburgh for the press viewing of her debut UK retrospective ’20 Years’ at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Fielding questions from the nation’s art press for more than 20 minutes in front of a series of her large-scale text-tapestries, Emin looks healthy and tanned these days, and she speaks with strength and urgency about her art. ‘I didn’t get my O-levels,’ she said, ‘so the only education I got was at art college. Art’s all I’ve been taught, it’s all I know about.’ Those tapestries are some of her favourite works, by the way. All that tedious stitching and crocheting, and now here they are, hung up on a gallery wall together.
But all the photographers wanted to see was ‘My Bed’, Emin’s soiled old billet, strewn with condoms and cigarette packets. Along with the now-destroyed tent, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’, it’s a seminal work, and also part of that particularly British fascination with smut from which much of the public interest in Emin stems. The snappers also seem particularly taken with ‘It’s Not The Way I Want To Die’, a rollercoaster track made of rickety reclaimed timbers which seems to exemplify the artist’s crumbling view of her old home on the Margate seafront. It takes a good picture too, although no-one seems to be snapping one of the pretty neon signs which bears its own title; specifically, ‘My Cunt Is Wet With Fear’. No, that one isn’t a seller.
I lingered in front of the video installation ‘Why I Never Became a Dancer’ the longest, though. Emin’s work bares her soul and history, from the death of her uncle to a well-documented abortion, after which she didn’t create for six years. Yet this piece is a reflection on her memories of underage sex, of how the act became a release after she left school at the age of 13 and the memory turned into a millstone as she grew older. Emin, as an adult, dances away the shame of her memories, gleefully exorcising herself to the sound of Sylvester. I watched it over and over, mesmerised by the joy and sadness in this home-made little artefact.
Some commentators say that Emin’s work hangs on her presence to give them context, that their meaning will fade once she’s gone. Yet seen all at once, you realise these works are her presence, and that they speak of the struggles between nostalgia and loss, between doubt and self-belief, that we all share. They reveal her femininity – and, more precisely, her individuality – and the tale they tell collectively will long outlive their creator.
Adam Fraser is a freelance journalist