Rizzoli has published a comprehensive monography on Tracey Emin, from her beginnings up to now. Faced with it at my usual book mega store, I went through its full content in little over fifteen minutes, text not included obviously. Few words I could catch on the fly as I flipped through the interviews. Those that caught my eye were mostly four letter words, or longer but to the same effect. Her work consists of drawings and letters, embroidery with text, text in neon lights, installations in wood and metal, films that can’t be effectively displayed in print, photographs. She has enjoyed so much success and media exposure as to be iconic in her own right: her face is so well known that we feel the pang of recognition when looking at it. And then she has chosen her life, and her body, as a theme for her art. Everything is very personal and shared with the wide world, many of her sketches show her with legs spread open as the subject. She has done this so often that it has to be seen as a theme for her. Also in one notorious photograph, she seems to be stuffing her genitalia with money. Possibly the female sex is seen as a gate that connects inner and outer world, or a centre around which everything revolves, at least in her life. It’s not so much the uterine but the vaginal side of things that seems to weigh heavy on her destiny and her artwork.
Her wooden installations look like soviet constructivism, although Tatlin’s carpentry might have been more solidly built and had a totally different agenda: he was bent on creating a workers paradise whereas Tracey seems to describe darkly a modern woman’s existential quagmire. Her neon light texts are a familiar medium to the aficionados of modern art from the early sixties onwards, leaving us to deciphering the letters in gently flowing cursive but at times hard to read handwriting and their meaning beyond their shallow appearance. I remember one by another artist which read: “this is art”. Somehow that’s what they all seem to be: they are self proclaiming, therefore possibly revealing of an underlying doubt as to their identity by the author?
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, maybe, then what?
She embroiders about sex, about her abortion(s), puts the names of her sexual partners on the inside of a tent, and puts her bed on the floor of a museum. This being so intimate that she claims personal abuse when two Japanese visitors decide to turn the installation into a performance of their own by jumping on it in their underwear. Normally a degree of interaction with a piece of art should be welcomed (when not vandalic), especially an informal one as this, but Emin reacts on the media as if the folds of her bed sheets, disturbed by the desecrators, were made of marble and had been shattered by barbaric hammer blows and destroyed forever. Even more, she feels as if she has personally been raped, in a way.
If we assume that she is sincere in this claim, then her identification with her work, her being one with her art and that being so intimate, and all being on display really is a rare phenomenon of personal exhibition(ism) . Still I wonder: should we care?
I like Emin when she shifts her gaze away from her thighs and on to the wider world around, and draws in her thin nervous lines an essential landscape of Margate. This work is personal, universal and moving, showing talent and promise.