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Tracey Emin
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Why Tracey Emin’s work is so intensely personal, in her own words

As her new show opens in London, read about the artist’s life through her most poetic quotes

There have been very few artists across history who have been able to emulate their internal reality as vividly as British artist Tracey Emin. Her no-bars hold on expression makes her work her confession box and art her higher power. Emin’s oeuvre is a direct outpouring of her soul as she uses art to meditate on the wholly consuming power of love, anguish, pain, loss, and the overall human experience. “I realised that I was much better than anything I had ever made…”, the artist once reflected. “I then realised I was the work, I was the essence of my work.”

In 1993, Emin held My Major Retrospective 1963-1993 at London’s White Cube. For the show, she inundated the vast space with her diaristic tendencies by showing over a hundred pieces of personal paraphernalia. From teen diaries to paintings, drawings, toys, photographs, and souvenirs, in My Major Retrospective, Emin laid herself bare to an art world still critical of her conceptualism even though it broke boundaries across art, gender, and class. Over 20 years later, Emin returns to the White Cube with the launch of A FORTNIGHT OF TEARS, a show that leaves behind her characteristic shock value to address broader philosophies of life. Running until 7 April, the show features new work in neon, sculpture, film, photography (featuring self-portraits during her insomnia), and drawing as she reflects on her experiences with love, pathos, anger and loss.

To celebrate the launch of the show, learn about the soul-shaking life of Emin through her most poetic reflections

“I spent all my life fighting against what I should have been.”

Escapism is one of Tracey Emin’s greatest art forms. Born in Margate on 3 July 1963 (making her a Cancer, the most emotional star sign), Emin always felt as if she didn’t belong in the small seaside town in an era where women often settled with children at the age of 17. Emin hated school and left at the age of 13 to hang around Margate cafes drinking coffee, attending lunchtime discos, drinking cider, and laying out on the beach. At 14, her life changed forever after she was raped. From here, she started to have sex often, something she believes deeply awakened her connection to her body. At 15, she stopped having sex. “But I was still flesh. I thought with my body,” she reflected in her 1995 short film Why I Never Became A Dancer.

Emin then translated this affination to her body into disco dancing, an art form translated across many of her short films and a sense of movement which casts the liveliness of her many figurative paintings and drawings. “I felt my soul was truly free, like I could defy gravity.” Emin was so good, she made it to the British Disco Dance Championships, feeling as if this would be her ticket out of Margate – and it was, but not as she expected it. While performing for her finals, a group of horrid men started to chant the word ‘slag’ at her. It cost her the championships, so she moved to London – a city where she defied all odds by attending college, graduating with a first class degree, and completing a masters to become one of the most successful artists in the world.

“Sex was a wild escape from all the shit that surrounded me.”

Sex is a theme that encompasses nearly all of Emin’s early work. When living in Margate, sex was a form of escapism, something she could do to evade her sombre reality. “It was something simple,” she recounts in Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995). “On the beach, down an alley, green, park, hotel.” One of Emin’s greatest works exploring sex as human experience is her 1995 ”Everyone I have ever slept with” installation that featured a tent whose interior was inscribed with the names of anyone who Emin had shared a bed with. The controversial piece was the one that launched Emin’s career. It featured names other than those she had sex with, including her mother and her twin brother Paul’s name, in an attempt to override sexual assumptions about her.

“I wrote out a list of names of everyone I had ever slept with – it was really difficult – almost like carving gravestones,” Emin once told Art Design Cafe while she reflected on making the piece. “I was having to go into the recesses of my mind, because the idea of forgetting someone would have failed the whole thing. In 1986, people couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing about Aids, HIV, and safe sex – and then nothing for years. A couple of my close friends died of Aids, and so I was quite aware of it. I was thinking that everyone has forgotten it and is shagging everyone. When people go inside the tent, they come out trying to remember everyone they ever slept with. And it worked – from reading the experiences in my life, they started to think about their own.” In addition to her installation, many of Emin’s oil paintings and drawings explore female sexuality as they depict women masturbating or having sex.

“Abortion feels like life without life and death without death.”

In 1990, Tracey Emin had her first abortion even though a doctor (at a church) had told her that there was a 99.9 per cent chance she could never have kids. Upon having a test, the doctor took three weeks to return her results and proceeded to tell her it was too late to have an abortion as he showed her a photo of his child and remarked what a wonderful mother she would make. “He should have signed those papers when I asked,” Emin reflected in her 1996 film How It Feels, which she made in protest to her unfair treatment. “That’s unforgivable. It made a lot of difference that he was a man. He (was) very well off, happily married, recently had a child. I don’t think he could ever understand what it would be like to live a life of poverty, a destiny you never chose, and everything you always fought against your entire life.” She harrowingly added that, “When you’re pregnant you don’t make your mind up that you want to have an abortion. You make your mind up that you can’t have a child, which is a very different thing.”

Four years later in 1994, Emin had her second abortion. Both experiences have had a profound impact on her work and are seen as catalysts for the ways in which Emin so powerfully collapses the barriers between art and the self. Her two aborted fetuses featured as names in her “Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With Before”, and form the basis of many of her drawings. “Terribly Wrong”, a monoprint drawn by Emin in 1997, is based on her second abortion which has been described by Emin as a week from hell.

We had a dangerous relationship - there was electricity.”

In 1979, Emin left Margate for London. She lived in a cupboard in Clapham Junction and worked on Oxford street at a boutique that would throw coat hangers at her and spy on her when she went to the toilet. By 1980, she started to hang around the then-trendy Kensington market. “Black spikey hair, balloon trousers, pixie boots with no future”, is how she describes herself that year in her 1995 film CV. In 1981, she enrolled and dropped out of uni, by 82 she had met punk artist Billy Childish who she dated on and off for five years. “It was a cruel relationship. A resurrection of the soul,” she claims. That same year, she tried to commit suicide by jumping off Margate bridge. After her survival, she returned to London and applied for Maidstone College of Art where she studied for three years, fell in love with the works of painter Edvard Munch, and graduated with first class honours. Between 1987-1989, she completed her masters at the RCA.

In 1992, Emin met fellow artist Sarah Lucas, a relationship that would change her life and one she describes as dangerously electric. The duo met at Lucas’ first art show Penis Nailed to a Board, a name Emin was enthralled by and therefore attended. In 1993, Emin claims she committed emotional suicide: a killing without dying, where one destroys every relationship and friendship one by one until they are alone. She destroyed all of her art and left her studio. It was that same year she and Lucas launched their artwork The Shop in a storefront in East London’s Bethnal Green. Testing the boundaries of art as commodity, The Shop sold work made by the duo ranging from handmade t-shirts with slogans such as "Have you wanked over me yet?" and “Complete arsehole”, to ashtrays, paper mache sex toys, and dresses. The store was open full time and functioned as an afters venue for post-pub parties on Saturdays. It was open for six months. The duo’s connection was so strong, Lucas eventually had to take time apart from Emin, claiming her love for her was too possessive.

“The words went round and round in my mind and my body, until I knew they were no longer my words but something that had been carved into my heart. And now my soul was crying.”

Nearly all of the experiences Emin draws on for her art are based on her body, like her relationship with sex and the harrowing impact of her abortions. And seeing as Emin is her art, the body is one of her strongest forms of expression. This is vivid in how the body transcends her entire body oeuvre, even when she made modernised her work. In the quote above, we can see just how she thinks not just through her mind, but through her body, and how her form is intertwined with her soul. “I feel physically ill if I don't make work, I don't create,” Emin once reflected. “I don't feel very good. I don't feel right, I feel wrong.”

The way Emin explores her reality through the figure emulates the work of figurative masters, particularly Egon Schiele who is Emin’s biggest inspiration (for emotion, she draws on Edvard Munch). After first seeing one of Schiele’s paintings, Emin explained to The Guardian: “I related to it, because it was about showing emotion. You could see the anguish he was going through: ‘I am in pain. I am drawing this, but I am drawing this in a different way, because I see it differently from other people. I see it through the eyes of pain.”

The naked human form appears in everything from her naked body in self-portraits like “The Last Thing I Said to You Was Don’t Leave Me Here” (2000), to how its absence takes sculptural form in “My Bed”, and her most recent paintings. In A FORTNIGHT OF TEARS, she uses the body to explore sexuality and womanhood such as in her 2018 painting “It was all too Much”, which features a figurative painting of a female body rendered in scratchy pink and white tones, and splashes of red targeted in areas of deep pain or emotion, like the vagina.

“What's really good about the word 'art' is that 'art' is a word like 'love,' or 'god,' or whatever. It transcends so many things… ”

While it was once deemed controversial by a deeply conservative art world, Emin’s conceptualism is one of the key markers of her work. Her innovation in probing the question ‘what is art’ has made her one of the world’s most successful artists. This was also certainly a marker of identity for the Young British Artists (YBAs), a movement of artists that Emin joined after her masters that included fellow artists Sarah Lucas, Jenny Saville, Damien Hirst, and Chris Ofili.

To shock, push the boundaries of decency, and blur the lines between mediums were the three key ideas of the YBAs and the values that made one of Emin’s most infamous pieces “My Bed” (1998) the controversy that it was. After a mental breakdown in 1998, Emin spent four days straight nearly unconscious, drowned out by vodka and cigarettes. Around her bed laid empty bottles, cigarette packets, condoms, blood-stained period pants, contraceptive pill packets, and tiny waist belts that reflected the dire state of Emin’s health. When she left the bed to go to the toilet, she noticed that the bed itself was a work of art – it laid bare one of the darkest moments of her life, so she turned it into an installation. “My Bed” was nominated for the 1999 Turner Prize and its nomination received extreme backlash from an art world not yet ready for Emin’s conceptualism or a woman so open with her sexual experiences and mental health.

Some critics vowed they would not waste their breath on ‘that woman’, while the Guardian's art critic, Adrian Searle remarked hat Emin’s “tortured nonsense... and endlessly solipsistic, self-regarding homage” to herself cannot go on. But Emin remained true to her punkish qualities. “I don’t set out to be controversial, I do what I want to do,” Emin once stated in a TV interview with Melvyn Bragg.

Sometimes I find paintings that I did when I was younger, quite sexual, and I find them a bit embarrassing”

In 2011, Tracey Emin introduced the world to a new shift in her work through the Hayward Gallery’s Love Is What You Want exhibition. While blended with old works, the show presented new sculptures that indicated a shift from sex to love, indicating her entrance into a mature period of her work. “I’ve changed, my body’s changed, my mind’s changed, but… it’s like wax – the candle is still there, the wax just changes its form,” Emin explains to Channel 4. “I’m still here except I’ve changed, I’ve morphed into something different but the essence of me still retains the same thing… I’m not a girl anymore, I’m a woman.”

While it steers away from the subversive topics of her earlier work, Emin to this day still powerfully addresses the most emotive qualities of life. Take her neon signs as a key example, which she started working within the early 2000s. They feature deeply emotional quotes that grapple with the fragility of love and life rendered in her distinct handwriting, like her most well-known sign on the wall of London’s St Pancras station that reads: I want my time with you. Emin started working with neon because of the materials ability to ignite emotion. "Neon is emotional for everybody," Emin once explained, "the neon and argon gases make us feel positive, that's why you have neon at funfairs, casinos, red-light districts, and bars. It’s also to do with the way it electronically pulsates around the glass, it's a feel-good factor. Neon can help people who suffer from depression."

When looking back on what she believes made her work more and more successful over the years, Emin figures it’s all about art world trends and how its perception of her as an artist changed with the times. “The reason why I’m popular as an artist in this country is that it suits the psyche of the nation at this time,” she tells Art Design Cafe. “Ten years ago, my work wouldn’t have had any currency, any popularity at all. Before in this country, you had to be accepted. You had to be part of the group. Now it’s probably more trendy to have a problem.”

A FORTNIGHT OF TEARS is open at the White Cube until 7 April 2019. You can find out more info here