Tuesday, August 23, 2011


"How it Feels", 1996 -
Still from an interview with Tracey Enim about her unsuccesful abortion
If you're a student and looking for an article on Tracey Emin, please note that the article that follows is copyrighted and may not be used in any way without my consent or proper reference to me as the author.

Tracey Emin (born 1963) is one of the world's most famous female artists. She has also succeeded in creating a fortune making self-exposing art. In the following I will be talking about her work and how it affects me as an a woman and an artist as she has helped me think about what I do. We saw her on internet television several times in recent months, probably because the Hayward Gallery in London was showing a retrospective exhibition of her work. We both had a strange feeling that we would have something to do with her in the near future. That was before we knew about the competition and that Martin would go for it. Now we are waiting with bated breaths for the results!

The day after the interview was spent on the well-curated exhibition "Love is What You Want," which includes over 20 years of Tracey Emin's artistic production. The title obviously points to the very thing we all want most of all, the one thing that means something. It was a great opportunity to see why she has become famous and what she is all about. A lot of people have prejudices about her talent and are unable to understand why she has become famous. I was however very curious about her and grateful of this opportunity.

"Since the early 1990s, Emin (b.1963) has used her own life as the starting point for her art, exposing the most harrowing and intimate details of her personal history. Sometimes confrontational or sexually provocative, her work resonates with the 'personal political' legacy of feminist art while at the same time speaking to relationships in general. Disarmingly frank and yet often profoundly private, much of Emin's art - as this show makes clear - is also animated by her playful and ironic wit." (From the description at The Hayward Gallery website)

The works quite often tend to work better as part of a whole than on their own. The works that were exhibited at The Royal Academy's summer exhibition were not particularly engaging when they were detached from a larger context. Tracey's life is her art and probably vice versa. Her extreme self-disclosure has made her a modern icon - I would say that this kind of confessional art is a sign of the times. Unfortunately, but also typically, there are many who know of her distinctive appearances and the media profile of a superstar without knowing much about her art.

Listen to this radio show about Tracey Emin's work.
The interesting thing about her work is that she provides you with all this 
intimate detail, and it makes you feel that you know her really well.
Yet it's an illusion, because the more you know the more you see the gaps. 
This poses interesting questions about the balance between
the private and the public self and how authentic we can ever be in our self-disclosure.
Some things simply must remain hidden.
Because of all this, I feel compelled to talk about her using her first name,
which you wouldn't normally do when you write an article.

Tracey's art originates in various traumatic events in her life. This applies particularly to a rape when she was 13 and a difficult abortion later in life. She has lived a fairly chaotic life characterized by both roughness and vulnerability, and this is what characterizes her work. Allegedly, one day in 1998 she woke up and pondered the physical chaos that surrounded her after weeks of alcoholic living. She realized that she needed to shape up, but also that her bed and all that surrounded it (including condoms and bloody tampons) was more art than anything she had ever created by hand. "My Bed" thus became the work of art that made her famous. This was a seminal piece of art (the other one was the tent "Everyone I ever slept with", an earlier piece that burnt down), and it helped change the way people see art.

"My Bed" 1998  (installation)
Abortion is something she long processed of her art in the form of handwritten diary text, memorabilia and interviews. By sharing the most intimate details of her own life, she has fashioned an art that is both quite femininist, self-enhanced and cheeky, yet also self-doubting, vulnerable and sincere, and often a quest for a female identity. By feminist I mean the desire to assert the right of women to be who they are and standing for non-patriarchal values, as well as having a fanny! Obviously we cannot be sure exactly how honest she really is. Eg spelling errors may not always be completely genuine but could well be deliberate efforts to reproduce earlier and more spontaneous problems with spelling. On the other hand, they give rise to new associations (masturbates becomes masterbate, pity it was not master-bait!). However without them, the art would not seem quite so rough and basic. As she originally wrote down the messages in this form, the charm presumably lies in not correcting this expression, even when the text is labouriously applied to a blanket.

Tracey Emin: 'I Know I Know I Know "(neon)
 - a more sophisticated version of her
text-based art in which the middle sentence is crossed out as sentences in a diary or a letter.
The neon lights are reminiscent of a form of self-disclosure that is typical of our time and all reality shows:
Often, people's innermost feelings are out in the open,
and the basis for sensationalism, the worship of individuals, self-assertion, PR of the individual, and
 but how genuine and honest is this whole charade? 

On the other hand, it depends a lot on where the word originally came from.
As you follow her artistic process all the way up into middle-age there is no doubt that she attempts to be authentic, and that she is also a truly humane person. She is just as solipsistic and self-absorbed, and occasionally but not often somewhat self-pitying, as people in general are. This is not something you can express artistically without a high degree of directness and self-disclosure. She is tough but not hard-boiled - she is intelligent enough to express who she is with humour, some irony and distance, but sufficiently vulnerable not to seem calculated. You get the feeling that she is strong enough to not go under (she is definitely the surviving type) but possibly a little too weak to stop dwelling on traumas from the past. What a womanly thing this is though, dwelling and processing! I'm glad she supports this innate trait which men often scorn at. Though in all honesty I get the impression that this stage as she is approaching 50 is now over, and many of the newer works of art feel a bit empty in comparison with the bleeding wounds she screams out in her previous art. But she\s someone you cannot easily pinpoint and  despite my curiosity, I feel a bit uncomfortable even trying to!

Tracey Emin: "It Always Hurts", 2005 (patchwork)
There is something quite pristine, even virginal about this piece.
This is probably due to the white and off white tones,
which create a rather strange impression in opposition with the
explicit sexual nature of the embroidery.
It's as if saying, it's still okay, all this sexual violence is just part of life,
and you sense that it hasn't turned Tracey into a bitter man hating person.
Maybe it's even saying, all this is not so important any more.
Tracey Emin's art makes a big impression on me because there are similarities between us in the obsessive documenting of feelings and experiences in diary form, and the desire to disclose ourselves completely in order to create an honest and many faceted communication with other people. Her quilts (note that she is in a paradoxical way dealing with a traditional feminine craft, perhaps as part of an effort to strengthen her female identity - this seems to contribute to a tension between opposing drives in her life) is a kind of collage. What is different from my art and writing is that she is so raw and in the absence of a sophisticated expression. Or wait... she is unpretentious, but is she actually lacking in sophistication..? She is much tougher than I could ever be. Despite the fact that we both like to talk about trauma, there is a big difference in the way we talk about them. I can not ignore my own inner yearning for order, harmony and a sophisticated lifestyle and a certain conditioning to conforming to many of the middle class values that pervade society. Don't get me wrong, I loathe mediocrity, but I also cannot help coming from a country with much less conflict between social classes, and I feel no need to disregard the cultural background I grew up with and have no reason to reject what was in fact quite good in a cultural sense - rebellion and conflict is a source of a lot of contemporary British art. Tracey on the other hand appears to use her (presumably) simple background and chaotic lifestyle to communicate a modern and urban woman's troubled life experience. Yet there is a femininity about her that is quite compelling, In spite of different backgrounds, our aim is not dissimilar. In the end we take what is good and useful and reject the rest, I guess.
Tracey Emin: "Mad Tracey From Margate - Everyone's Been There",  1997 (patchwork)
A stream of consciousness, like a diary -

Tracey Emin has mastered the art of integrating words into her art,
and she plays with words and narratives, often with a great sense of wit
in the true British tradition of witticism, irony and humour!
It is interesting that many of her quilts are really very beautiful and in using neon lights in fact utilizing a modern and rather sophisticated medium. I would therefore say that as a woman she is still drawn towards a certain sophistication or aesthetic orderliness. It is as if she hovered on the borders of the overly arranged and corrected without  quite exceeding them. It raises questions about where the line of the brutal and crude really is and how you define beauty and the "civilized and orderly." In art, one can talk about being a dry academic or more original, spontaneous and unaffected by trends. To lean towards the less academic way in spite of an arts education and the life in a big city is unusual and probably Tracey's trump-card. By and large, Tracey Emin's art is very subjective, to the point, and in the absence of any very obviuos spiritual, social or political overtones. Although she is intelligent and wonderfully sardonic I do not know if deeper thinking about the meaning of life and the experiences of life from a broader perspective is somewhere in the background. Yet the more I know her and her art, the more I suspect that there is thought there that is not quite so obvious or in your face (she did in fact study philosophy for a while and is obviously an intelligent and researching person). And of course, it's easy to miss the obvious which is that her work is very much of our times, and is therefore a very powerful commentary on many contemporary issues, not least how women fit into modern society What I find so stimulating is that you discover more layers the more you contemplate all of this. And this is also not an elitist form of art, because Tracye's art is her and her life, and it is very straightforward.
Tracey Emin: Harder and Better, 2007 (patchwork)
The text is reminiscent of her handwritten letters,
unfortunately pictures of them are not available
but they do form an important part of her work
 and there was plenty to read, often very witty.

You might ask yourself, whether she herself considers
 her drawings as valid as the embroidery, given that it takes 
more time to construct the latter.
It feels like I might have something to learn from Tracey's immediacy -  or perhaps she can give me more strength to expose my sore points. I have to think about it some more, perhaps it becomes clearer with time. I believe it is a sign of development and maturity that you become more reclusive over the years. I always wanted to show everything, in order to support a collective process towards more openness between people. However, there is a lot of material I have not yet published. To share in an honest way is a way of supporting humanism. At the time being, there is a seemingly unsolvable inner conflict between my desire to be open and share, and a painful fear of showing my vulnerability. Perhaps it is really about finding new ways of expressing what I want to bring out into the world. Tracey Emin really entered my sphere of interests at exactly the right time, as I have recently been pondering my artistic message and how it could be made more poignant and come across as unpretentious. Self´-disclosure must be unconditional to be true. Tracey has reinforced that in me.
Tracey Emin: "I do Not Expect", 2002 (patchwork)
I could have said these exact words (the first ones) myself.
Finally, I must say that perhaps it is typical that Tracey did not want to be a mother but has a fondness for cats. In this regard, there is also another similarity between us. Her strength lies in finding other outlets for creativity than the typical conception of children and in finding a different, fertile way of existing as a woman in society. Yet I wonder how far she can get without being nourished by deep emotional wounds. It looks like a typical example of how one must suffer for one's art. Of course I don't mean that art must be this way, but I often doubt the value of art that is not born out of struggle to survive physically and mentally.
Tracey Emin: "Something's Wrong", 2002 (patchwork)
Ironically, it's Tracey's vagina (being at the centre of her art) that has brought her riches,
despite never having brought forth life - a source of inner conflict, according to herself.

She is interested in what it means to give life,
and how most of us need something small and cute to take care of,
for various reasons.

The type of art Tracey represents feels pressing and refreshing, and it concerns me. I think she is a brave and tough personality who has steadfastly held onto her artistic ambitions. There is something for everyone yet her life's work forms a coherent whole. Above all, apart from changing the way we understand art, she has helped abolish taboos and promote greater openness - when you see her art, you can only laugh at that it still considered bad taste to display naked breasts in art here in Wales. Not forgetting that she is an inspiration because she has managed to support herself through the making of unconventional art - and though she was entrepreneurial, I don't feel that she has done all this in order to become rich. I feel like an eager art history student all over again, but with the maturity of middle-age to support my explorations. Tracey Emin has without any doubt deserved her place in art history.

The above are my own thoughts. Because of financial worries I did not think to buy the exhibition catalog, but we ordered it, and I will surely have more to say when I have ploughed through it. Read more about what critics think about the exhibition here and here . I wrote earlier about Tracey in my posts about Frida Kahlo. Read her thoughts on the similarities between her and Frida here. It is not surprising that there are similarities between all of us.

Tracey Emin: "Cat Watching", 2006 - cat watches while Tracey is masturbating. 
The exhibition audience was encouraged to write comments on the works of art. 
I wrote "The Cat Knows".

It is always very amusing when the cats watch you go about your human pursuits...
Watch this video on what Tracey thinks about the meaning of art today and her encouraging words for the contestants of the Great Britons competition:

Listen to Tracey explaining the meaning of art and encouraging the participants of the Great Britons contest.
Note that she is speaking of art as a replacement of traditional religion
and museums and galleries as places of contemplation on the meaning of existence.
I find this very interesting as it is something I have recently been pondering myself.
I will come back to this later.

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Purification", 1997
Words are important to me, but I am aware of the fallacy of using them in a deliberate way as part of the artwork. Tracey can pull it off - not many can. I mainly stick to subtle hints and to underlying the importance of the names I give my work (as they complement the piece, and I would never call a piece "nameless"). They are often inspired, or at least they used to be (the above are not the most typical examples though), and even back in Finland they used to come to me in English. Martin wants to use text in his own art, something which echoes a certain modern attitude towards language.

Read more about Tracey in the following posts:
"I wouldn't get on an airplane that already looks like a plane crash" (Great Britons mentored by TE).
"An Artist's Gotta Do What an Artist's Gotta Do"
"Hommage a Frida and Diego"

All text is copyrighted material and may not be used without the author´s consent! Vivi-Mari Carpelan copyright 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment