In The Frame: Tracey Emin

As one of the most controversial artists of modern times, Tracey Emin has generated serious column inches for her overtly personal work, including the installation My Bed (complete with condoms) and her series of autobiographical appliquéd blankets, littered with swear words. David Bowie called her “William Blake as a woman.” But is she standing up for women everywhere with our shared life experiences, or is she only interested in using herself as subject matter?

a bed in the middle of a room with stuff strewn around the edges

[Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998]

It’d be an understatement to say that Tracey Emin’s work is intensely personal. There is no life event too raw to be turned into art, whether that means making a video monologue about abortion or chronicling “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995” as names embroidered inside a tent (although that one wasn’t as scandalous as it sounds—she listed all the people she’d slept next to, rather than just adding up the notches on her bedpost). She’s found herself the focus of celebrity gossip sites, appeared to give a drunken speech at a serious televised art debate, and shown us her tampons in the name of creativity. In many ways the world of “Mad Tracey from Margate” (as she’s called herself) is like a reality show, only without the gloss of the Kardashians.

In 1992 she began self-styled “Entrepreneurial Projects” when she asked people to sponsor her £20 in return for regular letters and small drawings. This helped Emin to support herself as an artist and showed that she was willing to allow unprecedented access to her life if it meant achieving her dream. Yet she’s never sold out to become a pin-up for men; she’s never compromised her personality in order to fit in with the very masculine art world. She gives us naked self-portraits that look awkward and vulnerable, but she’s not going to be making it as a glamour model any time soon, because the most important thing in those images is the emotion. She’s used traditionally “female” crafts such as appliqué and embroidery, but acted like anything but a demure lady in getting her point across with carefully sewn letters.

small boxes against a wall with some framed documents

[Tracey Emin, ‘The History of Painting Part I’, 1999]

One of her strongest pieces is “The History of Painting Part I” (1999), which features several bloody tampons, a box of morning after pills, pregnancy tests, and a piece of writing on what it means to menstruate. She said it felt “perfectly natural” to create this piece, which deals with the way that we dread having periods throughout life until we reach menopause, at which point she feels like her womb will be a “dry redundant bag.” When I saw this in a London gallery, I felt proud that Tracey Emin was using art to address the fact that we’re all afraid of getting older and no longer being fertile.

Similarly, the video piece “Why I Never Became a Dancer” explores our perception of females, but this time through Emin’s experiences of being called a “slag” as a teenager. After being raped at 13 she was catapulted into a world of underage sex, meeting older men on the seedy Golden Mile of her hometown. Dancing was a form of escapism which she loved, but her entry to a dance competition was sabotaged by the people who had corrupted her. By ending the video with a sort of victory dance in an empty apartment, she shows how far she has come and how she has made something of her life since that dark time. Both of these artworks are bravely confronting taboo issues for women and tackling the macho culture we live in, where men can demand that we should be ageless and sexually available at all times if we want to keep them happy.

people's names on three walls and the floor--they appear to be out of cut paper

[Tracey Emin, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’, 1995]

So, what does Tracey directly say about feminism? Just a few days ago, the UK edition of Harper’s Bazaar magazine gave her the Visionary prize in their Women of the Year Awards, and she dedicated it to “every single woman in the world who has to live in a man’s world,” saying it is “really, really difficult’ to get ahead.” Typically confrontational, she added, “I would just love to shove this [award] up any man’s a*** tonight.” The journalist Melanie McGrath reported that male art critics tended to be harsher to Tracey Emin than female ones, and “was struck by how effortlessly and habitually they patronized her.” It really is time for change in society, and maybe if we all took more notice of vocal feminist artists such as Tracey then we could get there. As she herself said, “I’m not happy being a feminist. It should all be over by now.” Exactly, Tracey.

by Polly Allen
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Interesting artist

I was not very aware of her work, so this is a very interesting introduction! Thank you!

I must admit my soft spot for (especially female) artists who use feminine craft traditions to make "high" art, especially art with political content around gender! So I will have to add Emin to my list of artists to investigate further.

"we’re all afraid of getting older and no longer being fertile."

I agree that ageism and various other considerations (fear of change, ableism, sexism, concern about the direction the world is going) make it likely that many women fear getting older.

But we all fear no longer being fertile? Well, it's not that it isn't a (legitimate) crisis for some women, but whether or not it is a crisis can also depend on where one is slotted in the kyriarchy, as well as one's personal histories, feelings and ambitions (or non-ambitions) around reproduction and parenting...

I'm glad you identified with Tracey's art

Thanks for your comment, N. I agree with you that feminine craft is a really captivating way for art to be made, especially when it has a political/social commentary as well.

As for my fertility line, I can see what you mean - we don't all literally fear being fertile and it's not a problem for some women - but what I should have said is that the vast majority of us feel like that (mainly due to social conditioning). I think what Emin highlights is that you can remain childless by choice but still feel scared by the onset of the menopause and the realisation that you no longer have the theoretical ability to be a mother. We've been constantly facing media pressure to have a family since we were all kids ourselves, whether it's through TV adverts of perfect families, dolls, the modern culture of the 'yummy mummy' and the mom bloggers online, so it's frequently thrust at us as society's ideal, whether that's a one parent family in China or the nuclear family of 2.4 children. Hopefully fertility won't become such an issue as feminism gains more ground and women's views begin to get more accepted.

Thanks for reading the article and I'm so glad that it's made you respond to the issues I was trying to address :)

ok, i gotta beef. i am

ok, i gotta beef. i am sterile, and i love it. i am not afraid of getting older and becoming infertile, and i don't know why you would assert that everybody feels that way, except that i do think it's kindof essentialist (woman = fertile uterus).

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