Art of confession

'I know, I know, I know', by Tracey Emin

‘I know, I know, I know’ by Tracey Emin, 2007
Neon installation in ‘Borrowed Light’, Venice Biennale of Art
The British Pavillion, Giardini Venue

One of the leading members of the famed YBA and a leader in a movement all her own, Tracey Emin has long instilled in me a sense of intrigue. Not quite well-versed in her working titles and yet familiar enough to have exposure that compells me to pause next to Strangeland every time I walk around a bookshop, she continues to impress in the midst of the bits of trivia, controversy and few visits to White Cube and the Saatchi Gallery that I have managed to tally in recent years. Now whether it is the fact that she lives a five-minute walk away from my home or her particular use of a type of written prose with which I greatly empathize that lends her work a strange sense of familiarity, she makes me contemplate what it means to be an artist, to live as an artist, and to be immersed in a world in which art immitates life and vice-versa.

Today at 44 years of age and a Royal Academician over at the Royal Academy of Arts, Emin’s history is not without its twists and turns. Growing up the daughter of a Turkish Cypriot father in the town of Margate, faced with financial hardship after a family business downturn and later studying fashion at Medway College of Design, she has survived difficult relationships come and gone, rape and abortion, the slow and testing struggle of becoming a successful artist, and every moment of it has proven to be an integral detail in each piece that she has so far produced. That includes the paintings she herself destroyed and the works lost in the widely publicized Momart fire. Her mediums of preference range from harshly-lined pen etchings on hotel stationary, rough monoprints and sculptures, nude drawings, photographed paintings, patchwork collages, installations displaying found and sometimes rather vulgar objects, along with a host of neon-light poetry, self-photographs, exploratory films and works of literature. The themes of choice are also unmistakably Emin to the core: love, sex, past hardships, the rise to success, identifying and re-identifying with herself and her surrounding environment as her life continues to twist and turn. And unsurprisingly enough, her social circle includes those also quite notable individuals who have equally fascinating and unique histories, all with which comes that almost inevitable connection to the art world.

As a regular reader of The Independent, her featured column has always been a welcoming space of frank monologue, personal and revealing. And it’s the most recent (and perhaps final) one that most caught my attention, and I include it below for the reason that I believe that such a personality deserves to have her words–her experience of life, her expression through art–spread to an audience beyond that of a newspaper. Not only does it lead me to think that perhaps we have something in common in the sort of osmosis of the experience of life that has driven us to utilize the visual arts as a form of outlet to make sense of everything in this simple yet complex world, but also knowing about who she is adds an additional layer of depth to pieces wrapped around bold statements, patches of colours, installations mimicking life, revealing photographs that suggest much more than what may be on the surface, and things so ordinary that they receive such an extraordinary reception from critics and novices alike.

Amongst the many comments of praise and criticism, a few have taken on the stance that her work is ‘tedious and self-indulgent’; and yet surely if art is to reflect who we are, there is not much wrong with that when we are all a little tedious and self-indulgent? Several pieces of hers that immediately come to mind that have drawn much furore regarding their merit of ‘artworthiness’ carry spur-of-the-moment scrawls of pen unashamedly writing out words such as ‘DON’T DEARE LIE TO ME’, ‘SELF PRESOVASION’, and ‘JUST REMEMBER HOW IT WAS’. All very much as though scribble on a lunch napkin: casual, hurried, a combination of rude and crude summoning memories of Duchamp’s signed urinal (1917). And yet, it is all so incredibly honest and natural, in the element and accessible to an open-mind that does not view the consumption of art as something that has to be so intricate and far-removed from what is ordinary and familiar.

The aforementioned point highlights something that I have long found funnily interesting and increasingly so, which is the presupposed exclusivity in the art world, both on a creative and receptive level. Without it, high fashion would not be luxe, paintings would not be expensive and the well-to-do would not flex their knowledge of the arts over bottles of Saint-Émilion in restaurants requiring booking a year in advance. And yet, an artist like Emin produces work that perhaps the man on the Clapham omnibus (equivalent of ‘average’ in English legal jargon) would be able to make had he had access to the paint, canvas, glass and neon gas. And her work is a rare find nowadays in the midst of the ongoing to-and-fro debate between art schools of conceptualism, figuritive expression, conservatism, stuckism, and other -isms that linger in the background waiting for some part of the heated [commercial] spotlight.

As Emin once said herself, ‘Being an artist isn’t just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back; it’s some kind of communication, a message.’

Sarah Badr © MMVII

Tracey Emin: My Life In A Column
The Independent
November 23, 2007

I have just left my third session of hypnotherapy. Today was good, almost enchanting. I phased out the vision of a beautiful glade, the deepest valley and lush green grass. My eye view was at ground level, looking through the long blades of green on to dandelions blowing in the warm breeze. Beautiful sweet-looking trees perched either side of the tumbling glade. And the sun, the rays of the sun, so light, dancing over every kind of green that ever existed within nature. A living heaven, peace, calm and tranquillity. Everything real, so beautiful and so close, touchable. A constant stream of my mind’s eye.

It’s all a lot different from yesterday, when I left in floods of tears after cradling a tiny dead baby. Its big, big eyes and strange-shaped head; skinny little limp limbs, covered in blood. His skin red, he looked like a little alien. It was so sad; in fact it’s making me start to cry now. Fucking hell, the well of emotion. It’s a deep, strange, dark place.

Now I’m sitting in my room. I’m at a detox place somewhere in Australia. Apart from not drinking alcohol, it’s very easy for me. The physical part, that is.

No salt, no tea, no coffee, butter, oil or fat, gluten, wheat or sugar, chocolate, drugs or cigarettes. The only hardcore stuff here is the stuff that my mind is going through. My mind has been to hell and back. I haven’t drunk for more than two weeks now. Exercising for at least three hours every day. I am officially 1st 5lb overweight. It’s amazing you have to go right to the other side of the world for someone to have the courage to say: “Tracey, you are fat.”

Apparently I’m a pendulum: fat to thin. When I’m unhappy, I’m too thin, and when I’m unhappy, I’m fat. There have been only the briefest moments in my life when I have been at the correct weight, even as a child. So I have had to sit down and track the good-looking moments and see if they correlate with being happy. Of course, they do, as the fat and the thin fall nicely into place with the depression and sadness. Apparently that’s why I drink, to fend off all the emotions. Then, like some fucking great volcano I erupt when it’s least expected, spilling my shit and pus and hell on to anything and everyone close to me.

All obvious, but sometimes in life we need to be told – and most importantly, we need to hear.

I so much want to see and experience the world as a beautiful place. I’m tired of the hurt – even walking and thinking hurts me – but I know I’m very lucky. I’m an artist. That means I can bundle all this stuff up, put it on to a trolley, wheel it out of my sodden mind and straight into the gallery of the world. I can turn it all into a real thing. A thing of substance, a thing called art.

After my first abortion, I stopped making art, I stopped wanting to make things, objects, more stuff, to stuff the world up. Everything was too full, too suffocating, nothing could breathe. I believed there was no room, no space for my baby – then how could there be room in my world for my art?

I said I would never paint again until I could forgive myself. I adore tiny things. I love, love. And I love to care. Having an abortion was an extremely difficult thing for me to do. That’s not even taking into account my beliefs regarding the soul, but it’s something I knew I had to do. The good news is I have started painting again, with a vengeance. If I could just stop drinking, I’d say I’m ready to give birth, but first to myself.

But it’s so easy here, here far away from real life. My real life is constant noise, stress, and my lovely wild London; the 24-hour party, no door closed, a friend at every court, the phone just a constant ring. Triumphant, drunk, going wild like a Viking warrior on some great rampage – and it’s just a night out on the town! Miaow! Miaow! So drunk the Eritrean mice have to take me home and put me gently through my door; the world of big blur that I will have to say goodbye to. But maybe willpower will be taken over by pleasure. Maybe I will get my hits somewhere else, in a more productive, gentle way. Maybe if I could just be happy, that would be more than enough.

I’m happy right now, sitting at my table doing one of my favourite things in the whole world: I’m listening to New Order, writing my column (this column). Every now and then I look out of the window. The view is a valley surrounded by giant, rolling, sexy hills. Every now and then whole families of kangaroos make their way up the hill and just hang outside my window. Baby ones, Mummies, Daddies, and little ones occasionally pop out of pouches – little paws hanging in the air, eyes big and dark, little faces look up as I call out. The world is sweet, lovely, adorable, surrounded by a most incredible deep beautiful nature. It’s all there, right in front of me, and I can see it. But all I can think of now is that I can’t wait to get back to Sydney. Can’t wait to get back into the studio and start painting like I have never painted before.

Tracey Emin is away and may never come back.

See also: Tracey Emin at White Cube

Tracey Emin at the Saatchi Gallery

Tracey Emin at Lehmann Laupan

‘Ask Emin: Your questions answered’ (June 8, 2007, BBC News)

Sarah Badr © MMIX


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