‘I’m going to the Tracey Emin show tomorrow’, I tell a post-England-win, 8-pint heavy (male) artist.
‘Tracey Emin? She’s fucking shit’, he replies. My taxi has arrived, I don’t have time to argue and this man’s expansive art history knowledge is an intimidating challenge now that, out of the corner of my eye, I notice I’ve finished my bottle of gin.
‘This conversation isn’t finished’, I shout as I’m ushered out the door by a friend.
Twelve hours later I stand in front of The stain of you (2017), You came to me at night (2017) and I came here for you (2018) and I know what I will say the next time I see him, for before me I see myself. The three standing figures stare blankly back, their bodies loose and resigned. It’s me, catching myself in the long mirror in my hallway. We’re naked at 3am, the leaking bathroom light unflattering, my skin tired.
I doubt Alex (let’s call him Alex) (his name was Alex) was thinking of Emin’s paintings when he dismissed the exhibition, a self-curated show of her own work alongside that of Edvard Munch. Instead, he was thinking of Emin herself—note ‘she’ not ‘her work’. Throughout her career she has used public persona to elevate her own status and to contextualise her work. Academic Laura Lake Smith argues that her ‘collapsing of the boundaries between artist and art’ (Smith 2017) is the responsible factor in the controversy of her success, the reason Alex has such a problem.
Emin has achieved little less than celebrity status, moving from a bursting tabloid force since Channel 4’s 1997 airing of the Turner Prize debate, during which Emin was gloriously foul-mouthed and drunk to now, nearly thirty years after her first show as one of the great titans of British modern art, presenting what, at one point, she thought would be her farewell show.
However, the assumption that celebrity implies vapid vulgarity disregards the capacity for artistic performance within the presentation of image, and therefore calculation and skill. Dee Heddon writes that performance identities ‘are representational and as representations they should not be taken to be in any way real’ (Heddon, D. 2002. Performing the Self. M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture. 2(2)), but can we claim to know what reality and therefore authenticity is when all productions of self, be that our every day presentation or curated works of autobiography displayed in one of London’s most famous galleries, are performative? This is demonstrated right here, on the canvas.
I read in my guide that Emin has said ‘The most beautiful thing is honesty, even if it’s really painful to look at’ but how she chooses to present herself to the world is as constructed as the multi-layered pieces that fill this gallery with marks covered over and redrawn repeatedly on canvases, memory evoked in impulses, impression given in fallible glimpses. This raises the question—just because you decide what you want your truth to be, does it make it less authentic?
"Her perspective is one of lustful intimacy, the kind you can only feel for your own body, the kind that makes the vagina the soul."
I Became Your World, 2016-2017 Credit: Tracey Emin
This exhibition is notably annotation free. No wall-text, no audio guide. On the outside of the space are two side-by-side portraits of Emin and Munch but once you get in there are no curational notes. Even the guide I am given, featuring an interview extract, serves mostly to draw comparison to and elevate the work of Munch rather than contextualise Emin’s own. For someone who has previously used lengths of autobiography, this joint exhibition feels like a letting go of the ego and in rejecting a parallel personal narrative Emin refuses to let herself be digestible. By removing text, a set interpretation of the works, she is not reducible to a single storyline or idea. Instead we create our interpretation, and we see things as subjective as they were intended to be.
In I Became Your World (2016-2017) the figure looks down at her thighs and cunt, dripping pinks and dynamic reds colouring the body. Her perspective is one of lustful intimacy, the kind you can only feel for your own body, the kind that makes the vagina the soul. Blood, cum and everything in between, liquids and feelings that can only exist in that uninhibited way, ungross and pleasing, when one is not perceived, when the only gaze is one’s own.
And yet, with Emin’s previous subject content I wonder if I’ve misinterpreted. Her durational persona has been and is one that is highly sexual and motivated by the primal desires of her body but often the content is from a survivor of abuse. Are these contrasting personas? In the interview printed in the guide Emin states that ‘I’m fighting on the canvas trying to find out where I am’. Even the notion that she is converging a contradiction is a misunderstanding of the complexity of female sexuality and sexual experiences.
"It’s pretty bold to claim equal standing with the artist born a century before her, but Emin is an icon of our era and she knows it."
An accusatory ‘you’ runs throughout the paintings’ titles and, despite their overwhelming resonance, through this language Emin isolates herself from the viewer. ‘The Loneliness of the Soul’ she’s called the exhibition, in which she’s placed twenty-five of her own works next to eighteen of Edvard Munch’s. It’s pretty bold to claim equal standing with the artist born a century before her, but Emin is an icon of our era and she knows it. The prevalence of Munch’s female nudes at first confuses me. I’ve long ago sworn off being interested in a man looking at a woman’s body, I thought Emin would feel the same.
But this work isn’t about the female body and Munch’s interest in the female form is not a sexualised one. He projects his own emotions onto the ones he portrays. Similarly, Emin’s work does not have gendered intentions but personal ones, it is about her body and how it stands alone against the blankness of sparkling canvas.
Yes, it’s a female body but Emin doesn’t care about universality of experience—the ‘you’ makes that quite clear. She is alone in her experiences and only her body bears that lived weight. And in many ways, like Munch, Emin is not painting herself. Munch’s women have faces in red and green, contorted or difficult to distinguish and Emin’s figures have varied bodies and no faces, instead often scribbled lines. They too are a representation of emotion rather than a figurative state. Bound in one canvas by memory, the layering of paint characterises the constant fluctuation of memory and the desire to rewrite and reconfigure until narrative sits true within the body.
In front of you as you enter, Pelvis High (2007) is the happiest work. Green shapes and an allusion to a horizon place the figure in Emin’s residential retreat of the south of France. The painting sits in stark contrast to the empty space that surrounds her other figures, where patterns either submerge their characters or exude from them. In Pelvis High (note the lack of the accusatory ‘you’), the figure merely reclines amongst her surroundings. So if this was her farewell show, perhaps it is Emin performing peace. The figures, ghosts of her past, tell the trajectory of her life, the unifying theme being that only she has lived it.
Laura Lake Smith (2017) Telling Stories: performing authenticity in the confessional art of Tracey Emin. Rethinking History. 21:2, 296-309.