Tracey Emin’s expressive and visceral art is one of disclosure, dealing with personal experience and heightened states of emotion. Frank and intimate but universal in its relevance, her work draws on the fundamental themes of love, desire, loss and grief, unravelling in the process the nuanced constructs of ‘woman’ and ‘self’ through probing self-exploration. ‘The most beautiful thing is honesty, even if it’s really painful to look at’, she has remarked.
Wide-ranging in scope, Emin’s practice includes painting, drawing, film, photography, sewn appliqué, sculpture and neon, all of which are transformed into highly personalised mediums for her singular voice. The genres of self-portraiture and the nude run throughout, both intricately bound up with the emotional journey of her life and the travails of her own biography. In her early work, often characterised by unflinching personal revelation, Emin makes reference to her family, childhood, and chaotic teenage years growing up in the seaside town of Margate. Her relationships, pregnancies and abortions are recounted through drawings, photographs, found objects and videos in a manner that is neither tragic nor sentimental and which resonates deeply with the audience. In her well-known sculpture Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963−95 (1995, destroyed 2004) for example, the names of all those she had shared a bed with – friends, lovers and family – are sewn onto the inside of a tent; a candid log of her emotional past. A similarly honest approach inflects her videos which document, through first-person narratives, a landscape of emotional states ranging from desire or elation to depression and despair. Likewise, her intricate, colourful, hand-appliquéd blankets combine scraps of different material to spell out hard-hitting statements. Titled with phrases such as Mad Tracey from Margate. Everyone’s been there, (1997) or Helter Fucking Skelter (2001), they collectively re-imagine the artist as a splintered persona, portrayed not just from her own perspective but from that of those around her too. Mining her own life for subject-matter, Emin determined that for her, art had to be intrinsically bound up with an inner life: ‘the essence of creativity, that moment of conception... the whole being of everything... it had to be about where it was really coming from,’ she has said.
In 1998 Emin produced My Bed, perhaps her most iconic artwork. A re-presentation of her own bed after a particularly troubled period, it offers an unflinching glimpse into a state of emotional flux and dysfunction through its unedited, total and near-forensic accumulation of real-life, sordid elements. In other large-scale sculptures, reclaimed wood and found materials are assembled into structures that seem fragile to the point of collapse, referencing the landscape and structures of her home town of Margate such as its beach, pier, huts and tide markers. Several of these sculptures refer directly to the theme park ‘Dreamland’, such as Self-Portrait (2001), which recreates its helter-skelter or It’s Not the Way I want to Die (2005), recalling its undulating roller-coaster in rickety, worn wood.
By contrast, her ongoing series of neons – a critical part of her practice since the 1990s – adopt a language more commonly associated with advertising or commercial signage. Featuring text in Emin’s recognisable, cursive handwriting and occasionally drawing, they are both candid and elegiac, elusive and ambiguous in potential meaning.
Emin has described her practice as being about ‘rites of passage, of time and age, and the simple realisation that we are always alone’. In recent years, painting and bronze sculpture have become her primary focus in works where the body as a battle ground comes to the fore. In her gestural and expressive figurative paintings, she confronts moments of anguish, elation or pain, whether they be episodes of sexual aggression in her past, the loss of her mother or her relentless, afflicting insomnia. The nude figure is delineated by a powerful graphic line imparting a sense of urgency as if she is inscribing emotional turmoil, while the paintings’ drips, obliterations and gestural marks allude to a self that is overcome – almost submerged – by feeling, depicted as ghostly or spectral in some, while in others dissolute and celebrated with fecund femininity.
Both Emin’s paintings and bronze sculptures, cast from highly modelled clay maquettes, upend the nude tradition and its associations with a voyeuristic male gaze. The, tactile, near-abstract female forms of her sculptures, often depicted in prone or recumbent positions, are eroticised and defenceless but always subjective, relating back to the artist’s own body and physical self. The Mother (2021), a monumental 9-metre bronze sculpture to be permanently sited next to the Edvard Munch museum on Oslo’s Museum Island, emphasises the female figure as vulnerable but also as protector and sexualised being; a heroic monument to femininity and motherhood that is visible from afar over land and water.
Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in London. She currently lives and works between London, the South of France, and Margate, UK.
Emin has exhibited extensively including major exhibitions at Royal Academy of Arts, London (2020); Musée d’Orsay, Paris (2019); Château La Coste, Aix-en-Provence, France (2017); Leopold Museum, Vienna (2015); Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami (2013); Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (2012); Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK (2012); Hayward Gallery, London (2011); Kunstmuseum Bern (2009); Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (2008); Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Malaga, Spain (2008); Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2003); and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2002).
In 2007 Emin represented Great Britain at the 52nd Venice Biennale and her installation My Bed has been included in ‘In Focus’ displays at Tate Britain with Francis Bacon (2015), Tate Liverpool with William Blake and also at Turner Contemporary, Margate alongside JMW Turner (2017).
In 2011, Emin was appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and in 2012 was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the visual arts.