Intimate, self-explorational and sometimes painfully personal, it comes as no surprise that YBA Tracey Emin has often been hesitant to collaborate with other artists. However, when author-cum-artist Harland Miller invited Emin to collaborate on his 2008 White Cube exhibition You’ll Dig the Tunnel, I’ll Hide the Soil, she was inspired by Miller’s macabre and unsettling subject matter.
Notorious for his satirical reworkings of vintage Penguin book covers, Harland Miller has always produced work that unites the literary and visual arts. His 2008 exhibition at White Cube was the ultimate manifestation of his interdisciplinary approach.
As both artist and writer, Miller has always been inspired by the literary genius of Edgar Allan Poe. For his White Cube exhibition, Miller invited 34 “contributors” including fellow artists, writers and general acquaintances to respond to works by Poe hand-picked for them by Miller himself. The various responses to these literary prompts were united in Miller’s White Cube exhibition, and created a multi-media show which was markedly macabre and eerie.
Despite the grim atmosphere shaped by Poe’s writing, the exhibition was still underscored by Miller’s typical wry humour. For his first foray into curation, Miller contributed with a book cover painting of his own creation. Facetiously titled Wake Up And Smell The Coffin, with Edgar Allan Poe as its unwitting author, Miller imagined a modern Poe work with this crass play on words. While he left most of his contributors to create their own responses to their Poe prompts, Miller forged a much more personal working relationship with Emin, and the pair collaborated to create a distinctive and disturbing piece.
Perhaps it was because of her attachment to her beloved but mischievous cat Docket that Miller chose Poe’s short story The Black Cat for his collaboration with Tracey Emin. Poe’s 1843 story charts a disturbed alcoholic who, at first, had a caring relationship with his pet cat, but driven by his addiction begins to abuse the cat. Although Miller has since confirmed this to be completely coincidental, the copy of The Black Cat that he gave to Emin was mysteriously missing its final pages. Given Emin’s own penchant for story-telling and her innate spirituality, this happy coincidence perhaps provided her with the perfect setting to create her own ending with her painting.
Although she has described herself as usually “too protective” to collaborate with other artists, Emin embraced Miller’s love of Poe when creating Black Cat. The painting, which literally drips with Emin’s typical erotica, is a self-portrait which draws on the gruesome story as well as Emin’s own troubled past. With her face completely blocked out with black paint, Emin has suggested that it is a portrait of herself “dead and gone, in a strange twilight world”.
Even though the canvas was originally painted on by Miller, the pair have joked in an interview that Emin painted over all of Miller’s interventions to foreground her own self-portrait. Despite this, Emin has still called this piece a collaboration in its essence as Miller watched over her painting it, and rather than it being a collaboration between these two living artists, it emerged as a provoking collaboration between Emin, Miller and Poe himself.
Elements of Miller’s style are still present in the Rothko-inspired background, with his abstract and atmospheric application of acrylics. The portrait itself however is distinctly Emin’s, with her unblushing focus on her vagina, which is framed by a dramatic funeral gown and leads the eye down towards a bloody pool of red. The painting is therefore not only a collaboration between artists, but one between disciplines and personalities to produce an uncanny work for Miller’s exhibition.
Tracey Emin was not the only renowned YBA to contribute to Miller’s White Cube exhibition. In response to the Poe work Miller assigned him, contemporary art sensation Damien Hirst produced his The Startling Effects Of Mesmerism On A Dying Man. An enormous Spin Painting, composed primarily of black and red, hangs on the wall above a painted bed installation. In a more obvious homage to Poe, mingling with his own fascination with taxidermy, Hirst perched a stuffed raven on the headboard of the bed. Also among the 34 contributors to the 2008 exhibition were Cindy Sherman, Fred Tomaselli, and Anselm Kiefer - making this a truly multi-media exhibition.
As for Emin, collaborations have never really been her forté. She has, however, collaborated with the much celebrated Louise Bourgeois - even though their collaboration was a lengthy ordeal because Emin was so nervous to make her additions to Bourgeois' initial drawings and paintings.
While both Miller and Emin treat their art as a somewhat solitary endeavour of self-discovery, they have both voiced their interest in collaborating with themselves. By returning to paintings that were started years ago, Emin poetically described her process as one of collaboration with the past. One thing that these artists both crucially share is an appreciation for the arts past and present, and living through their artwork to learn more about the ever-changing self.