Named one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK by BBC Radio 4, Tracey Emin CBE RA challenges viewers with her self-referential and notoriously provocative works. Classified as autobiographical or confessional art, Emin’s practice is one in which her life and her art are inseparable. She is disinterested in the outside world, translating into her artworks only that which impacts her life.
One of the leading figures of the Young British Artists (YBA), a term coined by their patron, Charles Saatchi, Emin caught public attention surrounded by fellow artists such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. Yet, it was the submission of her installation work My Bed, now her most iconic work, for the 1999 Turner Prize that sparked much critical debate and launched her fame.
Working in painting, screenprinting, drawing, photography, sculpture, needlework, video, installation, neon and more, Emin’s illustrations of her experiences and emotions are uniquely honest, much like the artist herself. Known as the artworld bad girl, Emin’s artwork deconstructs her celebrity status to expose the struggles we all face but rarely admit.
Emin’s success is proven by her extensive exhibition history, from solo exhibitions to the Venice Biennale as well as her status as a Royal Academician and Honorary Doctorate from the Royal College of Art, London. Her honest artwork even earned her the title CBE or Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in 2013, that which is awarded to people in recognition of the positive impact of their work.
Born in 1963 in Croydon, south London, Emin later moved to the seaside town of Margate, famous for its associations with J.M.W. Turner, where her father owned a hotel. This move was followed by a traumatic rape at the age of 13 and two abortions, experiences which would serve as the basis for her work. Taking inspiration from German Expressionists as well as Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch, Emin explores these experiences alongside issues of self-representation.
Notable of her explorations in self-representation is her installation work My Bed which was conceived following a bad breakup, a period in which her life was confined to her bed. After finally leaving her bed, Emin looked back upon it and realised it was an artwork, a kind of self-portrait. The stained sheets of her unmade bed are surrounded by detritus such as crumpled tissues, an empty vodka bottle and a pregnancy test. Installed in the gallery, the work becomes reminiscent of a fresh crime scene which directs the viewers to become forensic investigators as they attempt to uncover the events that unfolded.
The predecessor to My Bed, was finished following her studies at the Maidstone College of Art in 1986. Titled Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With, the installation takes the form of a revealing small tent on which she appliqued the names of everyone she had shared a bed with, including her lovers as well as her mother, her twin brother and her aborted children. This generative work, now lost due to a warehouse fire, is arguably the most famous of her vast range of language-based works. From monoprints to neon signs, Emin uses language in the form of a stream of consciousness and often includes misspelled words, either as the result of a deliberate choice or the speed at which she works. Together, these aspects communicate a sense of immediacy, that these words were written just as they are being read by the viewer.
Iconic of Emin’s work are her neon sculptures and prints, the words of which are most often pink, a purposeful choice to reflect her femininity. Her texts describe deeply personal feelings, ranging from the universally relatable The kiss was beautiful to When I go to sleep I dream of you inside of me. These signs are inscribed in her signature handwriting and often end in personal pronouns such as “me” or “you,” rendering these works exceptionally personal. The unavoidable and invasive neon light amplifies these intimate statements to the world for viewers to appropriate to their own lives. This is particularly true of her largest work to date, I want my time with you, a neon sign installed in St. Pancras International train station in London in 2018. Installed on the first floor, facing the Eurostar platforms, the location of the work in a Brexit era gives it overtly political overtones. Yet, it still can remain personal as it leaves the viewer open to interpret to who or where the “I” and “you” refer.
Such language also appears in her monoprints, occasionally presenting with backward letters which reference the process through which the work was made. Emin’s monoprints are considered highly diaristic in their depictions of past life events through the frequent fusion of text and image. Notable of her monoprints are those from her 1997 series Something’s Wrong which include various assortments of spelling errors, text in large capitals and bodies that are at times complete and at others, just her torso, legs or other isolated body parts. Considered to be more impactful when displayed in groups, Emin’s monoprints are rarely shown independently. This choice is logical as Emin’s work, namely her monoprints, tell stories of broken relationships, rape and abortions, all too deep to confine to a single artwork.
Though her work is often considered within feminist discourse and despite her collaboration with feminist giants such as Louise Bourgeois, Emin actively asserts that she is a feminist, but not a feminist artist. This frames her work in a new light, rendering her works to be the work of an activist but instead that of a woman turning to the space of art to come to terms with her life stories. Emin’s confessional art presents the world of her hopes, failures, successes and humiliations in a way that establishes an intimate connection with the viewer. Further, they are spaces for her to share these stories, stating that “for me, 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.”