Tracey Emin, CBE, RA is an English contemporary artist known for her autobiographical and confessional artwork
Described by David Bowie as, “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh,” Tracey Emin was born in Croydon, Surrey in 1963. She grew up in Margate with her twin brother Paul – a time which would greatly influence her later works. Emin studied fashion at Medway College of Design (now the University for the Creative Arts), which is where she met poet and artist Billy Childish (see Stuckism); and was a part of the Medway Poets for a time, joining the recording of The Medway Poets LP. In 1984 she began studying printing which she cites as one of the most influential periods of her life. In 1987 Emin moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art.
Following her spectacular and notorious appearance on a live TV debate about the 1997 Turner Prize in which art established critics Waldemar Januszczak and Roger Scruton argued about conceptual art, Emin announced, among other things: “Don’t you understand? I want to be free. Get this fucking mike off.” Emin is now a Turner Prize nominated artist, has a CBE, is a member of Royal Academy, and YBA (Young British Artists). Along with fellow YBA Damien Hirst, her artwork is some of the most significant in British history; as she says herself, “I’ve worked really hard. I’ve made three pieces of seminal art in my life. If I died tomorrow, I’d be remembered for making them. There are a lot of artists who, no matter how hard they work in their lives, will never make anything seminal.”
“When it comes to words I have a uniqueness that I find almost impossible in art – and it’s my words that actually make my art quite unique.” – Tracey Emin
Emin doesn’t have a particular style, other than the poetic and the expressive. Working on a variety of mediums from: watercolours, drawings, sculpture, installation, photography and neon, to embroidery, installation and monoprints; Emin often explores the romance of life and loss through words – either constituting the entirety of the work, part of it, or just the title – she uses language to convey the sentiment behind her works; the frankness and emotional honesty which she espouses has allowed her to connect with millions of people around the world.
Of her time studying at the Royal Academy, Emin said “I wasn’t interested in contemporary art at all.” Her greatest influences were the works of Edvard Munch and Klimt’s student Egon Shiel (his influence can be seen in Emin’s nude watercolours and illustrations, such as: She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea, Suffer Love XXI and I Cried Because I Love You). In 2015 Emin exhibited alongside Schiel, which she described as a “dream come true.”
Her most notable works are My Bed and Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With. The Turner Prize nominated My Bed – was an installation of the bed she’d slept/lived in, in a drunk depression caused by a failed relationship. Littered with condoms, cigarette butts, knickers with menstrual stains – not to mention the fact it was unmade (!) – Emin’s work created a lot of controversy at the time, from some claiming it to be “unhygienic” to others claiming “anyone could’ve done it”, to which Emin responded, “Well, they didn’t, did they? No-one had ever done that before…” and she was right. Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With was a tent with hand embroidered names of everyone she has slept with (literally, as well as in a sexual context) appliquéd on its interior; to view the artwork, viewers had to go inside the tent, creating a confessional, immersive experience. Some have noted its shape is reminiscent of the Margate Shell Grotto of her childhood. Created in 1995 and destroyed in a fire in 2004, with other works held by the Saatchi gallery (Emin has refused to recreate it), it is still one of the most iconic works of art of the 20th century.
Of her sculptures (see Wanting and I Fell In Love) Emin says. “I’ve been making bronze sculptures for a long time. My sculptures are wholly unsuccessful and uncommercial. No one is even the remotest bit interested in them. So it’s almost like my hobby.” Birds and nude, often headless torsos are common themes in her bronze sculptures.
Emin’s Artistic Relationship With Love
Emin once asked, “Have you ever longed for someone so much, so deeply that you thought you would die? That your heart would just stop beating? I am longing now, but for whom I don’t know. My whole body craves to be held. I am desperate to love and be loved. I want my mind to float into another’s. I want to be set free from despair by the love I feel for another. I want to be physically part of someone else. I want to be joined. I want to be open and free to explore every part of them, as though I were exploring myself.”
Emin recently announced she had married a stone in the south of France, not as a gimmick but as a sincere gesture towards something she felt made her feel grounded, less alone in the world, something she could return to. Emin’s destiny it seems was to be alone for large periods of her life, which in turns seems to torment her, and also inspire her greatest works. Often through the sexually explicit, this sense of longing and lost love, is present in all of her mediums: in watercolour I think of You All the Time; in sculpture, Being Without You; in embroidery with It Always Hurts; and in neon with, I Can’t Believe How Much I Loved You.
Though some have previously criticized Emin’s self-referential works as narcissistic, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones points out this gives Emin “something precious: an ever-changing subject that is universal. Everyone has a life. Emin’s, with its triumphs and sorrows, is not just of interest to her. Everyone can find some kind of mirror in it. She remorselessly chronicles getting older, being lonely, for the same reason that she told of her abortion – because it is true.”
Emin’s Relationship With Commerce
Emin has said, “I’m not opposed to commerce, even though I’m an artist.” She has been using commerce as a means to communicate her art to the public since 1993; when, along with fellow artist Sarah Lucas, Emin launched the aptly titled, The Shop, in Bethnal Green, located on London’s East End. Here, she sold her pieces such as T-shirts and ash trays with Damien Hirst’s face on the bottom of them; asked for investments; and would meet her future art dealer, Jay Jopling of the White Cube.
Since then, Emin has created a line of jewelry with celebrity jeweller Stephen Webster; including gold and diamond rings, earrings and necklaces inscribed with some of her favourite sentences, such as, I Promise To Love You, and With You I Breathe. Emin is still selling her T-shirts; and now also bags, crockery, and other accessories with her works on them; as well as her books published by Rizzoli such as 1000 Drawings and My Life in a Column. Her symbiosis with commerce, has ensured her works are available with a wider audience, and therefor, expanded her audience; and is a contributing factor to her phenomenal success.
Emin, Valentine’s, and New York
In 2014 Emin’s neon artworks lit up Times Square in New York. The occasion was Valetine’s Day, and her love-centric pieces such as I Promise To Love You and When I Hold You I Hold Your Heart; illuminated the square for the lovers and the lonely, every night at 11.57pm on 40 large and small screens for three minutes. To add to the personal theme of the works, the messages were digitally animated to appear as if they were writing themselves – or by some invisible hand (Emin’s, or whoever’s you desired it to be). Having such a passionate and transparent love affair with love itself, Emin was the only artist for the job.
Her Most Expensive works
Over the years, Emin has garnered collectors such as Elton John, Naomi Campell, Jerry Hall, Ronnie Wood and Orlando Bloom (to name but a few); so needless to say, her works are highly collectable.
Her hand-embroidered tapestry, Mad Tracey from Margate. Everyone’s Been There (1997) sold for $960,000 at Christie’s London in 2014. Continuing her bed-legacy, To Meet My Past (2002), is a four-poster-bed-come-shrine; embroidered with deeply personal messages and statements, in 2013 it sold for $640,000. One of her surviving “seminal” artworks, My Bed, is still her most covetable, despite it’s controversy, or maybe because of it; and sold for £2.2 million in 2014.