The Urge To Purge

Tracey Emin's Art Has No Secrets

Women who deal openly with sex (and sexual violence and control of their own bodies) get sexualized, but Emin's work is really more about emotional nakedness. "How it feels" is a video piece in which Emin confronts her anguish about an abortion and subsequent miscarriage: her rage at the doctor who wouldn't sign the papers, her ambivalence about getting one though she knows she needed to "just to preserve myself," and then the feeling "of being totally inadequate . . . a failure as an artist, a failure as a human being." A few other pieces in this show deal with abortion. Like the gin-filled bathtub, a Victorian method for trying to induce one. Emin gave up painting after this abortion. She didn't believe in art anymore. "I found it very plastic and distant. I didn't believe in objects that decorate the home. I had a new understanding of where things came from and how they ended up."

Vitrines in the back room at Lehmann Maupin hold a week's worth of used tampons. Last year, she says, she became so thin she stopped having her period. When it started again, she decided the bloody tampons looked mummified and beautiful. "I think— oh, that's my blood, it comes from my womb. I made that. I made that. That's why it's called 'The History of Painting'. "

She is so fascinated by the traces of Tracey left in the world. The self-absorption would be hard to take from someone who was less onto herself. A video piece called "The Interview," playing before an audience of two toddler's chairs and slippers, features Emin arguing with herself. It's like id versus superego. The Superego-Emin, on one end of the couch, criticizes the other for being pathetic, "dried-up," alcoholic, anorexic, unwilling to bear children— and "can't you say anything without swearing." The id-Emin, at the other end of the couch, says she's just being honest and "you're the one who evades the truth." (The id-Emin wins.)

"All I do is blow my nose and it's in the newspaper," she explains.
Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin
"All I do is blow my nose and it's in the newspaper," she explains.

She's had this mix of grandiosity and insecurity throughout her career. She called her first solo show "My Major Retrospective" because "I thought this is my one and only chance at an art exhibition." She showed personal memorabilia and snapshots of her paintings. She'd destroyed them all.

She also seems willing to risk everything. After years in which she felt that she couldn't paint, she got a show in Stockholm and decided to live in the space, painting canvases and going naked. Sixteen fish-eye lenses in the wall allowed gallerygoers to watch her at work. In this piece, "Life Model Goes Mad," she forced herself to deal with her "failure" as a painter, her hatred of her own body, and her fear about sleeping alone. She spent two weeks in there doing her own versions of Edvard Munch (her favorite), Picasso ("complete crap"), and Yves Klein ("fucking sexy"). "So I got over a lot of these phobias," she says, adding, "I also challenged the history of painting."

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