Tracey Emin has developed a major career in England as an explorer of her own raw nerve endings. She thinks with the body, where life’s wounds have been deeply felt and purged. “Every Part of Me’s Bleeding” (at the Lehmann Maupin gallery through June 19) is her latest exercise in relentless self-exposure and her first solo show in this country.
Emin’s drawings, neon signs, quilts, videos and sculptures are all part of an ongoing autobiography. She grew up in Margate, a seaside resort town gone to seed, with lots of unemployment and a sort of desolate beauty. She spent the first part of her life there in a hotel her mother ran. Then the ’70s recession hit. “It all got boarded up. We had to go squat in one of the staff cottages behind it. And my mum had to start waitressing and chamber-maiding.” Emin’s father is a Turkish Cypriot who openly maintained relationships with both his wife and with Emin’s English mother. “I’m not Anglo-Saxon,” she asserts.
Emin was raped at the age of 13. That same year, she dropped out of school— because it was boring, she says. In a video piece called “Why I Never Became a Dancer,” she recalls the ensuing years when she led a classic bohemian life (though no one saw it that way in Margate), hanging out in cafés and bars and having a lot of sex. “It didn’t matter that I was young— 13, 14. It didn’t matter that they were men of 19, 20, 25, 26. . . . By the time I was 15 I’d had them all.” She entered the British Disco Dance Championship 1978, hoping to win her way out of Margate. But as she started to dance, “A gang of blokes, most of whom I’d had sex with at sometime or other, started to chant ‘SLAG, SLAG, SLAG'” until they drove her off the floor.
Now, at the age of 36, she’s part of a relatively recent tradition of women who’ve decided to “tell.” “Keeping secrets is one of the most dangerous things you can do,” Emin has said. “I’m interested in cracking them open and revealing things— like Pandora’s box. Every time I do it for myself, I’m left with a lot more freedom afterwards.” The chaos around the bed sculpture; the monoprints of women masturbating, fucking, vomiting; the neon sign (“22 cm circcomference 20 . . . “) which indicates a “happy” penis measurement: all are signs of a woman uncontrolled by the usual social restraints.
There’s now a 25-year tradition of transgressive women artists who work from the id to address issues of power and control. But Emin says she’s “ignorant” about contemporary art. So, during this trip to New York, she was excited to discover Carolee Schneeman, who is the foremother of work around the expressive body, and whose descendants include everyone from Karen Finley to Sue Williams. This kind of work seems to be a recent development in Britain, however. And Emin pushes the envelope by making her art so personal.
At first it was like “a big vomit,” but now she feels her work is more controlled: “I edit.” Still, she admits to feeling emptied out at times. Exposing so much of herself— the rape, two abortions, a miscarriage, several suicide attempts— has made Emin a “personality” in England, a culture with even more taboos than America. She’s often written up in the tabloids and is currently featured in a Bombay Gin ad. “All I do is blow my nose and it’s in the newspaper,” she explains.
Predictably enough, she’s often presented as the art world’s “bad girl,” a term that always has a sexual connotation, while “bad boy” could mean a rebel— like someone who makes his art from sliced cows. Emin’s best-known piece is probably “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 19631995” (now part of the Saatchi collection and not in this show), an igloo-style tent with 102 names appliquéd all around the inside. She gets annoyed when people assume she’s naming all her sex partners, since she begins with her time in the womb, when she slept with her twin brother.
One piece in the current show is a page from London’s Observer, signed, framed, and titled (“Broken Finger”). The article describes her appearance on some dry BBC talk show convened to discuss “Is Painting Dead?” Accounts of what happened vary, but the Observer‘s coverage is the most friendly and says that Emin finally told the “gaggle of aesthetes” (mostly critics), “I’m drunk and I wanna leave. You people don’t relate to me. I’m gonna phone my mum. I wanna be wiv me friends.” The panicked moderator then asked her, “Do you think it’s a generational thing, Tracey?” She barked, “I don’t give a fuck!” and stomped off the set. Then, according to the Observer, “Everyone else behaved Britishly, pretending nothing had happened.” Emin says now that she doesn’t remember a thing. “I was so out of my head.” The Sunday Times Magazine did a story on her called “Bad Men Bad Luck Bad Sex,” complete with sexy photos, and she’s turned this into a piece of her own as well, an attempt to take back control of how she’s represented.
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 on to 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.)
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.”