Tracey Emin makes work in a wide range of media including painting, drawing, film, photography, sewn appliqué, sculpture and neon text. Her art is primarily expressionistic, a cypher for memories and emotions that can be frank and poetic, intimate and universal.
Using her own experience – and frequently her own body – as source material for the work, she explores ideas of self-portraiture and narrative disclosure, both intimately bound up with her own biography. Emin grew up in the seaside resort of Margate and her work often refers to traumatic episodes from her childhood as well as to her chaotic teenage years which resulted in unexpected pregnancies and abortions. Emin anecdotally recounts episodes from these years in a unique form of confessional art that has a non-voyeuristic intimacy since her stories are neither tragic nor sentimental and often deeply resonate with their audience.
In Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95 (1995, destroyed 2004), for example, Emin used the process of appliqué to sew the names of all the people that she has ever shared a bed with – including lovers, friends and family – onto the inside of a small tent. To view the work, the audience had to crawl inside, becoming voyeur and confidante at the same time. Emin's series of patchworks and embroidered blankets include rare and treasured fabrics from her past as well as recycled materials such as flags, sofa coverings and urine-stained sheets. The blankets use colourful capitalised text to describe candid tales of love, desire and betrayal through poetic descriptions or punchy, diaristic notations such as 'Drunk to the bottom of my Soul', 'Meet me in Heaven' and 'Mad Tracey from Margate'.
My Bed (1998) was Emin’s first readymade artwork that displayed all the forensic marks and detritus of a debauched couple of weeks where she had stayed in bed drinking, fucking, smoking, eating and sleeping, all in a state of emotional flux and dysfunctional crisis. Looking back on this scene, Emin felt appalled yet fascinated by what it had become. She shipped the bed in its entirety to Japan for an exhibition, installing it next to a pair of chained-up suitcases and a hangman’s noose which served to emphasise the painful isolation and entrapment of that whole episode. Other major sculptural works are recreated from memories of good times and inconsequential things from places in Margate such as the theme park ‘Dreamlands’ or the beach with its pier, huts and tide markers. Emin reconstructed Margate's conical helter-skelter in reclaimed timber, placing a small bird perched towards its top, representing, as its title reveals, a Self-Portrait (2001).
For the Folkestone Triennial in 2008, Emin cast a series of bronze baby clothes that appeared forgotten or forlorn – dropped under a bench, lying in the street or hanging limp on some railings. This touching work (Baby Things, 2008) refers poignantly to the unusually high rate of teenage pregnancies in England's coastal towns. In the same year, Emin made a 6m wide pink neon sculpture for Liverpool Cathedral, entitled For You. The work reads 'I felt you and I knew you loved me', an example of her work at its most potent since what could be a personal declaration of love or internal faith also has a universal appeal.
Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in London, where she currently lives and works. She was appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Art in 2011 and in 2007, represented Great Britain at the 52nd Venice Biennale. She has exhibited extensively internationally, including solo exhibitions ‘Tracey Emin: Ten Years’ at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2002; ‘Tracey Emin: Twenty Years’ at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh in 2008 (which subsequently toured to CCA Malaga and Kunstmuseum Bern); ‘Love is What You Want’, Hayward Gallery, London in 2011; ‘She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea: Tracey Emin at the Turner Contemporary’, Turner Contemporary, Margate in 2012; ‘Tracey Emin: How it feels’ at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), Argentina in 2012 and ‘Tracey Emin: Angel Without You’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami in 2013.