God, Art and Tracey Emin by Neal Brown
Tracey Emin has big tits and comes from Margate;1 she is also an activist, religionary artist who seeks to reconcile her life's joys and pains, through art, into their proper relationship with her originating creation. Her art is a fecund song-cycle of the self; an undeodorised song of poetic extremity about the human need for celebration and consolation. Emin is a deist who has said, very clearly, that she needs art like she needs God.
Religion is partitioned into two divisions, which are often confused with each other. The first division consists of the deeply personal inner disposition of the individual towards the divinity. The second division is the institutional ecclesiasticisms and theologies that are generated in response to this - the organisings of cult or church. The first division is the most important and is Emin's integrating force. It is the direct relationship, from the solitude of her heart and soul, to the heart and soul of what made her, as she may privately understand and express this. This is the principal relation of Tracey Emin with Tracey Emin's God; of her expansive happinesses and extreme pains, her conscience and her human helplessness in the face of the larger order of things. In this sense, the word 'religious' does not describe a brand named theomania, but is the collectivised name for a depth and breadth of intuitively and intelligently considered sentiment.
The second part of the religious division -the externalising customs and ecclesiastical orderings - is where Emin has effected a simple but elegant displacement. Here, in a beautiful and sunny sedition, the administrative business of her artist's soul is taken care of by herself. This keeps her very active with all the usual business of the clergy; a theology and opinion of God, as well as the socially ritualised supplications, appeasements and barterings it is necessary to make to this God - especially around birth, death and sex. These involve ceremonial activities of worship and negotiated sacrifice and shade off to their antecedents of fetishism and the magico-erotic.
By the successful self-enjoining of the two parts of this partitioning, in her art, Emin has made it more possible to be spiritually and artistically vulnerable. Her authority is as having had life experiences of very considerable pain, which are paradoxically qualified to become a great resource. This allows her the placing of the deeply personal into the world in a larger, shared working out of her soul. Emin succeeds in further making possible the ability of art to make visible, and therefore shareable, a collective communication of the impulse for the divine.
In a tumblingly humorous, sad, and cumulative storytelling of her spirituality, Emin describes for us a life of both organic and creatively contrived incident, whose details differ but whose passions are representative of us all. Emin's narrative is told in both traditional and non-traditional ways, using diaries, letters, personal detritus, family photos, paintings and picturings, videos, dancing, neon, sculpture, applique with text, poetic stories and written bookworks.
Emin's resource is herself and her tragicomedies, cruel humiliations and rejoicings, which are described in a deliciously wry, self-deprecating style. Her copious rumination includes her hymenial and other abuses, failed aspirations, fertilities and infertilities, inebriations, fabulous and unfabulous personages - lovers and haters - as well as the expressions and inexpressions of her beautiful joys beyond comprehension. Emin's story is contained in the adventurous details of her life's index: of spermy fuckings, seagulls and the blue seaside - the story of a sort of sexualised Jonathan Livingstone, a Spinoza on a vodka trip. These adventures and misadventures are described in a pealing unity of works; an ambitious, unspellchecked classification of all knowledge of Emin's ringing soul.
Emin's variety of experience, and her chosen responses to her life's events, have brought her to the uncleared heartlands of the feelings. The valuable survival skills Emin has in this variform landscape are those of a fluent emotional intelligence, rather than those of overschooled analyses; here Emin has her heart on her sleeve, not a 300 gram contractile muscle of inherent rhythmicity. Her expressive depiction of her life's pains and joys is not, as can sometimes be seen in the fine arts, a production line crafting process. In Emin's art we do not see the repeated making of the unpouring teapots of despair, or the preserved knick-knacks and mantelpiece souvenirs of anguish. The authenticity of her revealment disallows her the usual art world certainties of reactive and counter-reactive posturings, or the making of finite novelties. Instead, using her special intonation, she puts her authentic life responses into a potent relationship with the ideal objects of the art world.
Emin's dedicated space, the beautiful Tracey Emin Museum in Waterloo Road, is a principal example of her purposeful resolution of the unities necessary for her art. It is her spiritual shelter, corresponding in its own way to those historically most important spaces: the cave, the church, the cathedral, and the cunt. Here Tracey sits, on Thursdays and Fridays or by appointment, charismatically merging her personality with the circle of her works, as maker, curator and custodian of her sacred and prosaic arts and reliquies. It has been a signal achievement for Tracey Emin and a pleasure for us, in London, to have her art in her museum and her museum in her art - and the door open to passers-by.
Similarly integrated into the totality of the creative process is the astute way Emin has gone about seeking the funding of her works. Emin Bonds - £50 Emin mini bonds, or £500 Emin major bonds - are investments made in the artist by her public. These have pleased both her investors and herself, giving artistic pleasure as well as increasing in value in a short time. With Emin Bonds, Emin has democratically widened the artist/dealer/patron relationship into a new, more co-operative economic order; one which is just as ludicrous, or sane, as the real one.
Emin's published texts are definitively important in the canon of her works. Exploration of the Soul (1994) is somewhere between being a brilliant tractatus cuntologico philosophicus and an honestly simple, child's courtroom evidence. This is an important piece of literature about the sub-fucks and counter sub-fucks in the hidden folds of childhood sexuality - the premature expiries of innocence. Exploration of the Soul is a principal testament from Emin to us, the comfortable, art-going public; it is a most terrifying, child's own story of wolfishly canine hard penises and the maidenhead.
Always Glad to See You (1996), is a smaller but intensely written work, of an acutely observed ethyl alcohol comedown - a spiritual dehydration and genital dysphoria. This concise remembrance of things past includes her now dead friend, Joshua Compston, and God. It describes the bloodily reflective dunking of an Orangina bottle by Tracey into herself, instead of the genteel dipping of cake into tea. Emin invites her readers to make themselves comfortable on My Coffin (1997), her beautifully blue and embroidered intended last resting place to read Always Glad to See You.
Exorcism of The Last Painting I Ever Made (1996), has a complementary function to the Tracey Emin Museum, but in a gallery context. This is an installed enclosure, a cage apparatus seemingly designed for psychological experimentation and behavioural observation of an art-making mammal. Here the raw evidences and struggles of an unashamedly natural art about the world and its depiction can be seen, along with the waste detritus and psycho-droppings of such creativity. Exorcism allows us a mute research opportunity, spiritually beyond art criticism's techniques of electric shocks and bananas. The measurement of success is here militantly self-determined, and we have observer status only. Safely shielded from the colossal heat of the miracles of success, and the goblins and demons of failure, we are silently privileged witnesses to the primary matrix of conscientious painting activity.
A different kind of mark-making is Kiss Me Kiss Me Cover my Body in Love (1997), the burning into the retina of a poetic text using neon. The use of pure, candyfloss coloured light and molten autography creates an emphatic exhilaration of Emin's text. For those coming from an English seaside town such as Margate, as Emin does, neon may be the seaside front of the soul, the light by which the feelings are illuminated.
Emin, as is now celebrated, has covered the inside of a tent with the appliqued names of all those she has ever shared a bed with: parents, foetuses, sibling, comatose friends and, of course, her lovers. This tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 (1995), is her portable Sistine Chapel, much enjoyed by both art connoisseurs and incredulous tourists, the ceiling of which is sewn with the titles of her histories: her Creations and Falls, her Floods and the Drunkennesses of her Noahs'. Emin's sewing works, works traditionally understood as the female makings of the domestic comforts of the hearth and home, now become the falsely reassuring, soft vehicles for contrasting the hardened steel contents of her stories - with which she gives us a sophisticated artistic mugging.
Emin's natural storytelling ability is further heightened by the sensitive quality of her spoken voice, which is melodiously intimate. Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995), is a video of her teenage vaginations in Margate with some males named as Shane, Eddie, Tony, Doug and Richard, and describes their unison, grunting shaming of her. This work is proudly redemptive and shows Emin, at conclusion, in a beautiful excelsis; dancing freely in the orbit of her own joy to Sylvester's beautifully sibilant, 'You Make Me Feel'.
Emin's drawings, her monotypes, cheerfully show an unashamed pleasure taken in hand-drawing skills, and are spontaneously authentic. These drawings and their caption texts are illustrative of further genito-recreation and abuse, in Margate and elsewhere. Her bittersweet line shows transient couplings taking place between both spirited and dispirited bodies, in a sugary dysfunction, which is pitted at the edges with a creeping acid corrosion. Emin shows, in a happily autistic manner, the incoming and outgoing tides of enjoyable sexiness, as well as less pleasant sexual sliminess - not wanking but drowning.
In her works, Emin proves to us a precious, necessarily fragile ability; an ability of unembarrassed fearlessness in the seeking of the greater significance of more real things, where an expansive spirituality is as real as cunts and cocks - except more shocking. Hers is a liberating growth from spiritual impoverishment which occurs when moistened by tears. Through the humility of an emotional surrendering, Emin's despairs are transmuted into a greatly increased vitality of life and art. Thus is allowed her a fearless deliberation in her consultation of the huge geological faultline of the artistic soul; the difference between two basic creative strata of making offerings towards, or inventively cynical defiances against, God, or the Godlike. This is not an easy choice, especially in the coldly conspicuous absence of such a shared creative consensus by her peers. This involves artist and audience in a difficult chirascura of the emotions - the seeking of the difference between self-compassion and self-hatred where, confusingly, each is informative of the other.
The dangers inherent in the reconciliation of Emin's unfeigned honesty with the hardcore and sophisticated business of the means of communicating it, is part of the great excitement of her work. It seems that it may be a condition of its success that its momentum continues partly by her willingness to communicate these learnings freely, as discreet teachings. These principally take the form of a generously shared storytelling - of a lived example - instead of a setting of instructions.
Although having a life and art which includes a moral opinion and which is capable of value judgments, her art is not judgemental or self-righteous, but is as modest, or naturally immodest, as appropriate. Although experientially bruised, Emin has not overly defined herself relative to a disputatious relationship with the authors of her misfortune, whether on a gender or any other basis. She does not perpetuate life's sufferings by the over-advertising of even the most legitimate indignations. Her observations of pain seem to be made more from an ethically experienced acceptance, that seeks to identify what is appropriately compassionate, than from a position of litigiously resentful petitionings and revenges.
Any concerns that Emin's raw material, her life's story so far, is exhaustible, and that she is living in an island autopia leading eventually to an auto-cannibalism, are unfounded. Conditional on faith, and faith in art, Tracey Emin's becomes a self-sustainable, mini eco-system of her feelings, whose principal resource is not the finality of the anecdotes of herself, but the infinite outside herself of which she is a part. The spiritual enrichments of her art benefit an endlessly expansive, less local interpretation. As Tracey Emin may, if she wishes, hold infinity in the palms of her hands, and eternity in an hour, then we shall certainly see Tracey Emin in a grain of Margate sand.
Emin's works are powerfully legible, unashamedly narrative mediations. She is an ethical artist whose art is blessedly free of the leprosies and gonorrhoeas of irony, parody, and the other contemporary etceteras... hers is a gently enforced, silly-clever-bastard, sarcasm free zone. Her works are a generous service to her community, which is us. They are the kindly works of a very singular artist, whose art of revelation is intimately convincing and which indicates the enormity beyond concealment.
1 This is a self-description taken from an interview with David Lillington in Metropolis magazine, issue 3, June 1996.
This essay is partly based on a review of The Tracey Emin Museum written by Neal Brown and published in frieze magazine, issue 27, March/April 1996.
First published in Brown, Neal, Kent, Sarah and Collings, Matthew. Tracey Emin, (London: Jay Jopling/White Cube, 1998)