Tracey Emin: Flying High by Sarah Kent


I feel terribly depressed... I’m starting to panic... It’s quite obvious I’m useless. In fact I’m starting to lose confidence all round. No wonder I stopped being an artist. I never for a moment thought I could just pick up where I left off, but I did think the excitement would push me to the challenge. But now fuck this fruitless pastime. I want something to happen. I want to feel real. Tracey Emin1

It was a calculated risk, a gamble. If it didn’t pay off, the humiliation would be public and the damage possibly permanent. Tracey Emin had turned an invitation to show in Galleri Andreas Brändström, in Stockholm into a personal challenge, an attempt to overcome a six-year block about painting.

She would spend two weeks incarcerated in a room built within the gallery where she would eat, sleep and make the exhibition. It was February 1996; outside the temperature was minus 15 degrees, inside it was warm enough for her to remain naked. She became both artist and model, on view while making the work to be viewed. Sixteen fish-eye lenses set into the wall enabled the public to watch her at work.

It was a struggle. She spent the first three days, surrounded by empty canvases, on the phone talking to friends. Carl Freedman’s advice to, ‘paint something you would like to own’, instigated the first picture - a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The spell had been broken. In the paintings that followed, Emin paid homage to various artists she admired. She also reclaimed the female nude. A picture of a woman lying with her legs splayed is based on a drawing by Egon Schiele. At one time she earned a living as a life model so, in a sense, the picture is also a self-portrait. Photographs taken in the gallery, which show her both painting and lying in a pose familiar from life-drawing classes, underline a fact so obvious that it is easily overlooked. A woman artist is as likely to identify with a female model as with the artist. And if she portrays a female nude, she instigates a dialogue between artist, subject and viewer that disrupts the familiar configuration of male artist and female model.

When a male artist exhibits a nude, he invites the viewer to admire her beauty and to share his intimacy with her. ‘She flaunts her body’, writes Liam Hudson, ‘he flaunts the fact that he has privileged access to her.’2 She displays herself, the artist displays ownership. The model appears to be the subject of the interaction when actually she is a form of currency. Her nudity is a device, writes Hudson, ‘for affirming the masculinity of men in a male world... her nakedness is not a function of her sexuality but of the sexuality of those who have access to the picture.’3 Her acquiescence is taken for granted; the subject of the conversation is not expected to contribute to the discussion or to question the basis of the exchange.

By confusing the roles of artist and model, Emin transforms the seductive object into an active subject and, by seizing the initiative, issues a challenge as well as a promise. She still opens herself to our gaze, but there is a condition attached; we have to acknowledge that her sexuality is hers to offer, not ours to take.

For some, the provocation proved too great. When she was a student at Maidstone College of Art, Emin exhibited a series of female nudes influenced by the German Expressionists. The poses were explicit, and she was asked to remove the work on the grounds of obscenity. Why, though, did images that are on display in museums and are considered an important part of art history become offensive when re-presented by a woman artist?

The issue is one of propriety, a word that refers both to ownership and to decency and thereby, indicates the links that unite the two concepts. Seemly behaviour is a sign of subservience, an indication that a woman’s, sexuality is not hers to explore as she pleases but is subject to rules that it is unwise to disobey. Disdain for decorum marks you out as a slut and a threat - as someone who asserts the right to employ her sexuality as she chooses rather than as society sees fit.

Once you have understood this says the French writer, Helene Cixous, you are able, ‘to see more closely the inanity of “propriety”4 and to escape the prohibitions that it imposes. ‘Those who have known the ignominy of persecution’, she writes, ‘derive from it an obstinate future desire for grandeur; those who are locked up know better than their jailers the taste of free air.’5


Growing up in the seaside town of Margate, Tracey Emin was subjected to small town opprobrium and by the time she was a teenager, she had already acquired the ‘future desire for grandeur’ described by Cixous. She also developed the determination to escape disapproval and its pernicious companion, guilt.

In her video Why I never Became a Dancer (1995), she recalls her bid to leave Margate by winning the British Dancing Championship. As she danced, a gang of lads, most of whom she had had sex with, began to chant, ‘Slag, Slag, Slag’, so loudly that they drowned out the music and drove her off the dance floor. The video ends with Tracey twirling joyously round and round. ‘Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard... this one’s for you’, she beams triumphantly as she spins further and further out of their orbit.

Leaving a place may be relatively easy, but casting off the negative aftermath requires a long, slow process of disengagement. The hostility she encountered as a wayward teenager left its mark. A self-portrait is captioned, ‘If only I could just go back to start again’. A sheet of paper is covered with her name written in different typefaces, as though testing options for a new identity and a fresh start. Anger was accompanied by a residue of shame that induced disenchantment with her body and its appetites. In the drawing Some Things I am - Some I am Not, she fantasises an improved version of her appearance. Before-and-after sketches of breasts, inspired by adverts for plastic surgery, are captioned, ‘My tits were giant once, but now they’re little sagging bits of flesh... It’s not just how they look, it’s how I feel that fucks me off. Body changes induced by pregnancy become symbols of failure.

The paintings and drawings made in Stockholm continue this process. Emin re-enacted one of Yves Klein’s Anthropometries. Klein’s performances were highly ritualised. A series of naked women pressed their blue-painted bodies against blank canvases while an orchestra sustained a single note for ten minutes, followed by ten minutes of silence. The invited audience wore evening dress; so did the artist who directed the event without getting his hands dirty.

By contrast, Emin worked in the nude and used her own flesh as a template. Ceremony was replaced by secrecy, the ritualised display of power by solitary acts of reclamation. ‘Painted blue’, she recalls, ‘I felt like a warrior.’6 The imprints on the canvas may look similar, but their meaning is fundamentally different. Klein’s inscriptions confirm the archetypal distinction between woman as body (nature) and man as mind (culture). Emin’s body traces, on the other hand, are impregnated with consciousness. They are active rather than passive - a declaration of presence rather than a demonstration of obedience.

On another canvas, she gives us a literal depiction of intercourse. A couple copulates doggy fashion, the least intimate of positions. Underneath is written, ‘If I have to be honest I’d rather not be painting’. The veil of decorum has been lifted. Romantic reverie is banished in favour of realism and a blunt assertion of sexual appetite. D. H. Lawrence was charged with obscenity when in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he described sex with similar frankness. Emin’s picture and caption make an implicit claim - that a sexually active woman forfeits neither dignity nor integrity.

One painting shows a smoker contemplating a figure sitting on the lavatory. Beneath is written, ‘The first cigarette of the day always makes me want to shit. This is my first.’ The body as icon is replaced by the body in action, a static ideal by a functioning organism. Rather than viewing the female body as a beautiful envelope, an object of desire, Emin describes the experience from within - as an inhabitant of female flesh.

The rawness of her imagery - the nervy lines and scrawled comments - are reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s hyper-charged fusions of image and text. Emin pays homage to the tradition but, like Basquiat’s, her imagery emanates from elsewhere. Its kinship is more with cartoons, graffiti, children’s drawings, doodles and ‘outsider’ art than the academy in which she was schooled. Rather than emulating those who created the canon, she adopts drawing styles that are more in keeping with her ‘deviant’ observations.

In 1997 at the South London Gallery she recreated her stay in Stockholm as an installation which she described as the ‘fingerprint’ of the event and titled, Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, That last painting was a Deposition made in 1990 shortly before the discovery that she was pregnant. Emin had an abortion, but the remorse that followed simply confirmed the sense of failure that had prompted the termination, and she stopped working for several years.


In January 1993 she opened a shop in Bethnal Green with fellow artist, Sarah Lucas. They made everything on sale - from badges to T-shirts, prints, drawings and sculptures. The shop soon became a meeting place and, through it, Emin met Jay Jopling who invited her to exhibit at his gallery, White Cube.

She had six weeks to prepare what she ironically titled, My Major Retrospective. Snapshots of the paintings she had destroyed after her abortion were mounted on tiny canvases, like keepsakes. Teapots, trolls and other juvenilia were arranged as a series of assemblages and a wall of framed memorabilia that included family snaps, letters and diary entries offered a resume of her Margate childhood.

Uncle Colin commemorated the death of her favourite uncle, who was decapitated in a car crash. Photographs of him and his beloved E-type Jaguar are juxtaposed with the crushed packet of cigarettes that he was clutching when he died and newspaper coverage of the fatal collision.

Quick Silver is like a shrine celebrating her relationship with her twin brother Paul. Photographs of the twins, their birth tags and a bottle of the mercury they used to play with are accompanied by a text recalling Tracey’s desolation at her first separation from him. ‘When Paul went to prison... I started to behave strangely - insanely restless - I felt so alone like nothing mattered at all - it seemed I had no friends, no one to talk to - no one to trust - nothing to share’.

She is a remarkable storyteller and writing is an important aspect of her work. She recounts her experiences with such vividness and poignancy that they acquire universal significance. Small-town tales become reflections on the crummy pathos of the human condition. I have seen an audience moved to tears as they listened to her recounting episodes from her life; minor tragedies provoked tears of recognition as well as of compassion.

Her writing takes many forms - letters, short stories, books, remarks written on drawings, extended captions and neon signs. In her exhibition at the South London Gallery, a pink neon sign emitted a cry of pain and loss, 'You put your hand across my mouth but still the noise continues. Every part of my body is screaming. I'm lost - about to be smashed into a thousand, million pieces. Each part forever belonging to you'.

The pathos came from the contradictions. A private, handwritten message was beamed across a public space, a scream of anguish was whispered in a colour whose pallor implied vulnerability rather than rage. Emin thrives on such oppositions. Her need to communicate is accompanied by a desire for privacy. In the assemblage, Under the Influence of Painting she writes, 'I don't really want anyone to come in here -to come inside of me - to see inside my mind'.

Working Methods

Most of us suppress painful recollections by blocking access to the unconscious; but Emin has devised ways of foiling these mechanisms. 'Keeping secrets is one of the most dangerous things you can do', she says. 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.' A deadline is a powerful incentive and, once started, she works rapidly and without pause. Her book Exploration of the Soul (1994), was produced in a ten-day binge of unedited writing. In words and pictures, she recounts the story of her life up to the loss of her virginity at thirteen.

The book starts with a euphoric description of the twins' conception. 'The whole idea is so fucking exciting. Making love so insanely - to the point of oblivion. Swimming eight miles against the tide we made it - both of us. Against all the odds from nothing except the pure • passion - that brought us into the world/ Then, in a roller coaster ride of emotion, it plummets into misery. 'When I was born - they thought I was dead. Paul arrived first - ten minutes before me - then it was my turn - I just rolled - small and yellow with eyes closed - I didn't cry but the moment of my birth into this world I somehow felt a mistake had been made...'

The disjointed narrative is like an extended poem, a series of vivid snapshots. 'All Paul and I wanted was to be normal like other children', Emin recalls, 'but it was impossible - we were twins - and we had uncanny reactions - to each other and the rest of the world... She told us - she loved us - that she would do anything for us - Strange to think that we were an accident - strange to think - she'd booked into a clinic - to have us aborted...'

The book ends with Tracey's rape and the bitter realisation that innocence and trust were lost irrevocably, 'My childhood was over - I had become conscious of my own physicality - aware of my single presence - I had become open to the ugly truths of this world - At the age of thirteen I realised there was a danger in beauty and innocence - I could not have both...'

The immediacy of her drawings depends on working rapidly and without censure. The drawings for her 1995 exhibition in Hamburg were done on arrival in her hotel room. With wine, cigarettes and music to help induce a state of trance-like concentration, she produced thirty monoprints in a day. The monoprint is her preferred medium. A sheet of glass is inked in dark blue; the paper is laid on and a line drawing made. When the paper is peeled off, the ink attaches along the line so creating a mirror image of the drawing on the underside of the paper.

Called Illustrations of Memory, the Hamburg drawings are like retrospective diary entries. The child-like immediacy of the spindly lines is reminiscent of Paul Klee. Emin's technique has parallels with the practice devised by the Swiss artist of, 'taking a line for a walk'. Allowing his hand to move effortlessly over the paper enabled him to watch the drawing unfold as though he were a spectator. As a follower of Jung, Klee thought of the artist as a medium, a conduit through which images surface from the collective unconscious. Emin's lines look as if they have seeped through the paper unaided; this gives the uncanny impression that they are communications from elsewhere - from the other side of consciousness, or of the grave.

Often accompanying her drawings are words scrawled in capitals, sometimes in mirror writing, often mis-spelled. This creates that strange mixture of anonymity and immediacy that is typical of utterances that emanate from an unknown source, such as graffiti or messages spelled out on a Ouiji board. Even when they seem to be addressed to an individual, the words often seem universal - as though they were giving voice to our collective hopes and fears.

Some of Emin's captions read like lyrics, 'Can you hear me. I don't love you... But I want to make love to you again and again and again'. Many are indictments. A man in a bondage hood stands before a kneeling woman. The drawing is captioned, 'You fucked my mouth, smashed my head against the wall. I was 13 -and you were nothing but pure evil'. A drawing of the Margate seafront is juxtaposed with the money, cigarettes and watch that Tracey stole in revenge for another humiliating event referred to in the caption, 'There was Eddy. He was 26, I was only 14. He took me to the Naland Rock and fucked me. He was pathetic - two seconds and it was over.'

The tawdriness of childhood trauma is brought vividly to life. Angular marks portray a figure that resembles a rag doll or puppet -collapsed, broken, vomiting or bleeding. Comments such as, 'It's not me that's crying. It's my soul' and, 'I don't know what the fuck I am. There's something wrong. It's fucking agony and I'm alone', indicate extremes of emotional and physical pain.

The International Hotel

Tracey was abused from the age of eight; after being raped at thirteen, she became promiscuous. The hurt and the depression that followed led to an attempted suicide, but the work is defiant. The adult woman has found ways of exorcising the pain. Rage is converted into raw energy and self-pity into an unflinching appetite for self-exploration. A macabre humour infects some of the work. A drawing of an aborted foetus rising up to heaven is titled, Saying goodbye to Mummy. The spikey naivety of the image may imply immaturity, but Emin neither pretends innocence nor avoids responsibility. Her intense curiosity, the ease with which she communicates with strangers and her desire to share intimate experiences with them must surely have been influenced by her upbringing. Her father had two families and spent half the week in each household. Her mother ran an eighty room hotel in Margate and in this environment, where public and private realms intertwined, the twins compensated for the consequent dilution of family life by developing an intense mutual dependency based on a secret language. While basking in the attention lavished on them by staff and guests, they learned to gain privacy in the semi-public domain of the hotel. This did not protect the young Tracey from the sexual advances of visitors nor did it prevent her from spying on the guests and witnessing things normally reserved for adult eyes.

Whether transforming a hotel room in Hamburg or a gallery in Stockholm into a temporary studio, Emin often reproduces the interface between public and private that characterised her childhood in the International Hotel. The shop in Bethnal Green Road was the first space that she opened to the public. Then came The Tracey Emin Museum, a shop in Waterloo Road converted into a studio and gallery, where she showed her work and shared her experiences with people.

The most poignant of these public/private spaces is a sculpture titled, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95 (1995). An igloo-shaped tent is appliqued with the names of everyone that Emin has shared a bed with, including Paul with whom she shared her mother's womb and the foetuses that briefly lodged inside her own. In order to read the names and stories attached to the walls, you have to crawl into the enclosure and lie on the message appliqued on the blanket covering the floor, 'With myself, always myself, never forgetting'.

Entering the artist's world, you are embraced by the unfolding story of her life. Welcomed into a capsule that is, metaphorically, her bed, her womb and her brain, for an intense while you become her confidant. Yet like sex with a stranger, intimacy ends with separation and departure. The work implies that sharing is inevitably shortlived; that, sustained by memory, one's sense of continuity comes from affirming your own identity - from letting go, rather than clinging on.

A Turning Point

Emin's Stockholm retreat was a turning point. It provided the opportunity to grieve over her abortion and to dispel the painting block that it had produced. It also allowed her to mourn the recent death of her grandmother. A painting of herself waving a last farewell provided a way of saying goodbye and letting go. The sculpture, There's A Lot of Money in Chairs (1994), serves as an epitaph to her grandmother, who gave her the circular seat. It is now appliqued with the observation, 'It's not what you inherit. It's what you do with your inheritance'. This could be Emin's motto.

As the past loses its hold, she is able to look forward as well as back. Mad Tracey from Margate (1997), is a piece celebrating friendship. Made from clothing provided by friends such as Angus Fairhurst, Carl Freedman, Lorcan O'Neal, Georgina Starr and Billy Childish, her patchwork quilt is the ultimate security blanket, an embodiment of the fight against loneliness.

A series of photographs of the artist wearing each set of clothes pays tribute to the importance of friends in shaping one's identity.

A series of Super 8 films shot on holiday in Cyprus with her father, and titled, Emin and Emin Productions, pays tribute to her family. Father and daughter film one another running into the sea ~ a metaphor for the passage of time and the succession of the generations. In Exploration of the Soul she writes, 'The sea - a deep blue keeps turning, the stars shine - the sun rolls and the earth moves around it - and sperm doesn't stop, it just goes on for ever - like pollen blowing in the wind, rolling in time...'

A flock of plaster seagulls flew across her exhibition in the South London Gallery. In various cultures, birds are seen as symbols of the poetic imagination, of freedom and the soul escaping the body. Yet this aggressive bird that bickers over scraps of food left by holiday makers, is an unlikely symbol of transcendence.

This strange choice indicates one of Emin's greatest talents - her ability to transform a commonplace into a story, an object or an event that has universal significance. Titled, In our family, when someone dies, their bodies are cremated and their ashes are thrown across the sea, her plaster flock is a family emblem. It is also a symbol of her escape from the petty provincialism of Margate and her subsequent journey toward independence and maturity. One can see the birds as representing every woman's potential to fly the nest of conformism and to conduct her life according to her own moral code.

'Flying is woman's gesture - flying in language and making it fly', writes Helene Cixous. 'We have all learned the art of flying and its numerous techniques; for centuries we have been able to possess anything only by flying; we've lived in flight, stealing away, finding, when desired, narrow passageways, hidden crossovers. It's no accident that voter has a double meaning... women take after birds and robbers just as robbers take after women and birds. They go by, fly the coop, take pleasure in jumbling the order of space, in disorienting it, in changing around the furniture, dislocating things and values, breaking them all up, emptying structures, and turning propriety upside down.7

Emin's subject matter is herself; her life story is the source of her pain and her pride. She mines this resource ruthlessly - pinpointing the pettiness, hypocrisy and abuses of trust and probing the disappointments, loneliness and fear that one experiences so keenly in childhood as well as celebrating the happiness and the euphoria. It provides what the painter, Bridget Riley, refers to as her text. 'An artist is someone with a text which he or she wants to decipher', says Riley; 'such a text cannot be created or invented but only discovered within the artist himself... It is his most precious possession, and, as Proust explains, the source of his innermost happiness.'8

The quality that makes her work special is generosity. She opens her heart and mind without seeking sympathy or forgiveness. Helene Cixous attributes generosity to women in general. 'She gives more', she writes, 'with no assurance that she'll get back even some unexpected profit from what she puts out. She gives that there may be some life, thought, transformation.'9

Having turned propriety on its head, Tracey Emin has often experienced disapproval and L suffered the guilt that it engenders; but she has used her experiences to the advantage of us all. An encounter with her and her work confirms that, with courage, honesty and commitment, flying high is always possible.


1 Extracts from Under the Influence of Painting, assemblage with text 1997

2 Liam Hudson Bodies of Knowledge Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982 p133

3 Liam Hudson op cit p116

4 Helene Cixous 'Utopias' in Marks de Coutrivon (ed) New French Feminisms Harvest Wheatsheaf, 1981 p259

5 Helene Cixous op cit p258

6 Unless otherwise stated, comments by the artist were made in conversation with the author in preparation for this essay

7 Helene Cixous op cit p258. Voter means to fly and to steal

8 Bridget Riley quoted by Michael Braceweil in The Guardian Weekcend March 15 1997 p16

9 Helene Cixous op cit p264

Sarah Kent is art critic for Time Out.

First published in Brown, Neal, Kent, Sarah and Collings, Matthew. Tracey Emin, (London: Jay Jopling/White Cube, 1998)