‘Ms. Emin’s nihilism is so intensely passionate that it amounts to her life force. It is carried (…) primarily by language (…). In this day of multiple media and blurred boundaries between disciplines, it still seems that she might be less an artist than a writer, whose autobiography and hard-won philosophy of life would work best in book form. But in whatever form Ms. Emin chooses to work, one thing seems clear: she’s all voice.’ Roberta Smith, NYT
Yes, I know, I haven’t chosen something easy to write about, especially being this my first article.
Today Tracey Emin is one of the most controversial contemporary artists, some say that her works are ‘too much’: too much depression, too much sadness, too much passion. She knows how to provoke the viewer, she knows how to make us feel. It is as if she was saying ‘You can choose whether to open yourselves to my artworks and accept whatever emotions they may cause you, or you can go on living emotionless your gray and dull life’. Because despite all the tragedies she went through, her life is a blaze of colours.
Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in London, and she is one of the most well-known British contemporary artists of today. Her arguably most famous work is My Bed, exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999 and which represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007. The bed (yup, the artwork title is quite self-explanatory) exhibited was the actual bed where she spent hours and hours smoking, eating, or having sexual intercourses in a quite difficult period of her life. For this reason, her artwork attracted not little media attention: it wasn’t just a bed, it was a bed surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, sheets full of weird stains, used condoms and empty cigarettes packets. Some thought ‘I didn’t come to an art gallery to see used condoms!”, but thankfully a lot more people appreciated the underlying intensity of her sorrow and despair.
Oh, yeah, she is also famous because in 1997 she appeared drunk on TV in the discussion panel of the program ‘The Death of Painting’ (…or ‘Is Painting Dead?’, according to The Guardian). I actually looked for the video but couldn’t find it (please, share the link if you do!).
Tracey Emin’s ‘A Fortnight of Tears’ is now on at White Cube Bermondsey until April 7. If you’re in London, GO AND SEE IT. I mean it. (If it wasn’t clear enough, it was quite a long time that I wasn’t that emotional about an exhibition).
The artworks exhibited are how Tracey translated her sufferings into material, artistic objects. Each and every one of them (and they’re quite a large number) is a punch in the stomach of the visitor. Starting from the first room, where fifty self-portraits taken during her sleepless nights of insomnia are hanged on the walls, the intimacy of her devastated glances made me feel naked and uneasy, almost as if the ghosts haunting her nights were in that same room, with me.
Those very same ghosts are the ones that appear in the next exhibited artworks: her passed away mother and her unborn child… or actually children – in the exhibition only one abortion is fully mentioned, but she had two: ‘After three [abortions] you start going mad. I’ve had two and I’m borderline.’
The ghosts of motherhood and femininity pervade the rest of the exhibition: the two naked bronze sculptures laying on the floor, leaving us to wonder whether they are unborn foetus or despairing figures; the paintings, representing female figures drawn with such an anger that sometimes they just seem splashes of blood on the canvas; or the silent video she made filming slowly, with a deathly calm, her mother’s box of ashes. The last piece of the exhibition is a 22 minutes-long video where she tells us of her first traumatising abortion in 1990, and of how that experience has had a profound impact on the rest of her life. Her strength, once again, consists in how she doesn’t hide, how she explains in full details how it went, how she calmly doesn’t spare us anything of that story.
In one document, contained in one of the two vitrines collecting intimate and improvised writings from her archive – some are also on sheets with the logo of hotels where she was staying -, she writes ‘Always so alone, so scared – so not wanted.’ And she has that incredible power that only very few artists have nowadays, of making the viewer feel discomfort as if her despair was theirs.
But, of course, only if you are open to embrace her works. That is why she is such a controversial artist: by thinking rationally, by examining her technique, one will never get to the bottom of her works. I feel it to be a bit like looking at a Pollock and saying ‘My child could have done that!’ One also need to consider the fortnights of tears the author spent creating that same artwork you are admiring today.