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What are the intentions behind Tracey Emin’s autobiographical work?

Tw: mentions of sexual trauma and abuse, child abuse, suicidal thoughts, miscarriage, themes of mental illness


The most famous living artist in Britain, a celebrity more familiar to us from television and the tabloids than the fine art library” (Merck and Townsend, 2002, p.6).

In this research project, I will be investigating the reasoning behind the infamously unapologetic autobiographical artist Tracey Emin’s work. Emin is known for a plethora of things, especially for being in the eye of the media as the latter quote suggests. Emin is a white female artist, a feminist and a ‘Young British Artist’ (also known as yBa). The yBa’s are a collective of visual artists who pursued exhibiting together in London in the 1980’s. “The yBa’s seem to depend markedly upon strategies of the ‘re’. Think reprise; think reply; think repeat; think reinterpretation” (Merck and Townsend, 2002, p.8). This strategy of ‘re’ is undeniably evident in Emin’s work as she herself is the focus within her own narrative. She reclaims her experiences and makes them her own stories to publicise through her art, books and multiple newspaper columns. Perhaps part of Emin’s oeuvre and fearlessness comes from being a part of the yBa’s, although this is not always received greatly. Collings states looking at yBa’s art is “…Like being stuck behind children or old or blind people in a crowd at an underground station, when you’re in a hurry for a train” (Collings, 1997, pp. 118-119).

An autobiographical artist is an artist whose primary focus or subject of their work is their self or their personal experiences. This can be (but is not limited to) their thoughts, feelings or recalling experiences. “That the world is thought, and at time’s complex in the multiplicity of its meanings, challenged easy reception of Emin’s oeuvre as immediate and unproblematically autobiographical” (Merck and Townsend, 2002, p.7).

My Bed (Emin, 1999).

Moreover, ‘My Bed’ (one of the artworks Emin is most infamous for) proves that she is in fact an autobiographical artist, and undeniably a fearless one too. Emin was nominated for the 1999 Turner Prize for this work, alongside artists’ such as Steven Pippin, Jane and Louise Wilson and the winner, Steve McQueen. During this time, the nomination which was paid the most attention to in the media seemed to be Emin’s taboo sculpture of ‘My Bed.’ This was an installation of a replica of her unmade, dirty and lived in bed. The fact that this artwork is a replica only caused more of an uproar of controversy. As it is not her real bed but indeed a copy, it caused further backlash in opposition to the dedication it took to recreate such a piece. This was accompanied by masses of private and personal items including condom wrappers, ashtrays full of cigarettes and empty bottles of alcohol. Much like Emin, this work demanded an intense attention; most times, not a positive one. “My clothes feel stuck to me. I smell of decay, the acrid smell of a lonely person, a person with no respect or regard for themselves” (Emin, 2006, p.34).

It is no secret that Emin wears her heart on her sleeve, and is not always met with the critiques she would ideally like to receive. When the controversy of ‘My Bed’ in the art world first started, it angered a wide group of people ranging from the public to culture secretaries. “It makes me so angry to see these so-called artists glorifying a messy bedroom. What is the world coming to when a major art exhibition sends out this message?” (Mother interviewed in The Sun, 1999).

Emin combatted these criticisms with a statement in the ‘Big Issue’ of the time, stating “If there’s no genuine feeling it comes across as if they’ve just chosen a subject and done a small project on it. What I’m doing is a life-long project” (Emin, 1999). This is Emin further accentuating the fact that she is an autobiographical artist who is unafraid to share her personal thoughts and opinions. However, she is perhaps pitting indirect negative comments upon other artists of her time, yet again leading controversy wherever she goes.

It got to the point where the Tate had to create a standard response to complaints about hosting Emin’s work. “Many modern artists take the view that art should address the more unpleasant realities of life and should not necessarily be conventionally beautiful … Tracey Emin, while controversial, is a well-respected contemporary artist of the younger generation and already has an international reputation – My Bed was shown in exhibitions in New York and Tokyo earlier this year” (The Tate, 1999). Emin has a way of creating controversy not just through her works, but indeed her own self-expression and how she carries herself through life.

The rationale behind this research project is to try and determine the intentions behind her work. To do so, I will be looking into the artworks “I’ve got it All” (Emin, 2000), “My Bed” (Emin, 1999) and “Terribly Wrong” (Emin, 1997) all of which have been created by Emin. I will also be exploring other artworks and criticisms relating to Emin. Whether this be for personal gain in terms of finance, a form of therapy, an ascendance as an artist or a less selfish and more ‘moral’ way to publicise her completely personal, and tragic experiences. Perhaps either to raise awareness of these issues, or to be of comfort to others who can unfortunately relate to her trauma and to remind them that they are not alone. My first module of my final year in my degree was on the topic of graphic authorship. This sparked a more divine and genuine interest into the topic of autobiographical artist’s and to extend my knowledge further within this subject. I feel Emin is a key artist to base this research on, as she draws a great attention not only as an artist but as a ‘celebrity’ who is unapologetic in the way that they come across, and what they choose to put out into the world.

Emin is a divine force who is an open book about her thoughts, feelings and trauma. These contributing factors lead me to ask, what compels her to make these negative and intensely personal and private experiences public? What possesses her to continue to sell this work? “And all the things I think, and all the things I believe, are making me cry” (Emin, 2006, p.161) .

Does Emin produce work to move past her traumatic experiences?

Emin is an open book and in being so she has propelled her life full of obvious trauma in to the public eye. This can be seen not only in interviews, art works, newspaper columns but also her books. She talks heavily of wishing she was never born and her own multiple suicide attempts, she is very open and honest about them. “But at the moment of my birth in to this world, I somehow felt a mistake had been made. I couldn’t scream or cry or argue my case. I just lay motionless, wishing I could go back where I came from” (Emin, 2006, p.3). I believe it is of public opinion that we don’t share these kinds of feelings or emotions so openly as a society. “Current research indicates that people’s earliest memories date from around 3 to 3.5 years of age” (Association for Psychological Science - APS, 2018). The content of this article indicates that even if we do have memories from a younger age, most likely these are fragments we have put together through being shown photographs and being told stories from other people. Ultimately, our brain believes we remember this even when it isn’t a raw memory. This suggests that perhaps Emin isn’t as truthful as she presents herself and is perhaps yearning and searching for empathy, staging traumatic experiences to yearn for attention.

“Pitting life in a narrative implies creative staging of memory which resonates in pieces relating to Emin” (Marcus, Griffith and Swindells, 1995, p.13). There becomes a question as to how would Emin know that she felt like this as a new-born and can we trust that she felt this way? Can we trust any artist’s or person’s account of their experiences, or do we take it in good knowledge that we ourselves are guilty of perhaps perpetuating an exaggerated recollection to add emphasis to our stories and reclaim our own narratives, whether they be positive or negative?

Emin is undeniably, controversially and unrequitedly herself. A great deal of her work is drawn not only from ‘memories’ but life experiences far before she ever became an artist. This can be seen time and time again throughout her work. “The work is urgent; quick in its transmission of emotion, and part of its urgency seems to derive from hurried production.” (Merck and Townsend, 2002, p.10). This quote suggests that she is reclaiming her voice which she once silenced. It seems that her work equates to that of revisited catharsis; unpacking and revisiting her trauma on her own terms.

Terribly Wrong” (Emin, 1997).

We see exactly this time and time again throughout her oeuvre. A prime example of this would be her mono-prints, which have a sense of urgency and hurry throughout them. They often focus on past experiences with mono-printing being the perfect medium to derive a stream of consciousness in. Every pass is unique and immediate. She created this piece after having a horrendous week, including having an abortion, which is depicted in the artwork itself. The scratchy drawing style alongside the spontaneous typography shows a pain, a rush and almost an engraving in to the work. The image depicts a woman’s (Emin’s) lower body, legs open with blood spilling, signifying that intensely personal decision she went through during this time.

It also suggests that her ‘hurried production’ is a form of self-care; she is helping herself withdraw from her constant thoughts and emotions. It seems that the quick production of her work is valuable to herself; it is not only a distraction but a way of putting her thoughts and feelings out in to the world, and out of her head. “I had to create something completely new, or nothing at all” (The South Bank Show, 2001).

Emin often compares herself to a bird and believes that this symbolises freedom. Leading through example, I believe Emin is combating the stigma attached to speaking about our problems and how we may feel and being brutally honest in doing so. “Emins oeuvre has been offered to the world with the tear-stained and torn guarantee of authenticity.” (Merck and Townsend, 2002, p.11). An obvious example of this is written in her own words;

I suppose we’re all born to die. I sometimes - well, a lot of times - wish that I had never been born. I’m convinced I arrived here by mistake. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I really feel that if it weren’t for Paul I would never have been born. I could’ve stayed where I was”. (Emin, 2006, p.6).

Narcissism or Self-Hatred?

“All Paul and I wanted was to be normal, like other children”. (Emin, 2006, p.6). Emin speaks openly in ‘Strangeland’ about her twin brother and their tight knit relationship and in turn, the breakdown of this. She recollects how they were inseparable until exploring sexual activities inevitably drove them apart. “Paul said, okay, he didn’t want to be got by god, because he didn’t love us anyway” (Emin, 2006, p.13). Paul is commenting on his religion in response to acting in a ‘bad way’ and doing unspeakable things. This seemed to follow through in to his adult life. They had the type of relationship that twins generally do until this age with a few oddities thrown in; for example, “Carried on sharing a double bed” (Emin, 2006, p.7) while they were still in school; they shared everything with one another. This relationship obviously transcended in to one somewhat tarnished and moreover may contribute to some of the reasoning behind people assuming that she is narcissistic; “When Paul went to prison, I cried at first. Not for Paul but for me” (Emin, 2006, p.64). She openly admits that she felt her own emotion in place of his in this instance. It is of general opinion and a shared feeling that we as human beings should put one another first in place of ourselves, but sometimes life doesn’t go this way. “There is a huge myth in our culture that it's time to shake up — the idea that putting yourself first is selfish. When you love another person (whether it's your partner, a family member or friend), you prioritize thinking about their desires, needs, interests, proclivities and so on, right? This makes sense: we want to make those we love happy; we want to make them feel heard and understood. But loving others doesn't mean that you can't love yourself, too. In fact, perhaps we should all try to cultivate more love for ourselves than we do for others” (Thomas, 2020). Thomas suggests that putting ourselves first is not only not selfish, it is vital to our continued development as humans; it doesn’t make us narcissistic. To put it simply, things are not in black and white. Feelings complicate things to become more than a simple correction of right or wrong. Can we blame her for feeling this way? Can we blame anyone for the way that they feel?

Emin undeniably takes public persona personally, and with this being a general mix of juxtaposing sides of for and against not only her work but also what she stands for, I can only imagine that it must be hard to try and make some sense of it all. Many a critic have stated their feelings that Emin is not truthful within her work. “…I believe disingenuously, described this confessional art as ‘truth’” (Betterton, 2002, p.26).

Richard Dorment has expressed that he believes that Emin is a ‘phoney’ (Dorment, 2007) and that he is not a fan of her, or her work.

"Emin shows memorabilia amassed during the course of a life marked by promiscuity, rape, abortion, alcohol abuse and financial destitution, but also by phenomenal critical and financial success, achieved by marketing graphic descriptions of her most intimate feelings and degrading experiences as works of art. Billing herself as a modern day Expressionist, Emin brings life — in the forms of videos and things taken from the real world — into the art gallery and leaves it there, more or less unchanged, like unprocessed sewage. . . .What interests me about Emin is not her relentless self-absorption, limitless self-pit or compulsion to confess the sad details of her past life, but that all of this adds up to so little of real interest” (Dorment, 1999).

Dorment is an avid believer in exactly what has just been stated in the last quote, stretching his opinions throughout multiple articles and reviews. He sets up this commentary almost as praise and then continues to undercut it with his negative undertone. Dorment makes a point of stating that her work is like that of ‘unprocessed sewage’. There becomes an argument as to whether she can be a ‘phoney’ or if he is in fact contradicting himself throughout this sentiment; her work is her. How can she be a phoney if the ‘untouched’ work are parts of her, regardless of whether it is an ode to self-absorption or not? Perhaps it is because the truth is possibly not factual and we have to take her word for it. Perhaps it is because he believes the work doesn’t amount to much talent, or that he doesn’t see past the mask of self-pity. An example of this sentiment being shared is in the controversy surrounding ‘My Bed’ (Emin, 1999). As stated before, this work was a replica of her bed. Can we accept this being a step by step replica statue, or perhaps a dramatized version of a depressive episode? Perhaps some critics find it hard to see if there is a talent in scattering a bed with condoms and cigarettes and ’calling it art’, but it goes so much deeper than that.

There is an argument of if truth is subjective, can anybody decide if Emin’s ‘truth’ is indeed factual, other than herself? “I poured out my worries to a friend, hoping it would make me feel better, but what I told him became an open secret, fireflies in the dark” (Ahmad Ibu-al-Qaf, eleventh century, p.2). This quote was included as a preface to the book ‘Strangeland’ by Emin. This is an apt and interesting quote to add some insight in to her ‘truth’. Fireflies light up the darkness; the more she is asked questions the more cracks appear in her psyche. Ultimately, she can’t escape from her secrets and would rather take control in presenting them to the world herself; freeing herself from the constraints of the trauma that has plagued her.

Erving Goffman, a socialist and social psychologist presented research in the mid 1960’s that suggested that as human beings, we present different faces to the world (Goffman, 2014). This is to fit in with others and hide part of ourselves to play in to a group ideology. While parts of Emins oeuvre seem to somewhat play in to this theory, it may be a surface level of pity which she craves, showcasing throughout her work. Perhaps another ‘face’ she presents is her egotistical and unbreakable stature to the world as a form of self-preservation. Ultimately, it seems that Emin juxtaposes this research and instead of hiding her truth to avoid stigma; she fights it head on, seen time and time again. “Emin is astonishingly, fearlessly, exemplarily true to the voice she was born with” (Janusczack, 2001).

“I’ve got it all”

I’ve got it all (Emin, 2000).

This is an ironically titled photographic solution by Emin, measuring at 4x3ft in size. Emin is sitting with her bottom half bare, legs spread wide, gazing down to her hands while ‘caught’ by the camera. She takes up a large portion of the image and in doing so becomes the audience’s focal point. This reiterates that the artwork in question is centred around her. The composition of the image cuts her legs just short of her feet. She is sat in what seems to be an almost empty room, sparsely decorated by a singular, what seems to be a full ‘Ryman’s stationary’ plastic bag in the background on the right. The room is also littered with money that she is seen to be shovelling towards her groin. Her hands are overflowing with this money,

notably seen through the strain shown in her hands. The lighting of the image further accentuates Emin as the focal point, shone brightly to illuminate her and to darken the background. The latter mentioned lighting technique lightens the other items in the foreground, such as the money. The low lighting suggests a low technology in a highly fought after print. It is also important to note that this is a polaroid image which has been blown up to a larger scale. This could signify the urgency to take this image; polaroid is the fastest form of instant photo printing, especially in 2000. Additionally, it may also signify the juxtaposition between ‘cheap’ and ‘rich’ shown throughout this image, even throughout the medium it is installed upon. The colourways of this image seem to follow a pattern; mainly shown in earth tones such as browns (seen in her hair, dress and segments of the floor), reds (seen in the floor, dress and lips), white (seen in the far background on the painted radiator, the wall, the ‘Ryman’s’ bag and parts of the money and dress) and speckles of yellow.

The dress could signify success, perhaps more subtly than the rest of the image’s contributing factors. It is a tightfitting and low-cut ‘Vivienne Westwood’ piece, signifying her ease in being a controversial figure. The fact that she is wearing a designer dress in an image so familiar to most audiences juxtaposes the domestic feel of ordinary or everyday items. Perhaps this is to further accentuate the fairy-tale of commercial success, or to show that her roots are still planted in a bare apartment sat on a painted concrete floor. No matter how much money she makes, she is stating that ‘she’s got it all’ wherever she may be.

Although this is undeniably an autobiographical piece of work, it appears to challenge something deeper than a surface level of narcissism or self-pity. The sheer fact that her gaze is downward and she is focussed on her hands could suggest that this is infact task-orientated, instead of mindless self-absorption. Emin is not only the focal point in this image, she is the creative director and we must be mindful as an audience that she has chosen how to pose for the camera. She knows her intentions and what she wants to project in to the world.

Emin has cleverly intertwined the mediums of autobiography, humour, symbolism and photography to create an outcome. This could be to signify a plethora of different topics, such as her commercial success in the media and as an artist. The composition and title of this image could suggest that an ironic “I’ve got it all” could also translate to a hypothetical of “is this it?”. Moreover, there is also a possibility that Emin’s intentions were to reinterpret money as sex; this work could be a commentary not only on sexuality and the freedom of gaining financial independence, but also choosing what you want to do with it; whether that be sexual in nature or not. It could be a commentary of capitalist society. Perhaps it is a maternal commentary; one of her hands is grasping the money to her stomach, as if she was pregnant.

The complexity within her being the subject of her art and in turn, being criticised for this

“Emin has consistently put herself in the line of fire in defending, discussing or promoting her work, and since so much of that work is so readily appreciated as being ‘her’, that convergence of biography and creativity has, in an age of ubiquitous celebrity, configured her as Brit art’s very own.” (Merck and Townsend, 2002, p.10). Merck and Townsend suggest that editors, directors and others alike look to Emin for her to introduce taboo and controversy to Brit Culture. We must explore as to whether there is a level of using her openness to create divulgence and interest. As much as critics note that Emin’s work is ‘not much more than digging for pity’, we must also look to the people accusing this and determine whether or not they are taking advantage of her truthful nature, no matter how uncomfortable a truth this may be. Additionally, it is also important to note that if this is the case, there must be a level of self-promotion for Emin within this whether it is for exposure in terms of finance, publicity, self-gain or not.

“By putting her own body and experiences so centrally in her work, Emin poses questions about the relationship between representation, lived experience and the construction of self in art” (Betterton, 2002, p.23). As touched upon earlier, Emin presents a truth within her work. There is a question in to whether this is all directly truthful, or perhaps her ‘truth’.

How does she cope with her personal life being so public and why does she create it this way? “Art for me is like a lover - whose love alone was never good enough” (Emin, 2006, p.167). Emin speaks openly about her struggle with not only art but life, and giving up everything that did not love her back in doing so. She seems to create art about her life as an escape; she needs more than the direct act of creating art. Emin craves the exposure, the mind maps and everything that comes alongside creating work and releasing it in to the world. The simple act alone will never be enough.

“I realised I was much better than anything I ever made... I was my work” (The South Bank Show, 2001). Emin directly comments on the realisation of her work ethic and how she continues to make art as a reflection of herself. This could be seen as a surface level of narcissism or self-pity, presented by Dorment in an article for the Telegraph.

“But, whether in images or texts, the note of adolescent self-pity she struck at the very beginning of her career hasn't altered by one iota. It's all about poor little Tracey, and what a hard time she's had in life. And that's why I think Tracey Emin is such a phoney. Few artists of her generation have been so successful or so lucky. She's as tough as they come, and has the biggest ego in the business - and yet in her art she still wants all of us to feel as sorry for her as she does for herself” (Dorment, 2007).

Dorment suggests that Emin’s intentions behind her work are simply for the benefit of pity which confuses him due to her avid ego and tough exterior. This is seen throughout many critics writing of Emin’s work, as many are confused about the juxtaposing sides of Emin’s personality. It seems that part of her is untouchable and unbreakable to the world, while the other seems to yearn for acceptance and pity. Emin stated that she was much better than anything she has created on the South Bank Show (The South Bank Show, 2001). While this seems to be an epiphany, Stallabrass seems to see it in a different light. “The work virtually disappears as Emin herself, and any statement she makes, any act she performs (such as behaving drunkenly on television), becomes art” (Stallabrass, 2002 p.36-48). If Emin is her art, surely anything she does in turn becomes art. We can question here whether this is a positive or negative thing, suggesting that perhaps with labelling every act she does as art it belittles her actual creations.

However, the critiques of Emin don’t halt at the blurred lines of her personal life and her work. “Tracey Emin specialises in what was once described (apropos the novels of Edna O’Brien) as ‘the cartography of the knicker stain’. There’s nothing new about exhibiting tampons, condoms and so on, but combined with her crude sketches of her privates and the accompanying fatuous narrative of confessional and self-revelatory rubbish, she’s managed to corner the ‘look-at-me-aren’t-I-shocking?’ market” (Dudley Edwards, 2020). Again, this is a commentary on the self-pitying nature of autobiographical art. However, in this review, it is evident that it is based upon the actual art itself. Dudley Edwards states that Emin’s work is “rubbish” and not original. However, it is important to note that although not directly being copied, there is no such thing as an original idea. Mark Twain suggests that

“We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages” (Twain and Kiskis, 2010).

Of course, the notion of art being regurgitated or copied is not one we like to take lightly, it is somewhat naïve to suggest that ideologies and works are all authentically original. The most authentic way to create original art may be exactly to create from what we know; the self.

“…one key change in the art of the 1990’s was its ‘loss of guilt in front of popular culture” (Roberts, 1996, p.30). Roberts is commenting on artist’s such as Emin, suggesting that the faces and facts that they showed to the public were not up to par. This leads in to yet another criticism of Emin is that she is a social climber, known more as a media star than an artist. Dudley Edwards continues “…Like Damien Hirst, her major talent is making money out of dross. In Tracey Emin’s case, she’s been brilliant at becoming friendly with celebrities; social climbers flock to be photographed with her. She became a Conservative supporter just as Labour looked set to lose the election and David Cameron was so desperate to seem cool that he asked her to provide Number 10, Downing Street with an artwork to give it a bit of ‘edge’. Having been embraced by the new establishment, she’s acquired a CBE (I’m only surprised it wasn’t a damehood, but no doubt it will be in time), and the Royal Academy, in a desperate longing for street-cred, has made her Professor of Drawing” (Dudley Edwards, 2020).

Dudley Edwards isn’t shy to express that he believes that Emin’s stature is ill-received and undeserved, as in his opinion it is not sought by her art itself, but the controversy that follows her. Edwards suggests that Emin has received this assentation not as an artist, but by a woman who is a good manipulator and has her celebrity friends amass her to the height of fame that she has achieved. However, this case is the opposite for some. “…These memorialising tendencies in Emin’s work go unrecognised by many critics, for whom the sensational content and the unflinching honesty in which she confronts her life experiences displace any real consideration of her skills and practices as an artist” (Betterton, 2002, p. 27). This statement from Betterton completely turns that of Edward’s on its head, presenting the idea that the raw truth and grit that she shows in her work are completely overlooked. Instead, they attack things that do not define her work as stand alone, but instead lurch for her. Furthermore; as her work is indeed ‘her’, they feel that they can attack the artist without necessarily commenting on the work itself – perhaps missing the point of her oeuvre altogether.

Fame or Revenge?

Emin is fiercely loyal not only to herself but to her family, friends and her art. This can be seen time and time again, even throughout this research project. For example, the act of defending of her own work. Through this, she is protecting herself. In ‘Strangeland’, Emin mentions multiple occasions in which she has been loyal. For example, while having a fight with another girl in school about her mum she states “Then turning, I shouted, “that will teach you. No one - absolutely no one - calls my mum old” (Emin, 2006, p.33).

There are countless other examples of loyalty throughout her work, including most notably the poem and video titled “Why I never became a dancer” (Why I never became a dancer, 1995) in which she recites the poem and dances on video, all while calling out her sexual abusers by name.

Another notable fierce loyalty to herself is shown through a handwritten message to an unknown abuser in ‘Strangeland’I am going to get you you cunt you fucking bastard and when I do the world will know that you destroyed part of my childhood” (Emin 2006, p.16). The fact that this is handwritten in a predominantly typed publication shows an undeniable strong and personal connection shown through these aggressive words. Emin is passionate about the things she cares about, and although it may seem that she doesn’t necessarily care about herself through many works showcasing her depression, it is undeniably empowering and a form of self-preservation and care to attack these issues so directly.

But is this self-preservation and fierce loyalty for the right reasons? Could this be seen as a narcissistic tactic for her own gain? Is it revenge on those who have wronged her and those she cares about? In the early pages of ‘Strangeland’ Emin speaks of her mother. “…To have an abortion, only to talk herself out of it at the last moment” (Emin, 2006, p.5). It is obvious that Emin holds grudges but they are perhaps subdued by her need for love and attention, shown through the unrequited and unconditional love in which she holds for her family, no matter the wrong doings they have committed towards her (for example, her brother sexually abusing her and her mother admitting that she was going to carry out an abortion of her and her twin). It seems that nothing in Emin’s world is black and white and that we can not expect to unpick it in such a way. Can we blame a revenge riddled agenda for someone so traumatised? Perhaps she is just open with her feelings and experiences?

We can see exactly that, time and time again throughout ‘Strangeland’. She talks openly of her sexual abuse; “As a child, I had the misfortune to be sexually abused. As a teenage girl of thirteen and fourteen, I fell in to the ridiculous habit of having sexual relations with men much older than myself”, “He had an unhealthy penchant for young girls. I was nineteen, nihilistic and anorexic. Above all, I was incredibly weak and stupid to put up with him” (Emin, 2006, p.p. 137- 138). She speaks derogatively about herself in these experiences and tears herself down. It is disheartening to read how she speaks of herself in these situations, especially after seeing how fearless she has been in the works mentioned previously about her sexual abuse. After being abused, in her own words, “I realised that there was a danger in innocence and beauty, and I could not live with both” (Emin, 2006, p.24) .

Even Emin’s father has been known to comment negatively on her outlook and the way that she lives. He states; “You laugh at life. You used to be able to see the other side. I thought you would understand the game.” (Emin, 2006, p.93). Some critics see Emin's way of life as an excuse for unfinished work or a dramatized exterior. Richard Dorment states in a newspaper article by Tom Horan;

"Look at these monographs, these self-portraits," he said as we entered an adjoining white-painted room, lined with tiny sketching’s perhaps five inches’ square. "She never seems able to finish them, to develop the idea of who she is. And she almost only depicts herself from the waist down. We seldom see her face. There is no development here. There are pieces here that date from 1990, and when you look at them alongside the more recent drawings from 2007 so little has moved forward" (Horan, 2007).

Although the drawings themselves perhaps haven’t progressed notably, it is naïve to say that Emin specialises in one topic or media of art. We see through many different works of film, photographs, monographs, paintings and appliqué that Emin is aware of her ‘grey’ state of life. She is self-aware and understands the outlook her work may present, she states; “…Either self- preservation, grace and self-respect; or a drunken, decadent orgy of creative lust, pushing myself to the wildest extremes, as far as a person can go without fear. And I don’t know which path I will take”. (Emin, 2006, p.201).

Questionnaire findings

For this research project, I conducted a questionnaire consisting of 7 questions with answers from 30 Art Foundation students ranging in ages from 16-19. All the participants consented for their answers to be used for the purposes of this research project and obtain the right to withdraw at any time. I was informed by their tutor that the students had recently taken part in an artistic exercise and divulgence titled ‘The Self’. Within this, they explored works focused on the self and ultimately learnt about the practice of autobiographical pieces within the artistic world and culture. This led me to create the questionnaire and focus it on Emin to benefit my research project and to ensure some insight from art students who have some knowledge on the topic of autobiographical work. Nevertheless, 90% of subjects expressed that they know what an autobiographical artist is which shows that it is a generally understood title, while a few students did not fully grasp what it meant. 76.6% of the subjects have indeed created a piece of autobiographical work themselves. Additionally, 86.6% of the subjects answered that they are familiar with Emin. I included two pieces of art by Emin in the beginning of the questionnaire to ensure that even those who were unfamiliar with herself or her work, would be able to take part and answer the questions to the best of their knowledge. However, only 70% of those taking part stated that they felt that they could explain what the work may be on the topic of, or what it is meant to address. When asked a broader question of what they thought the motivations behind general autobiographical artist’s work may be, there seems to be a conflicting argument, one shown throughout Emin’s critics also. While many take the stance that creating autobiographical art is “…a form of catharsis and a way of reconciling their ideas, it is a way of making the work more honest and thoughtful”, the repeated use of the word ‘narcissism’ seems to take the focal point throughout other answers. However, it is important to note that although the use of the ideology of self-entitlement is scattered among these responses, that it isn’t necessarily used as a derogatory turn of phrase or directly toward Emin in this instance. A student states artists are interested in creating work of the self “…because we’re narcissists and want to share our experiences as a form of resolution”. The student has used the collective pronoun of ‘we’, noting that everyone taking part in this research is a collective; we are all under the umbrella term of artists or at the very least interested in the art world. We are all humans, and that everyone wants to get things off from their chest to feel the weight lifted from their shoulders. This sentiment can be seen expressed throughout the other answers, (including the first answer I have referenced in this section). “I feel that autobiographical work is a way of releasing energy, externalising thoughts and visual influences things that could be stuck in your head”. Many of the subject’s touch upon their belief that the creation of this work is to almost let go of these thoughts, feelings and experiences to ease their own mind and conscience while doing so.

Interestingly, somewhat reflecting the critiques of Emin, the sentiment of self-pity also came in to play in these answers. “An environment of empathy – creating a world that they would like to live in and to satisfy their 'needs”. Furthermore, another example of an unpleasant phrase in a non-derogatory manner. It seems that in relation to Emin, a woman whose life has been filled with trauma and abuse, her work may be an escape from exactly that. Where she can not erase what has happened to her, she can fight back in her work through an egotistical exterior. A fairy-tale of revenge, fearlessness and pity.

Another topic which was mentioned multiple times regarding the question of the intentions behind autobiographical work was that we simply create what we know. “Artists experiences originate from themselves”. If we are to create autobiographical work, it is obviously drawn from ourselves. “It doesn’t require research or immense understanding because if it’s based on the self, we already know it”. And although this could be seen as a somewhat ‘lazy’ approach to the way of creating ‘original’ work, we must also note that the intention behind the work is not to challenge our minds with obscure and hard to read ideas, but rather sharing a part of one’s self, however challenging that may be with an audience. “…you make art about what you know or try to understand”.

This leads on to self-expression, a way to get their deepest and darkest secrets out into the world so that they are no longer afraid of them. Perhaps there is no other method of catharsis which helps in the way that creating something so raw from emotions does, nothing exceeding the feeling of escaping trauma by sharing their experiences. “…a need to express what lies within; a need and desperation to communicate the internal. The internal thoughts, feelings, beliefs, emotions. Maybe it’s also the only way they can explain their self”.

What’s more, the act of producing work so personal in an effort of self-expression and preservation may also have other agendas, such as relating to others who are in similar situations. Maybe the feeling of catharsis being shared through not only a wide audience, but some of whom can bask in the same freedom and righteousness adds a whole new perspective to releasing this work. “…to express their life experiences and to see if people can relate to such events”. Moreover, it may be a broader stance of creating empathy, not just for the self but raising awareness for others to perhaps treat people differently, to change their views or to be more careful… The list of possibilities is endless. “…it can be used to help people relate to other people’s experiences”.

Interestingly, when asked what their opinion on the intentions behind Emin’s intentions specifically, the negative opinions of the subjects seemed to disappear. The word ‘narcissist’ was not mentioned once. The students seem to follow a pattern of thinking, mostly about the freedom and perseverance of creating Emin’s work. “…to share the issues that she struggles with people and inspire/connect with those who feel the same”. It seems that there is a general opinion that Emin’s intentions are deep rooted and good, ranging from helping other people to herself. One student stated that they believe that Emin creates work to show “…how she copes outside of making art by drinking, smoking, having sex and sleeping”. This is a very interesting sentiment, as if her art is a chronological timeline of mental health and coping mechanisms. As these are things that are heavily personal and generally shunned by the public, it could also be a way to not only contradict public restraints but to also “break personal boundaries and to show herself to the public”. Perhaps the pure and powerful act of showing every part of herself so universally, not just the good, is the one coping mechanism which really does work for her.

Seen throughout her time as an artist, Emin has amassed a plethora of critiques. However, this has never deterred her from continuing to create art in exactly the way that she sees fit. “I imagine it must be extremely liberating, as well as challenging, to be so open to external critique”. One student states that through “…thrusting her personal, private life out in to the public in a visceral, powerful way”. That “…she wants to show that art is necessary in people’s lives and it is everywhere around us. Art can be anything, even an unmade bed and some rubbish in the room”. We don’t have to abide by other people’s constraints to express ourselves freely. A prime example which was referenced in the latter quote showing this is through her exhibition of ‘My Bed’ in 1999 (Emin, 1999). Emin quite literally, “…both metaphorically and literally airing her dirty laundry in public”.


I believe that Emin simply sees the world for what it is; hers. It’s not in black and white. Nothing needs to make sense to anyone other than her. There is an undeniable mass of evidence suggesting that Emin’s juxtaposing thoughts and feelings spill out in to art as a form of ‘word vomit’ to lessen the burden of her trauma. “And here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamed it would be like this” (Emin, 2006, p.200). Emin is fearless of who she has become and what she puts out in to the world, whether that be directly truthful or not. She speaks of taboo topics, private matters and has a shock factor which may discredit the actual talent behind her actual work. Emin continues to address her issues directly, somehow becoming stronger and more vulnerable at the same time. “All of my tiny horrors have been liveable. I have not died. In fact, life had become better” (Emin, 2006, p.142). She continues to progress in her ascendance as an artist and celebrity, amassing an obvious humungous financial gain in the meantime. It is unbelievably difficult to try and find one driving force behind the intentions behind her work and I believe it may be somewhat naïve to disregard other contributing factors. While Emin’s oeuvre may not necessarily be the most artistically challenging in terms of technique, it is ridiculous to say that it isn’t full of feeling, love, trauma, time and passion. I think that’s ultimately what it comes down to; Tracey Emin is fiercely passionate and loyal to her beliefs, and I believe that is the true intention behind her work. She drives her passion for everything that she thinks and feels in to the one form that has always loved her back. “DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE THE PAST HEAD ON” (Emin, 2006, p.213).


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