Tracey Emin - Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamt it would be like this
Tracey Emin, Strangeland, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.
Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamt it would be like this.
Tracey Emin's Strangeland is her own space, lying between the Margate of her childhood, the Turkey of her forefathers and her own, private-public life in present-day London. Her writings, a combination of memoirs and confessions, are deeply intimate, yet powerfully engaging. Tracey retains a profoundly romantic world view, paired with an uncompromising honesty. Her capacity both to create controversies and to strike chords is unequalled in British life. A remarkable book - and an original, beautiful mind.
Tracey Emin is at a strategic disadvantage when it comes to writing her autobiography - we know most of the juicy bits already. After all, Emin has forged her artistic career on making a public display of the most shocking and personal elements of her life story. Thanks to her embroidered tent, Everyone I've Ever Slept With, we know more about her sex life than we do about most of our friends.
She has made exhibitions out of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, her abortion and her darkest feelings of loss, self-doubt and betrayal. Even her grubby sheets have been on display at the Tate. How much more do we want or need to know?
Those who do want more detail on all the best-known Emin myths won't be disappointed by Strangeland. It follows her down the dark alley where she was raped, aged 13. It details with some relish her stinking flat, her alcoholism and her wanking habits. And it describes, movingly, how she was left holding a dead foetus in the back of a London taxi five days after her botched abortion.
But the real revelations here are of a gentler kind. While her best-known art has shown Emin at her most confrontational, in her writing, we meet a calmer, more sensitive soul. The middle section of the book takes place in Turkey, where she finds some kind of peace exploring her roots and bonding with her estranged father. It ain't very rock'n'roll - they pick olives, go to the seaside and exchange family gossip. But after the uneasy squalor of her childhood in Margate, it comes as a relief.
The quality of Emin's writing is another nice surprise. At its best, it shows flashes of insight and originality: 'As we drove from the sea, the land became a rolling mass of drunken hills.' But the most interesting thing about this book is what it doesn't tell us about Tracey Emin. For one so open and confessional, there are some glaring omissions. Her art, for a start, is hardly touched on. When did she turn to it and why? There is a fleeting mention of the 'emotional suicide' she suffered in 1992, when she destroyed all her paintings and started producing the confessional art which made her name.
But the events which prompted her breakdown, and inspired her creative rebirth, remain a mystery. By the end of Strangeland, we are no closer to understanding the extraordinary metamorphosis which transformed the abused little girl from Margate into one of the art world's brightest stars. That is the real enigma of Tracey Emin. And, for once, she's keeping it to herself. - Alice O'Keefe
In 2002, Tracey Emin's father faxed her a short narrative describing his early life in his native Turkey. In it, the older Emin recounts with the fantastical eye of a child his youth as a factory worker, and how he was taken sexually taken advantage of by his employer's wife. "Yes, she had two perfect legs, like a goddess, blonde hair and olive-coloured eyes, and her breast was pure white, like an angel's without wings," writes the older Emin to his daughter. "It was here that I took my first alcoholic drink, brandy, as we made love." Eventually, Emin's father sees sex and alcohol as his enemies as they haunt and attempt to destroy his life. Emin's father faxed the tale of his battles with vice in hopes that she would, in her words, "cut down on drinking."
Frequently associated with the Young British Artists, or YBAs, Tracey Emin began her artistic career as she began her life: on the margins. Born ten minutes after her fraternal twin, Paul, Emin grew up in the hotel that her mother managed in the seaside town of Margate. After a night with friends there, when she was thirteen, as she walked back to the hotel, Tracey was raped. "She didn't call the police or make any fuss," writes Emin about her mother's reaction. "But for me, my childhood was over, I had become conscious of my physicality, aware of my presence and open to the ugly truths of the world." Emin's early life and rape are recounted in "Like a Hook from the Sky," the long, nuanced essay that opens Strangeland, her collected writings first published in 2005. Divided into three parts, "Motherland," "Fatherland," and "Traceyland," the essays in Strangeland are a cumulative autobiography, with each essay building a self-portrait in lyrical language, conversational in its immediacy. Conflating true events in her life with her emotional experience of them, Emin makes myth of the mundane, affirming her authority over victimization and vice.
I'm often interested in how artists deal with hereditary -- in terms of innate predilections toward behavior or impulses for certain vices or violence or the like -- and truly Emin is fearless in her continual interest in confronting her victimization and vices in her artwork and writings alike. In dividing Strangeland into two distinct parts named for her parents, Emin acknowledges the profound effect that her parents' lives had upon hers, for good or bad. And certainly, in the "Traceyland" section of the book, Emin confronts how those lives have formulated hers, which has fundamentally been affected by her refusal to have actual children, and simultaneous insistence that her artwork and creative output are, in fact, her offspring.
Emin's father's story, included in Strangeland, inspired Knowing My Enemy (2002), a large, metaphorical sculpture made of wooden slats and boards forming a dock-like structure that leads to a shack. Assembled in a jagged, rushed fashion, the wood becomes a boardwalk to the shack, stimulating a sense of isolation as well as intrigue. The sculpture opened Emin's retrospective, Love Is What You Want, at London's Hayward Gallery last year. As Emin explained in an interview with Ralph Rugoff, one of the show's curators, the sculpture isn't meant to be lonely, or melancholic, but blissfully solitary. "I've often tried to make a place where I think my dad would be happy, or where I would be happy," said Emin. "And one of my dad's dreams was to live in a little hut on the beach with a corrugated-iron roof, and to hear the sounds of rain coming down off the roof and the sea lapping up. And this is a dream that I share with him." But parents' dreams for their children sometimes differ from those of their children's, and almost always from the reality of those dreams. In making a work that alludes to the demons she's inherited from her father, based on her father's written narratives, Emin visually articulates that incongruity between what we want and what our parents wanted for us, as well as the divergence between familial memory and myth.
Writing and language has long been central in Emin's artistic practice, as Cliff Lauson notes in an essay in the magnificent catalogue for Love Is What You Want. Lauson explains that before becoming an artist, Emin imagined that she could be a writer, and began publishing short pieces in her early days as a painter. Famously, she solicited investors for her practice in a letter writing campaign; for ten pounds, investors would receive a few pieces of mail from her. In the early 1990s, while still on the outside of the YBA group, Emin and a friend set up an art shop in London, where they sold hand-made objects that often joked on the YBAs' art world. Upstairs, Emin wrote in a room that she called the Detective Office, which seems fitting given the tenacious, explorative character of her prose. While her long-running column for The Independent, titled "My Life in a Column," (collected and published last year in a volume of the same title) tends toward diary, Strangeland and her other purely autobiographical writing seem to be more of a means for her to describe her life's experience as not exactly how it happened, but how it felt.
The essays that comprise the maternal and paternal portions of Strangeland are exotic, describing her parents and her childhood with them in absorbing, fanciful sentences that unfold in quick syntax. But in "Traceyland," we see what those personalities produced, and how they informed Emin's attitude toward reproduction of herself, in terms of her art and children. Though loneliness and longing is palpable in essays such as "Remember, St. Valentine Loves You," the most beautifully raw inclusion is "Abortion: How it Feels." In it, Emin is truthful and brutal, delineating her hesitation and oscillation between decisions with stoic precision. She doesn't sugarcoat; she is calmly honest in the simultaneous joy and pain that she felt and insists that she will always feel. "I walked through Regent's Park; the blossom, pink and white, floated above me, and the clouds floated above the blossom, and heaven floated above the clouds. And with both my hands across my stomach, I said, 'Hello, tiny. Welcome to this world,'" Emin writes, before continuing that she gradually began to understand the personal reality of parenthood. "If I had the child, it would be my responsibility. I was alone. I couldn't think straight. I knew I had only a week or so to make up my mind and if I made a mistake I would have to live with a lifetime of regret."
Emin's abortions have formulated and informed a huge body of work -- sculptures, installations, paintings, drawings, and writings. Perhaps the most poignant works, to me, are Baby Things (2008), an assortment of tiny sculptures scattered around a British seaside town with a high rate of teenage pregnancy. While the work was on view, people tripped over the teensy teddy bears, baby socks, and clothes that served as tender monuments to the lives of babies loved, lost, and borne. In this work, like so many of her other pieces, Emin has transformed a space, public or private, into a place that is shaped by her psychical sense of body and experience. I see Strangeland as integral in determining those places and spaces, Emin's use of language a tool for her to understand and voice how she herself was shaped. - Leah Triplett
Tracey Emin attained fame at much the same time as she acquired notoriety. The appearance of her tent embroidered with the names of all the people she'd slept with became ineradicably linked with her drunken appearance on Channel Four after the Turner Prize ceremony - hilariously, to discuss the question, "Is painting dead?"
This remains the kernel of her identity as an artist: that she is inseparable from her own works. It is a position one encounters in the realm of political extremism, but nowhere else in the comfortable, Saatchi-funded world of modern British art. It was and remains surprising how provoking Emin's emergence into public life managed to be. She succeeded in exposing a liberal, jaded critical establishment for the solidly bourgeois cabal that it is. Her chaotic behaviour seemed counter-cultural rather than merely boorish.
More than that, by her unrelenting frankness she uncannily imparted a touch of the Emperor's New Clothes to her fellow Brit-artists. While the likes of Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood evolved a faintly sickening, deeply conventional pseudo-aristocracy out of money and fame, Emin was taking photographs of her (unflushed) toilet in Margate, with an accompanying text that concludes: "That'll be 46 grand thanks!"
Strangeland should not, then, be approached as a memoir unless a memoir can be understood to be a Tracey Emin artwork. She is no fake; or at least, she's not going to be exposed as one that easily. Strangeland proceeds through exactly the same fusion of self and medium as, for example, her entrancing forays into crafts such as embroidery that are emblematic of female passivity. In other words, she seizes upon a form in order to make it her own, to demonstrate her own formlessness.
"At the moment of my birth into 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'd come from." From this characteristically uncowed beginning she proceeds to describe a childhood of more or less unrelieved vulnerability: squalor, rape, financial and social insecurity, shame. After her first experience of sexual abuse she recounts her aunt asking her if she has been "naughty, mucking around, playing strange games". "I didn't know what strange games were," Emin writes. "To me, it was all part of living. A strange living. I had never known the truth so I had never cared for the truth, rationality or reason.""Motherland", the classically sordid English seaside story of growing up in Margate with her mother and twin brother, forms one half of her identity here; the other derives from her Turkish Cypriot father, who abandoned the family when Emin was a small child.
In "Getting to Know My Enemy: In My Father's Words", her father tells the story of how he himself was sexually abused by the wife of the owner of a Turkish Delight factory, where he was forced as a child to work after his mother's death. Emin describes her travels, as an adult, around Cyprus with her father, and a relationship she had there with a Turkish fisherman. Just as everything in the Margate sections is fractured, squalid, violated, so the world of Cyprus is antique, romantic, mythical. "For four months Abdullah and I were lovers. We spent our days drinking Izmir red wine. At night we would go out on the small boat and f--- like crazy in the sea. We would climb up hills and sit on top of Lycean tombs. He would play the zuz and I would dance. We were like performing bears - performing for each other."
The last part of the book, "Traceyland", is about Emin the artist, the offspring of these two contradictory forces, squalor and romance. It is rather like a written version of Emin's infamous bed, full of the profanity of the body. She describes a traumatic abortion she endured at 19, her feverish sexuality, her self-destructive impulses. She is incoherent, self-obsessed, by turns victimised and defiant. When she talks about art it is with the chastened, programmatic reverence of someone reformed: "Strolling on the plateau of life, desperate for the mountain, I never thought that I would get this far. It's only art that has carried me through, given me faith in my own existence."
Reading this section, those who admire Tracey Emin will find themselves in a familiar deadlock with those who regard her as the most fraudulent product of a fake artistic movement. Succinctly, she describes the situation herself, in a final, amusing chapter in which she remembers a journey she once made to Niagara Falls. Next to the thundering spectacle of the water there was a museum, "a quaint little place full of curiosities". Inside, Emin felt strangely drawn to the history of the barrel-rollers, people who got into beer barrels and threw themselves over the Falls.
"They made every calculation, of course," she writes. "Survival would ensure fame and fortune. But most did not survive. In 1880, I might have been one of those people." - Rachel Cusk
Readers may sympathise with Tracey Emin. Her big mouth and huge appetite for self- advertisement make her a ready target; she’s so shameless and yet, by her own account, so abused. (‘And then they started: “SLAG, SLAG, SLAG.” A gang of blokes, most of whom I’d had sex with at some time or other…’) Life has dealt her a raw yet currently rewarding deal. And now that she’s a proper celebrity, as real as Cindy Sherman — the photographer of a thousand guises — and much more in-your-face, she owes it to her public to keep delivering, living her dreams, spicing resolutions with relapses.
Margate’s most famous daughter grew up in what were, by her account, intermittently abject circumstances. A mostly absent Turkish Cypriot father, a mother resourceful enough to help herself to lead from roofs when broke, a fitful formal education, a feral sex education and catastrophic front teeth: she had it all up to here, that’s to say up to the point where she had to either sink or swim. Buoyant, she finds herself, at the age of 42, issuing an autobiography that wrings out the memories with a self-indulgence bordering on infatuation. ‘I thought with my body,’ she claims. Leading with her chin, she has filled these pages using lots of old material, pieces reprinted from ID magazine (‘The Proper Steps for Dealing with an Unwanted Pregnancy’), GQ (‘The Mummy Screams’) and other such outlets.
These writings are a mixture of heartfelt missives and slurp resembling homework long overdue. They read like extended versions of her insecurity blankets, the ones with attractively misspelt words appliquéd all over, though here, for once, Spellcheck has been employed.
‘Trying to make sense of everything’, as she says, is a fitful task. Grand-dad Emin had four wives; great-great-great-grand- father was a slave ‘in the Ottoman empire’. As for the great-great-great-grand-daughter herself, she inhabits an empire of the imagination broken down for editorial convenience into Traceyland, Motherland, Fatherland, Strangeland and Dreamland. In these parts she’s the focus of attention, of course, and never more so than when she came a close second to Paul, her twin brother. ‘When I was born, they thought I was dead.’
Between babyhood and adulthood came the setbacks that are taking the artist a lifetime to savour, with self-help manuals providing supportive vocabulary. ‘Like a wounded bird I began to rebuild myself, using the experience of failure as my foundation,’ she trills. Valentine’s Day 1988: the post arrives. ‘Nothing there for me — no love. No one loved me, I started to cry.’
This is the type of emotional fix that provokes Emin’s best work, her scratchy drawings of splayed legs and wishbone bodies, terse and sharp. Words fail her more. She keeps trying to be Andy Warhol the diarist but lacks his laconic tone. On holiday in Cyprus with her dad she has trouble with a fisherman and insects. ‘The flies were in love with me,’ she boasts, ‘They loved me like I was a piece of donkey shit. One night I counted over 60 bites.’ It’s the counting that’s significant; the figure is either made up or (sad to say) she actually did bother to tot them up.
Ego is all. In Norway, visiting the site of Munch’s ‘Scream’, she feels herself enwombed somehow. ‘I wanted to jump inside the picture and cradle the Scream in my arms. Another lost soul.’ Steady on, old girl, is the obvious response, but we must remember that this, like so much else related here, was a performance assignment. A cameraman and sound recordist were on hand taping her rendezvous with destiny.
Such base details are omitted, as are the routines of a busy professional life. We are not to know that at the Royal College she painted earnestly. Better, she assumes, for us to hear about that memorable night when she ripped off her microphone during a Turner Prize-related Channel Four live transmission and staggered away (‘pissed out of my brains … complete fucking horror’) bawling for her mum and leaving David Sylvester, Norman Rosenthal, and other worthies astounded at her upstaging of their ‘debate’. This exit propelled her immediately from D list to B list. ‘My gallery is inundated with requests for me to appear on chat-shows,’ she noted a day or two later. ‘My art’s selling like hot cakes.’
Emin reality dissolves all too readily into Emin dreams. When the anecdotes become too repetitive even for her she nods off and tells us about it:
Dreams don’t have time. Neither does sleep, nor death. That’s why it’s sometimes good to wear a watch. I always took my watch off when making love. Even if I kept all my clothes on. Even if it was outside in winter, I would always take my watch off.
Among her fantasy figures is the Director of the Tate. ‘Nick Serota comes on the line to wish me a happy birthday anyway.’ Dream on, Trace. We all remember with varying degrees of shame ending school exercises in creative writing with ‘Then I woke up’.
‘Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless beautiful woman. I never dreamed it would be like this.’
A Tracey Emin strength is the knack of producing work that looks unpremeditated. It protects her through would-be aphorism (‘One cannot live on vodka alone’) and gulps of affirmation (‘Deep in my soul I know the soul can endure’). But — another chapter, another pregnancy scare — she does overdo the artlessness. ‘I am relieved, relieved to know that at 37 years of age I am just a woman with a fucking good imagination.’ This imagination of hers is an asset worth coaxing into new prospects. She writes, using capital letters for extra loud emphasis, ‘DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE THE PAST HEAD ON.’ Fair enough, but why not go easy on all that baggage? Can’t the personality be given a rest? I guess not. - William Feaver