As one of the most controversial artists of modern times, Tracey Emin has generated serious column inches for her overtly personal work, including the installation My Bed (complete with condoms) and her series of autobiographical appliquéd blankets, littered with swear words. David Bowie called her "William Blake as a woman." But is she standing up for women everywhere with our shared life experiences, or is she only interested in using herself as subject matter?
[Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998]
It'd be an understatement to say that Tracey Emin's work is intensely personal. There is no life event too raw to be turned into art, whether that means making a video monologue about abortion or chronicling "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995" as names embroidered inside a tent (although that one wasn't as scandalous as it sounds—she listed all the people she'd slept next to, rather than just adding up the notches on her bedpost). She's found herself the focus of celebrity gossip sites, appeared to give a drunken speech at a serious televised art debate, and shown us her tampons in the name of creativity. In many ways the world of "Mad Tracey from Margate" (as she's called herself) is like a reality show, only without the gloss of the Kardashians.
In 1992 she began self-styled "Entrepreneurial Projects" when she asked people to sponsor her £20 in return for regular letters and small drawings. This helped Emin to support herself as an artist and showed that she was willing to allow unprecedented access to her life if it meant achieving her dream. Yet she's never sold out to become a pin-up for men; she's never compromised her personality in order to fit in with the very masculine art world. She gives us naked self-portraits that look awkward and vulnerable, but she's not going to be making it as a glamour model any time soon, because the most important thing in those images is the emotion. She's used traditionally "female" crafts such as appliqué and embroidery, but acted like anything but a demure lady in getting her point across with carefully sewn letters.
[Tracey Emin, 'The History of Painting Part I', 1999]
One of her strongest pieces is "The History of Painting Part I" (1999), which features several bloody tampons, a box of morning after pills, pregnancy tests, and a piece of writing on what it means to menstruate. She said it felt "perfectly natural" to create this piece, which deals with the way that we dread having periods throughout life until we reach menopause, at which point she feels like her womb will be a "dry redundant bag." When I saw this in a London gallery, I felt proud that Tracey Emin was using art to address the fact that we're all afraid of getting older and no longer being fertile.
Similarly, the video piece "Why I Never Became a Dancer" explores our perception of females, but this time through Emin's experiences of being called a "slag" as a teenager. After being raped at 13 she was catapulted into a world of underage sex, meeting older men on the seedy Golden Mile of her hometown. Dancing was a form of escapism which she loved, but her entry to a dance competition was sabotaged by the people who had corrupted her. By ending the video with a sort of victory dance in an empty apartment, she shows how far she has come and how she has made something of her life since that dark time. Both of these artworks are bravely confronting taboo issues for women and tackling the macho culture we live in, where men can demand that we should be ageless and sexually available at all times if we want to keep them happy.
[Tracey Emin, 'Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995', 1995]
So, what does Tracey directly say about feminism? Just a few days ago, the UK edition of Harper's Bazaar magazine gave her the Visionary prize in their Women of the Year Awards, and she dedicated it to "every single woman in the world who has to live in a man's world," saying it is "really, really difficult' to get ahead." Typically confrontational, she added, "I would just love to shove this [award] up any man's a*** tonight." The journalist Melanie McGrath reported that male art critics tended to be harsher to Tracey Emin than female ones, and "was struck by how effortlessly and habitually they patronized her." It really is time for change in society, and maybe if we all took more notice of vocal feminist artists such as Tracey then we could get there. As she herself said, "I'm not happy being a feminist. It should all be over by now." Exactly, Tracey.