May 2012

Leah Triplett



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.