”Mad Tracey from Margate"
During the summer of 2008, the British artist Tracey Emin, 45, challenged the international art world, including the press to analyse everything she has produced to date in her first retrospective, which is on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh until November the 9th. It is also the first retrospective by someone representing the YBA generation (Young British Artists). No one can doubt the fact that Emin has risen into the position of being the most important woman figure of a generation that has dominated the British art world for the past 20 years.
It is not surprising that the exhibition has awoken very conflicting reactions. Emin is a contradictory persona, and this persona in turn is the basis of all her art. Emin is appliquéing, installing, photographing, drawing and writing very bluntly about events and traumas in her life: reckless drinking and smoking, teeth that fell off, sexual abuse as a child, rapes, abortions and the longing for a child at the same time.
“Mad Tracey from Margate” seems very often to be labelled as a melodramatic, sentimental and publicity-seeking exhibitionist. The nickname was given to the artist by herself. Margate is an English seaside resort town, in which Emin – having been abandoned by her Turkish father – grew up in poor circumstances together with a twin brother and a British mother.
Frank Whitford, the art critic of the conservative newspaper The Times complained in his article from August the 10th 2008 that he can’t repeat Emin’s words because he is writing for a family paper and that in any other context but a gallery one the artist’s work would be classified as pornography. Additionally, according to Whitford some of her appliqué quilts looked like having been made by someone suffering from Tourette’s syndrome (I hear that these patients produce obscene language compulsively). The Guardian critic Laura Cumming headed her rather crushing review (August the 10th 2008): “It’s time you made that bed, Tracey”, referring to Emin’s ready-made-type Turner prize candidate piece from 1999.
From then, after queuing to see Emin’s super-messy My Bed that contained different secretions and remains, until now, I have been wondering what to think of Margate’s manic self-revelator. Is it about some kind of “cool lad” strategy, taking on the role of the mythical, masculinist bohemian artist? I have not visited the retrospective so far but my opinion about the artist has matured, especially after reading her autobiographical book Strangeland (2005). Text is an important part of Emin’s art and she combines it creatively with all her other means of expression.
Tracey is a narcissistic exhibitionist, vulgar in many people’s opinion
and someone who dwells on her traumas, but she is all that in a
disarmingly honest way. As for masculinity, she writes about it in
Strangeland: “– – I have more testosterone in my right foot than most
men have surging around their entire bodies. And furthermore: “You
don’t have to be born with balls to have balls.”