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Trac(ey)ing every tear through the work of Tracey Emin

A look back at the artist’s White Cube exhibition, one year on

By Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh

Tracey Emin’s exhibition at the White Cube last year, A Fortnight Of Tears (2018), carried forward traces of the ‘young British artists’ (yBas) from the 1980s, showing that art is (still) capable of highlighting the extraordinarily ordinary. It is a great exhibit to look back on to understand, analyse, and delve deeper into Emin’s work, thoughts, and influences.

Cultural theorist and feminist Angela McRobbie once said: “Her (Emin’s) tent owes more to the ‘girls just wanna have fun’ humour of More magazine than it does to her feminist elders, Cindy Sherman or Mary Kelly.”

In this statement, Emin’s appliqued tent piece Everyone I Have Ever Slept With is referenced to being just a commercial, catchy work of art one can hum along to. The tantalising idea of sewing the names of people one has slept with seemed a far stretch away from the history of critically thinking within and about art that the yBas (including the likes of Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Chapman Brothers, and more) seemed to leave behind. This work presented a new nonchalance and ignorance to the outside ‘now’, the intellectual ‘now’, and the license to obsess over the ‘self’ without pondering about its one dimensionality. This is what the yBas conceptually adopted and it seems as if Emin is still carrying that on.

The first room of the gallery housed something almost all of us are occasionally guilty of secretly storing: vulnerably unfiltered selfies. These fifty prints show Emin lying face-to-face with her insomnia, presenting her reality to us – the audience – who quite often play the role of voyeur or even confidante in her works. These images portray Emin in a larger-than-life view. The recurring repetition of her bed in the background, and sheer number of selfies hanging from the walls, painted a visual chart of how many dark nights have been spent vacuously avoiding dreams of her mother, who had recently passed away, dreams of cradling her own child, hopes of love and warmth, and the hours spent awake in her cold, empty reality.

The grainy selfies had made me think of two things in particular. First, the influence of ‘generation z’, thriving with art that is fit for Instagram, flooded with people taking pictures of themselves and seeking mass approval with just a double tap on a screen – what a marketable way of ‘sharing’ one’s life. We are flooded with self-images of people on every social media, advertising, or personal platform, so, to see an artist’s selfies even in a gallery space, diluted the heartfelt emotion of the work and it could come across as plain self-indulgence.

The fifty selfies engulfing the viewer and the white walls also added to how mundane and routine Emin’s loneliness and grief is. At the same time, they dissolved the intensity of the authentic pain and resonance of the written paragraph outside Insomnia Room Installation (2018), giving context to the piece. As one begins to imagine Emin going through the ebb and flow of loss and grief, to then picture her choosing to vacantly click a selfie in the midst of it all and showcase that symbolically feeds into the habit of depicting grief in it’s most tantalising form for the public eye. It does fit into the celebrity paparazzi culture of today, as those photos are ones we view all around us.

As one moved forward, The Mother (2017) was the first of three bronze sculptures that loomed over visitors. This mottled personification of loss and depression, with its nude female form- kneeling, head drooped down like a wilting tulip, holding in her rough hands what looked like a foetus, is indicative of Emin’s own past, having dealt with two abortions. The dented cold metal exterior adds to the figure’s imperfect, distressed quality, evident in the other two sculptures as well. These unguarded, contorted yet vulnerable (When I Sleep, 2018), and sexually-charged figures (I Lay Here For You, 2018) added a third dimension to the ongoing themes of maternity and sexual freedom, which was felt throughout the whole exhibition.

The sheer number of canvases covering the walls of the three rooms are not placed as a condensed clutter, but the subjective repetition works well in bringing forth the reality of how, often, we cannot erase or move on from incidents that have changed our lives for better or worse. The constant use of certain colours (like pink, red, and black) automatically adds a soft, flesh-like feel while talking of darker themes of assault, heartbreak, and death. The recurring abstract imagery of one particular body – symbolically of the artist – depicting pleasure and pain from her own life was shown in a very direct way of drawing out exact incidents and giving them simple titles that describe the incident (titles such as: I was too young to be carrying your ashes, 2018; An insane desire for you, 2018).

Nearing the end of the exhibition, there were a few glass displays with archives of old sketchbooks and papers with drawings, rough ideations, and even small-scale models of the big sculptures, allowing us to peep into her personal diaries and the in-between moments of producing work fuelled by such loss. There were also two video installations that added a moving element to the exhibition. The first video, The Ashes (2018), taken on a phone camera, shows Emin slowly tiptoeing around her silver-lit dining room, where a shut, wooden box, containing the ashes (as the title suggests) of the artist’s mother is perched on the table. The only sound in the video is the hesitant patter of footsteps of the artist inching cautiously closer to the box. The simplicity of the video adds a naïve quality and the absence of other work around it in the gallery creates a personal atmosphere, where one feels as if they are watching it alone.

The second video How It Feels was made in 1996 and is a longer, documentary-style video that shows Emin guiding the audience, step-by-step, through her failed abortion. The brutal reality of the botched abortion is heart wrenching and shocking to say the least, especially when the artist is revisiting the hospital and other locations of the incident, which once again, has a lot of parallels with today’s culture of video blogging and sharing the most harrowing personal details of life as a means of creating content and generating discourse.

British art historian, photographer and curator Julian Stallabrass, explains:

“Many artists strive to achieve brand recognition, and a few succeed: Tracey Emin has become a brand out of which her art is made. Such artists as brands are allegorical figures that, like robots, deliver particular and predictable behavior along with other outputs.”

This statement of comparison of an artist to a mechanical, producing-and-not-creating robot comes into play with Emin and her work. Her infamous reputation and disregarding attitude gives her the liberty and power to produce whatever her heart aches to. The work then affects and draws in viewers and critics, some of whom stand by her and still believe her art is game-changing while, on the other hand, there is an ever growing audience, not doubting the authenticity of her pain and subjects of her art, but questioning the mediums used and the status she has reached, as artist, celebrity and public persona. Tracey Emin – the name, the brand, the persona, the celebrity, the awardee has earned the license for the artist to continue producing autobiographical work. And as we see in A Fortnight of Tears, she has a voice and a term for every one of her tear drops... and even a place in the art market to sell them.

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