There must be people still alive who believe that art should have some universal aura around it, that the greatness of a Rembrandt self-portrait, for example, lies in what it tells us about ourselves, or the world, or old-age, rather than merely Rembrandt himself and the state of his face or his feelings. Well, those people are in for a shock, because Tracey Emin is coming towards them in all her glory, ego all over her face.
I have had my doubts about her, partly, because I took a good look at her at two different art bashes as she did the room and thought she was having too good a time being Tracey Emin, or acting out some other role that involved dark fun and brazen cheek. I wondered if she had really suffered enough or exposed the parts of herself that most needed exposing.
Then last year during the Edinburgh Festival I saw her retrospective ’20 Years’ at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, and I was awed by it, as they say in America. I felt the deep presence of a raw sensibility and a wounded soul. For days afterwards the feeling stayed with me – a feeling close to that exuded by some letters or stories by Flannery O’Connor or some letters or poems by Elizabeth Bishop, or some poems by Sylvia Plath and Louise Gluck - and I was fascinated by its power and the means Emin had used to achieve it.
First of all, her drawings have a starkness and an aura of desperate loneliness attached to them. Her nudes are drawn with merciless care; they manage to achieve an effect which is spare and plaintive. At times they are like shrill, intimate cries, broken music; it is self-exhibition at its most lacerating and sharp. It is impossible not to look at these drawings without wonder, at the minimal use of line, at the game being played between the childlike and the deeply skilled, at the amount left unsaid, at the purity of statement, at the way the image in the middle pulls the eye towards it.
It seems to me important (maybe even essential) that someone somewhere shows us her bed, and make it so unglamorous, all tossed, with knickers stained with menstrual blood, among other things, on the floor beside it, the last place you would lie down to rest. (Emin’s bed was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999.) I love Emin’s outspoken ferocity in the work - the listing of all the people she slept with (which she has famously done, all the names stitched to the inside of a tent), for example, or the sending of urgent messages such as ‘My Cunt Is Wet With Fear’ or ‘People like you need to fuck people like me’ or ‘Fantastic to Feel Beautiful Again’.
If more things like that were written up in neon, the world would be a more exciting place. I, for one, would feel safer.
Also, if more people listed everyone they had slept with, I would somehow rest easier at night.
There is a sense that all Emin’s work is a result of some trauma, some terrible stifling of her voice, or shock to her system. It is essential for her to communicate her dilemma as being hers alone, not ours, not yours; this gives even the most awkward or clumsy pieces, such as the big hangings - quilts with things written all over them - an obsessive edge. She is fearless, almost joyful at times, in her dark relief at the freedom she has won to get it all into the open.