Tracey Emin at Lehmann-Maupin (1999)
Review of exhibition Every part of me’s bleeding in New York.
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 15 September 2009
This review was previously published in Sculpture magazine, 18(10), November 1999.
Tracey Emin: Every Part of Me’s Bleeding
“I’m fucked up. I’m 35. I’m childless. I’m anorexic. I’m neurotic. I’m psychotic... Everyday I try to sort it out,” proclaims Tracey Emin in her tell-all confessional video. Interviewed by herself— adopting a second role— Emin takes on questions about her public persona and her private-turned-public life. Confrontation climaxes when the interviewer walks off the set, and the divine-yet-tragic Ms. Emin barks a “Fuck Off” in triumph. On a small monitor, the video plays on a micro-stage, opposite two tiny chairs and sets of slippers for art voyeurs to peer over. This work greeted gallery viewers in a show—entitled “Every Part of Me’s Bleeding”— that has been cited as a contributing factor for Emin being shortlisted for Britain’s £20,000 Turner Prize.
Those familiar with Tracey Emin’s work have seen her expose herself before— not to mention the promotional nude photograph for the show with Emin lying in a gin-filled bathtub. Previously, she gained notoriety for her tent installation Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, which listed 102 names and contributed to the media-frenzied Sensation exhibition in London in 1997. Her controversial subjects are drawn from her sordid life. She has divulged her rape at 13, her abundant sexual consumption shortly afterwards, her suicide attempts, two abortions, and one miscarriage.
For this show, Tracey Emin included drawings, a quilt emblazoned with “Pysco Slut” [sic] (1999), and a reassembled beach hut from a past vacation spot frequented by Emin, artist friend Sarah Lucas, and a former boyfriend. The installation My Bed (1998) consists of stained pillows, cigarette butts, K-Y jelly, empty vodka bottles, used tampons, and tissues. A noose hangs overhead. The History of Painting (1998) consists of three pregnancy tests, morning after pills, tampons, blood, and tissue. The First Time I was Pregnant I Started to Crochet the Baby a Shawl (1998) rests hauntingly in a Plexiglas case with needle and yarn. Neon works recalling those of Bruce Nauman include Soba Sex (1999) and My Cunt is Wet with Fear (1998). Pushing public and private even further, she outs her current boyfriend. With the neon Very Happy Girl (1999), she announces his penis size to the world— “22 cm circumference 20.” Does size matter? The artwork suggests that indeed it does.
Subjects and storytelling dominate, and Tracey Emin the art star, curiosity, and social warrior is the focus of the work. Her tragic content and survivor sensibility ricochet against the boundaries of public and private and have facilitated her success. The work has been criticized for focusing on the subjects at the expense of developing its form, and it has been linked to earlier, introspective work by American women artists. With these autobiographical stories, viewers— for the most part— have no means to confirm these narratives and are unaware of the potential exaggerations or the possible private information withheld. While calls for truth are inherent in the work, unfortunately we end up with a different kind of layer of exposure and representation.
Who is Tracey Emin? We only know what she shows— and tells— us. Her life becomes artwork and the content becomes media sensation in art magazines and the general press. It just makes one wonder what Emin would need to do to maintain similar levels of sensation— or will the same public fascination occur if she ever sorts herself out?