In the world of contemporary art, few artists have achieved the level of vulnerability and emotional intensity displayed by Tracey Emin. The career of the British artist is a testament to the power of personal experience and the unfiltered expression of human emotions. From her provocative conceptual installations to her poignant paintings and drawings as well as her candid autobiographical narratives, her work is as raw, sincere and unfiltered as it gets. At only 60 years old, Tracey Emin has already left an indelible mark on the art world.
Emin was born in 1963 in a Turkish Cypriot family. Growing up in a working-class family in the seaside town of Margate, her early years were marked by difficult experiences and struggles. Around the age of 13, the artist was sexually assaulted and left school; she left her home when she was fifteen and had her first abortion at 18. However, if Emin had initially struggled with school, she did go on to pursue an education: she first studied fashion at Medway College of Design (now part of the University for the Creative Arts) in Kent, from 1980 to 1982. And five years later in 1987, she moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art, where she obtained a Master in painting in 1989. After graduating, she went through another traumatic abortion, which led to what she later described as an “emotional suicide”: the artist started to destroy all her art she had produced during her studies. These hardships and their lasting impact on Emin would later become central themes in her art.
Indeed, Tracey Emin's signature style took shape quite early on by blurring the lines between art and life, incorporating her own experiences, memories, and emotions into her work in a reflective way. For instance, her first solo exhibition, which took place at White Cube gallery in 1993, was titled My Major Retrospective 1963–1993 and displayed a wide array of memorabilia from her private life that she had produced between 1983 and 1993. It included small photographs of her paintings from art school that had been destroyed and a ‘photographic graveyard’ that revealed her admiration for several paintings by Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele. Little time after that first exhibition, she launched the Tracey Emin Museum project. Since she had no workshop, the artist issued “Emin Bonds”, in the form of wood cut engravings, that she sold 50 or 500 British pounds and for which she guaranteed a doubling in value over a year or a refund. The strategy was successful, allowing her to rent space (a store on Waterloo Road) and buy equipment.
In the 1990s, Emin emerged as a prominent figure in the Young British Artists (YBA) movement. Alongside artists like Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and the Chapman brothers, she challenged established conventions and redefined contemporary art. As a member of the group, she participated in the renowned “Sensation” exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997—which was extremely successful, in part by generating much scandal. The exhibition consisted of the contemporary art collection of Charles Saatchi, and showcased many works that changed the face of contemporary art, such as Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the infamous shark submerged in formaldehyde). The work of Tracey Emin on display during “Sensation” was her now renowned tent titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, on which she had sewed the 102 names of the people she had slept with up to 1995. If the title of the work was often misinterpreted as having necessarily a sexual entendre, it was more generally about intimacy, as the artist has explained profusely since then. It even comprised the name of her grandmother (with whom she had fallen asleep many times), and two numbers inscribed on the tent signified both of her aborted fetuses… In short, the piece was unequivocally personal. In 2004, the tent was destroyed in a fire at the East London Momart warehouse where it was kept. Offered a million pounds to remake the work, Emin declined, explaining: “I had the inclination and inspiration 10 years ago to make that, I don't have that inspiration and inclination now ... My work is very personal, which people know, so I can't create that emotion again—it's impossible.”
This willingness to expose intimate aspects of her life soon resonated with audiences and critics alike—be it positively or negatively—, propelling her to international acclaim. Indeed, one year later in 1998, Emin produced another piece titled My Bed, which would cement her rise to fame: it featured an unmade bed strewn with used condoms, bloody underwear, and empty bottles of alcohol. The work was unveiled in 1999 during the exhibition of the four artists selected by the prestigious Turner Prize at Tate Britain—which rewards a British artist under the age of 50. By presenting her bed as a self-portrait and giving insight into a time of deep depression after a breakup, Emin confronted themes of love, sexuality, and vulnerability with unparalleled honesty.
The installation made the headlines in the art world and ignited public debate. Even though Tracey Emin did not end up winning the prize, My Bed quickly became a symbol of both the personal and universal experiences of love, loss, and longing.
But although Everyone I Have Ever Slept With and My Bed brought Emin widespread recognition, one should be reminded that her artistic journey extends far beyond such installations. The artist has explored a wide range of mediums, including video, painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and textile art. In the 1990s, among her early work, Emin made several videos and short films that give some insight into the maturation of her artistic intent. In How It Feels (1996), she tells the story of her abortion; using first-person narration and addressing the viewer through the camera while walking in the streets of London, she asserts that conceptual art, as an act of reproduction, is completely bound to the artist’s inner life. Further expanding on this link, she once more externalized her suffering in the film Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children (1998): naked and crunched in a fetal position on the pier next to Munch’s house, the artist lifts her head up and screams. As for her hand-embroidered works, they tackle a medium traditionally associated with the work of women. Piercing the fabrics with words and combining parts of different material with uneven stitching to spell out statements with dubious syntax and spelling, the artist at once makes several statements. Indeed, works like Mad Tracey from Margate. Everyone’s been there, (1997) or Helter Fucking Skelter (2001), convey both Emin’s sensitivity to what others think of her and her intent to retaliate through assertion, in the same way her choice of medium is a way of flipping off the classifications of what is considered fine art and what is considered women’s work.
Tracey Emin is also a brilliant painter—a rare occurrence among conceptual artists, although a trait shared by Marcel Duchamp, the forefather of the movement. Once more, her modus operandi remains the same: her drawings and paintings are impactful because they successfully provide intimate glimpses into her thoughts and feelings.
Indeed, if she often adds handwritten text to her pieces to convey further layers of meaning, her lines and marks already capture the intensity of her sentiment. Formally inspired by abstract expressionism, Emin nonetheless paves her own way: her paintings express her emotions in the most direct and figurative way, whilst abstracting away the setting and some elements of the human figure (the faces, for instance) to make them more universally relatable. The titles themselves are full of private significance, but often formulated in a way which can resonate with anyone. As regards subject matter, the artist often represents female figures in the midst of a sexual experience of sorts—be it masturbation or intercourse. But upon gazing at them, one can sense that everything in them is about raw emotion: love, trauma, grief, or desire, to name a few. The artist has often been accused of taking pleasure from delving into obscenity, but her paintings tell a different story: subject matter is merely a means to an end. The end is truly a personal expression of cathartic nature.
With enough people cognizant of the sincerity imbued in her work, Tracey Emin has made a steady rise in the art world. In August 2006, the British Council announced that Tracey Emin had been chosen for the British Pavilion of the52nd Venice Biennale which would take place in 2007, making her the second woman artist to receive the honor of representing the United Kingdom at the Biennale. Titled Borrowed Light, her show displayed new works she had produced for the occasion, in a wide array of media, be it photography and video to painting, sculpture, neon texts, and even needlework. The paintings on display were various renditions of the artist’s naked, open legs. As regards sculpture, a work entitled Baby Things was constituted of an accurate rendering in bronze of children’s tiny lost shoes and clothes. It was installed right outside the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale as if it had been there by chance. Those unassuming, intimate objects were intended to inadvertently elicit various reactions, such as fear for our loved ones, or the indifference with which we treat a random discarded object that doesn’t belong to us. The event marked a turn in in how the artist was perceived in the eyes of art world experts and the general public. Andrea Rose, the British Pavilion commissioner, even made the following statement on the art produced by Emin for the event: "It's remarkably ladylike. There is no ladette work – no toilet with a poo in it – and actually it is very mature I think, quite lovely. She is much more interested in formal values than people might expect, and it shows in this exhibition. It's been revelatory working with her.”
Most recently, the artist has battled ageing and illness to a particularly severe degree. In Spring 2020, Emin was diagnosed with squamous cell bladder cancer, which led to heavy surgery. At the time, interviews she gave suggested she most likely would not make it into the next year. However, she now seems to be doing far better, and her paintings continue to express the sheer brutality experienced within the body, but also the joy that comes in surpassing it, giving rise to new desires. All in all, Tracey Emin's art is a powerful testament to the strength and vulnerability of our existence and embodies the resilience of the human spirit. Through her deeply intimate and introspective work, she challenges societal conventions, confronts taboos, and invites viewers into a world of raw emotion. Along the way, she encourages us all to embrace our own vulnerabilities and find strength in them.