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It’s a messy bed, so what? Everyone thinks they understand creativity but really, for many, their distaste or disbelief in what these days is construed as a legitimate work of art is an expression of weakness. Others have better arguments against it, but at least they know what they’re talking about.
Tracey Emin’s (in)famous My Bed, which was shown for the first time in 1999 is still one of the most defining works of her career and remains the subject of much debate, namely around her importance within art and what contemporary art’s output has offered since the nineties.
The late art critic Robert Hughes, known for his scathing contempt of inane, corny and seriously vacant works, past and present, once described the above work as a “stale icon” that suggests very little.
Meanwhile, the Saatchi Gallery takes a very different stand, lauding Emin for what is explicitly self-aware art (to be confused with autobiographical), which blurs the line between her life as an artist and that which most of us keep private. She shares not as a way of self-flagellation, but to foster discourse into the very imperfect human condition.
“Tracey shows us her own bed, in all its embarrassing glory,” the gallery has stated. “Empty booze bottles, fag butts, stained sheets, worn panties: the bloody aftermath of a nervous breakdown. By presenting her bed as art, Tracey Emin shares her most personal space, revealing she’s as insecure and imperfect as the rest of the world.”
Whatever side you may be on, what is certain is that over the last 25 years – since her first ever solo show at the White Cube Gallery in 1993 to her latest exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (surprisingly her first major show in the US) – Emin has enjoyed a very successful career, and remains one of the most prolific and talked about contemporary artists in the world today.
As the Observer’s Laura Cumming noted in 2011, when discussing Love is What Want It at the Hayward Gallery, she needs no introduction and it is this that is “her defining characteristic as an artist”.
This exhibition was revelatory to critics like Ms Cumming, though, of course, others lambasted its irrelevance (this will be a constant dichotomy for now, with history to make a more objective judgement). Emin has depth beyond her own insecurities and the narcissism of ‘me as an object’.
“You notice the homages to Louise Bourgeois, the affinities with Sarah Lucas, the odd spot of ab-ex and the nods to Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol,” Ms Cumming pointed out two years ago.
“You cannot avoid the constant echoes of Edvard Munch. In Rose Virgin, a small and delicate painting of a woman with her legs parted from 2007, the pale haziness recalls Gwen John with a touch of Marlene Dumas. In Yellow Dress, where the garment has ridden up to expose yet another vulva, the wash of watercolour borrows from Dumas, the nervous draughtsmanship from Egon Schiele.”
At the heart of it all then, she is a continuation of the expressionists of yesteryear, except her articulation of existential and spiritual despair is narrated and explored through the modern-day tools and channels at her disposal. She says she isn’t telling her story, but presenting her own investigations.
“It’s more about how I express my feelings,” Emin told Vanity Fair earlier this year. “I’m always trying to find out more about myself—how I think, what makes me do things. Sometimes it’s not about my own life necessarily but about witnessing something that makes me feel a certain way.”
Art is her counsel and her therapy, her medicine and her joy, her way of living, seeing and being. It consumes her and lets her tell the world about how a woman born in Croydon in 1963 is attempting to understand her life in all its rudimentary ways, as well as looking deeper into the cosmos of the soul to find out what it all means.
“What is truth?” she once asked. “Truth doesn’t really exist. Who is going to judge whether my experience of an incident is more valid than yours? No one can be trusted to be the judge of that.”
She is what she is.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Piers Allardyce