An exhibition of hundreds of Tracey Emin's previously unseen drawings opened this week at the White Cube gallery in London. Emin's art has often been criticized for its unabashed honesty, but her most recent exhibit, titled "Those Who Suffer Love," reveals a more "mature" side of the controversial artist.
Emin, now 45, was one of the original "Young British Artists" (YBAs), and has been deemed the "most outrageous enfant terrible" of the 1990s generation of British artists. Emin's current exhibition consists primarily of her drawings — although it also includes works in neon lights and embroidery — which span the past twenty years and features many explicit images of the nude female body. One of the more shocking pieces in "Those Who Suffer Love" is an animated film created from hundreds of Emin's sketches of a masturbating woman. The Times of London review, which gives the exhibition four stars, describes it as a "sort of headless human-frog in high, strappy heels," that moves restlessly about in a "never-to-be-satisfied frenzy." She claims that it is not a self portrait, but rather an exploration of the connection between drawing and masturbation, inspired by her collection of vintage pornography:
"[Masturbation] is not just about self-love, it's also about self-loathing and being alone and for the act of being alone," Emin explains.
"For me drawing is a very personal, lonely process and doesn't involve anyone else. it involves my imagination, so I think there are very strong parallels."
However, given Emin's past, it is not surprising that many see the work and assume that she must be the writhing, headless figure. To a great extent, Emin's fame is a result of her commitment to revealing the many embarrassing and painful details of her personal life within her art. In the past, her works have focused on her experiences with childhood abuse, rape, abortion, heartbreak, and severe depression. Her current exhibit features several drawings from 1991 when she was "very confused and upset" about an abortion procedure that "hadn't worked properly." The trauma she felt was channeled into her simple anatomical drawings of the female nude, whose twisted forms are reminiscent of the work of Egon Schiele (one of Emin's earliest influences). In the past, Emin has displayed the intimate artifacts of her personal life, from the cigarette box her uncle was holding when he was decapitated in a car accident to her stained and unmade bed. In 1999, she exhibited My Bed at the Tate Gallery in London. The work generated a good deal of controversy; many objected to the dirty yellowed sheets and garbage — including several condoms and a pair of blood stained underwear — that littering the floor around the bed.
One of Emin's most famous pieces, Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 was destroyed in a fire five years ago. Everyone was a cloth tent embroidered with 102 names. While many understand it to mean "Everyone I've Ever Had Sex With" Emin makes it clear that the list is literal, and includes people, like her grandmother, who she has simply shared a bed with. Artists Jake and Dinos Chapman have since recreated the work, but Emin says: "It won't be my tent, it would be totally their version ... They're always teasing me. The more I say I'm not happy, the more the buggers will do it."
While Emin's autobiographical and sexually explicit work has generated its fair share of press, her past antics have also contributed to her reputation as a wild child. In 1997 the "self-styled bad girl of British art" showed up for a live television debate on contemporary art drunk out of her mind. She swore repeatedly before suddenly leaving to see her mother. The Guardian mockingly called her appearance "Tracey Emin's most significant, certainly her most entertaining, contribution to British art."
In an interview with Channel 4 News, Emin describes the way her work has changed over the years: "There is nothing girl about me anymore, its gone. I've always said it is sex that got me out of bed in the morning, sex that keeps me in bed... Now my life is very different, now it's definitely all about the ideas and about being in control of myself, understanding myself a lot more. That's quite interesting, also I'm afraid of that as well. I wonder where it's all going."
Emin Bares All In New Exhibition [BBC]
Tracey Emin London Show Explores The Solitary Pursuit Of Lust [Bloomberg Press]
Tracey Emin Gives Guided Tour Round Her White Cube show [Times]
Sex craze fading fast, says Tracey Emin at London exhibition launch [Guardian]
Tracey Emin Bares All [Channel 4 News]