Thanet Writers Spotlight Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin is a name most people in Thanet recognise and many have developed quite a strong opinion of due to her explicitly memorable creations. She is the controversial artist with the ‘filthy sex bed,’ the graphic art work and the free, outspoken and provocative persona. But as well as being an artist, Tracey Emin is also a notable writer, with her handwritten words making an appearance in at least half of all her work.
Emin was born in 1963 in South London and grew up in the coastal town of Margate in Thanet, where she had a difficult childhood that we will delve further into later with the help of her work. She started to study fashion at the Medway College of Design where she met her poet boyfriend Billy Childish, who introduced her to the expressive art of spoken word poetry. Inspired, she changed her course to focus on art and became a regular member of a performance art group called The Medway Poets.
“Poetry can be one line, a sentence. When you read the words, you imagine what you’re seeing, you’re given a sense of vision by the words.”
After graduating in 1986, Tracey Emin studied for her Master of Arts degree at the Royal College of Art. Around this time she suffered an unusually complicated abortion. This highly emotional event triggered Tracey to re-evaluate her life. She chose to become a writer instead of an artist and destroyed all her existing art pieces, which are rumoured to have been beautiful landscape paintings.
Emin’s first break came in 1992 when she invited members of the public to invest £10 in her, and in return they would receive three handwritten letters. This brave and interesting endeavour caught the eye of a London gallerist who hosted her career launch the following year. Tracey’s very first exhibition contained items of personal significance that she had collected throughout her life, including a packet of cigarettes her uncle was holding when he died in a car crash, unsent letters to boyfriends, teenage diaries and tiny photographs of her destroyed artwork.
In 1994 she created Exploration of the Soul, a 32 page piece she wrote over ten isolated days where she allowed herself to plunge back into her painful early years, from birth to the age of thirteen. Handwritten in ink; her scratchy, emotive words were unedited and contained punctuation and spelling mistakes. During this therapeutic state she writes of her imagined conception; an accident between her English mother and Turkish Cypriot father, who were both already married to other people. But Tracey and her twin brother Paul were not aborted, a decision Tracey heavily suggests was a mistake in the following extract:
The moment of my birth into this world I somehow felt a mistake had been made—I couldn’t scream or cry or even argue my case—I just lie there motionless just wishing I could just go back.
Exploration of the Soul by Tracey Emin
In this piece Emin also recounts memories of strong sibling rivalry with Paul, her twin brother, and of how they had to share a bed even though both were desperate to claim their own space—a bed which Paul eventually set fire to. She also tells of a hairy man, the boyfriend of her mother, and implies that he sexually assaulted both her and Paul.
Exploration of the Soul was published in 1994, in an edition of 200 copies. Nine years later it was republished by Counter Gallery in an edition of 1000.
Emin continued using words to express her darkest memories and the emotions that accompanied them, which were often helped to be further explained by scratchy diagrams, all very reminiscent of a personal diary entry.
For a South London Gallery in 1995 Tracey created one of her most memorable pieces, an art instillation titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. The title was attention grabbing and provocative but, in reality, the names appliqued onto the blue tent were of people she had actually laid next to and fallen asleep with, including her mother and brother.
Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 was again shown two years later at an exhibition called Sensation at the Royal Academy in London, but was met with wildly mixed reactions. That same year she made headlines when she appeared to be intoxicated in a television interview, speaking about recipients of the Turner Prize.
In 1999 Emin herself was short-listed for the esteemed Turner Prize, a decision which was again met with mixed reactions. Around the same time she released her controversial piece My Bed. The instillation featured Tracey’s own bed in a state of complete disarray following a period of depression. My Bed attracted significant attention and is arguably what Tracey is most remembered for creating.
Emin has released a handful of autobiographical films focused on her early years spent in and around Margate. She has also written several books, most notably a memoir in 2005 titled Strangeland, which is made up of words, images of her creations and personal photographs.
In 2007 Tracey represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale with the show “Borrowed Light,” which displayed her handwriting lit-up in neon signs, along with embroidery and a series of watercolours and sculptures. Also in 2007 she joined the likes of artist David Hockney when she was elected as a Royal Academician.
As well as being an outspoken artist, there is a truly compassionate side of Emin that not many people are aware of. Tracey is dedicated to helping vulnerable children have a better quality of life, perhaps because she wishes no-one to experience the kind of abuse she suffered as a child, and is involved with the NSPCC and many HIV and AIDS charities. She frequently donates original artworks for charity auctions, where she is said to occasional take on the role of auctioneer to help increase the highest bid.
For Valentine’s day in 2008 she donated a red, heart-shaped neon artwork called I Promise To Love You to an auction to raise money for The Global Fund, a charity which helps women and children affected by HIV and AIDS in Africa. The auction was called (Auction) RED and Tracey’s work sold for a record price of $220,000. That same year Tracey visited Uganda and set up a library at the rural Forest High School.
“Schools here don’t have libraries. In fact, rural areas have very little. Most have no doctor, no clinic, no hospital; schools are few and far between. Education cannot afford to be a priority, but it should be… I think this library may be just the beginning.”
In 2011 Tracey became a professor of drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The following year, she was chosen to create a limited edition print for both the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Emin bravely returned to her childhood town of Margate in 2012 for the exhibition She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea, a collection of work specifically created for the Turner Contemporary. Some critics commented that this collection wasn’t at the same emotional level of Tracey’s usual work, but I see this as a very positive thing; all her pain and trauma is reflected in her art, and since this art for the Turner Contemporary was said to be lacking, it hopefully reflects a contentment the artist has finally found in life.
She was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2013. The same year she released the following poem.
You put your hand
Across my mouth –
But still the noise
Every part of my body
Smashed into a thousand
Belonging to you.
Love Poem by Tracey Emin
Tracey truly puts her heart and soul into her work and very honestly lays herself, her experiences and her regrets bare for all to see. She quite therapeutically takes her overwhelming memories and feelings from life events and constructively crafts them into both art and the written word.
No matter what your opinion may be of Tracey Emin, and even if this spotlight on the controversial artist hasn’t changed your mind, there can be no denying that she had a very big part in putting Thanet’s coastal town of Margate on the creative map.
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© 2017 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.