PRINT February 1995


EVERY ARTIST HAS A STORY to tell, but we tend to remember best those artists who know that the first principle of storytelling depends on setting the scene and getting the details right. We don’t really care that Joseph Beuys’ tale of his exploits as a Luftwaffe pilot is basically a fabrication, or that Jasper Johns’ dreamscape account of his notorious Flag of 1958 isn’t really much of an explanation. The “art” of being an artist might be construed as the job of telling the story of becoming an artist, but what are we to make of those perplexing works where the subject matter and the way it is staged—crudely, the ground and the work—are presented as one and the same?

Enter Tracey Emin—half British, half Turkish, half a twin—whose art suggests she is Sandra Bernhard and Beuys rolled into one. Emin knows a good story when she weaves one; with every one of her projects set against her life, she transcends the tedium that often attends the praxis of life-into-art. What better project for an artist—male or female—than to construct a story of pain, abuse, humiliation, hope, and, ultimately, survival and triumph? Emin is hardly the first artist to exploit the potential of staged docudrama, but she does one of the more convincing jobs of structuring autobiography novelistically. Her subject matter may be her self, but because the problem her work repeatedly confronts is how the social is inextricably embedded in individual consciousness, the work never ends up being merely solipsistic. Instead, it is living proof that Hell is decidedly not other people.

One of Emin’s favorite refrains is “Does art school ever end?” To her, “art school” equals the hothouse of the ego, an institution in which the subject undergoes a long, often damaging process of acculturation. After graduating from London’s Royal College of Art, Emin was literally down and out, so she hit upon the idea of writing letters to dozens of friends and acquaintances to ask them to stake £10 on her future. The money started trickling in and Emin was becoming solvent again. While realizing the value of direct mail, she learned an even more important lesson: never forget your social responsibilities. She rewarded the faith of her newly found public by dutifully authoring four slice-of-life letters for each of her patrons. It wasn’t the first time an artist had sold shares of herself, yet in Emin’s hands the point was not the fetishization of direct-mail transactions or stockbrokering as a new art form, but an explicit acknowledgment of the social contract.

Emin’s most recent works include her 1994 cross-U.S.A. performances in which she sat in her grandmother’s chair reading from her book Exploration of the Soul, 1994, the story of Tracey Emin that begins, like Tristram Shandy, with an account of her conception and ends with the heroine deflowered, depressed, but determined on New Year’s Eve; her collaborative projects with Sarah Lucas, such as The Shop, 1993, in London’s East End, and From Army to Armani, 1993, in Geneva; and her first one-person exhibition, entitled “My Major Retrospective,” 1993. These pieces are most profitably dealt with in terms of the structures of the stage and the page. Virtually all of Emin’s work to date either involves or presupposes an element of performance; a consummate actor, she tells stories replete with traumas suffered and lessons learned. Emin’s becoming is more than a con job designed to convince us that yes, we really ought to feel awe in the presence of kilos of fat and acres of felt.

Given long-standing cultural prejudices, it is easy to fail to draw the necessary distinction between “self-expression” and using one’s “self” as a resource of expression. An example of this sort of error is found in those accounts of Emin’s work that suggest she is basically nuts. More to the point of the play of subjectivization in her work—which is a process of neither incipient psychosis, self-indulgence, nor crankiness—is the tone of her remarks on a forthcoming project that will address what might be termed “the painting situation.” As presently conceived, Emin’s project involves a ritualistic “exorcism” of painting—“painting” signifying the worst of the process of enculturation undertaken by British art schools during the early ’80s. Typically, she reels in this wider frame of reference, bringing it all back home as “the exorcism of my last painting.”

Emin’s themes are much less grandiose than those articulated by some of her more famous, existentially conflicted British contemporaries. Indeed Emin is to Beuys as Kierkegaard imagined himself to be in relation to Hegel: a modest though mocking hovel in the shadow of a palace. To title your first one-person exhibition, as Emin did, “My Major Retrospective” is to underscore a certain skepticism about, if not contempt for, the values that frame big-time art careers. In fact, it’s a nice uncomplicated sting in an otherwise convoluted act of self-effacement. “My Major Retrospective” displayed masses of Eminiana and juvenilia, including crafty photo-badge reproductions of her complete art-school works, boxed memorabilia, and a great quilt of remembrance entitled Hotel International, 1963–93. The hopelessly mundane, the impossibly obscure, and the esthetically unassuming all rubbed shoulders. Emin’s commentary included an improbable list of artistic influences, longer and more incoherent than those enumerated by Donald Judd in his essay “Specific Objects.” Unlike Judd’s list, which was mainly about posh ancestry and cultural legitimation, Emin’s is more likely to evoke the sentiment that Hey, it’s OK to paint like Franz Marc or Pablo Picasso if you can walk away from it later and not feel totally low. Emin’s persona is designed to look as though it can take everything life can throw at her. Her work is purposefully feisty, engulfing everything like a ravenous amoeba. If Emin projects the image of someone who enjoys life washing over her, then that’s not her drowning, but waving. Let’s wave back.

Michael Corris contributes regularly to Artforum from England.