PRINT February 2022



IN OCTOBER 1921, T. S. Eliot was in Margate, sitting on a bench, looking at the ocean. He had been worked to the point of disintegration by his relentless day job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and, citing a “nervous breakdown,” had taken three months’ leave to recover. It was a Hail Mary effort to rescue his swiftly diminishing capacity for sanity, poetry, and marriage—a trinity of dissimilar aspirations, a scalene wish. None could be sacrificed, yet each scraped against the worn edge of the others. Margate was a seaside resort town on the southern coast, the spangled hem on the skirt of England, where working-class families holidayed in the brief glints of argent summers. In most countries, the coast is a site of blissful exception, a limit experience, but in England it simply extends the logic of the inland landscape: You will get wet, only on a slightly grander scale. Sunshine is a gamble in July and in October an epiphany. It’s not where I would recommend someone go to cheer up about the prospect of being alive, although some might find encouragement in the many possibilities held within the color gray. Needless to say, Eliot didn’t find happiness or love or meaning. He did, however, write The Waste Land.

A year before, in 1920, Margate’s dance hall and “pleasure gardens,” mock ruins that housed circus animals in training, had been turned into a new attraction: a theme park named, of all things, Dreamland. A roller coaster was built, made of wood and braked by hand. Other thrills followed—the Joy Wheel, the Whip, the River Caves—sounding themselves like chapters of an epic. (I imagine Eliot might have enjoyed riding the Sea-on-Land, a merry-go-round that undulated frenetically, creating the sensation of being tossed about in a storm.) For a handful of decades, Margate spun, looped, and flew through the sky, pink lights doubled in the water, the steady breath of surf tucked underneath the clangs and howls of the park. But when cheaper air travel in the 1960s made it possible for many more English families to holiday abroad, the beaches of home suddenly seemed a lot grayer in comparison. The town’s economy plummeted. By the 1970s and ’80s, Dreamland was barely hanging on, and in 2003, it shuttered but remained standing, becoming the ruins its early gardens had only pretended to be. And it was in this Margate, the land of dreams turned to waste, that Tracey Emin filmed her 1995 work Why I Never Became a Dancer.

The video opens with a cliff against water, shot in a shivering Super 8 that makes everything look like it has been encased in amber, honeyed and ancient. The camera pans to a barrier wall that reads, in chalk, WHY I DIDN’T BECOME A DANCER, which is not the title of the video: The open-ended “did not” became the conclusive “never” somewhere between filming and naming. The first five minutes of the seven-minute video are a visual postcard: ice cream trucks, arcade games, blanched sand, the moving shadows of seagulls above. Without the sound, we could be watching someone’s family-vacation footage, minus the family. But childhood is cast off; Emin’s voice-over recontextualizes the landscape as a site of adolescent sexuality, discovery, and violation. She describes dropping out of school at thirteen to wander through the pleasures of Margate: “the clock tower, the caffs, the bars, Poloses, the Bally High, the lunchtime discos, drinking cider lying out on the beach. The summer was amazing: nothing to do but dream.” The horizon nears, hovers: “And then there was sex. It was something you could just do, and it was for free.” Her tone has a wry wonder to it; her emphatic “for free” accommodates all the meanings of the word. “You’d go to a pub, you’d walk home, have fish-and-chips, then sex!” she says, lightly, or maybe it is more “then sex?” with a shrug. (In her monograph it’s transcribed with an air of inevitability: “then sex: . . .”) The voice and the visuals unexpectedly align as she reels off places to fuck like a shot list: “on a beach, down an alley, a green, a park, even a hotel.”

The fall from Eden (what is Eden if not a place with no morals?) is perfectly set in the many lands of Margate, where the wheel of joy turned and turned and gave us nothing but modernist poetry.

Emin presents power dynamics, and power abuses, in the negative form: “It didn’t matter that I was young: thirteen, fourteen. It didn’t matter that they were men of nineteen, twenty, twenty-five, twenty-six. . . . There were no morals, rules, or judgments.” Like the strange landlessness where ocean meets ground, Emin articulates the place between childhood and adulthood, where everything lives in flux, where it is unclear who is in charge, if anyone is, and where one might almost believe being thirteen didn’t mean anything. When her rage rises to the surface, it is held within the walls of her own knowledge, her own experience, something she is unwilling to sacrifice: “They were pathetic. Sex for me had been an adventure, a learning.” When she runs out of boys, she learns something new and starts to dance instead. Dancing is a noun, a gerund: “me and dancing.” They make a pair—like friends, like lovers. A girl and her body. She’s good enough to compete in the regional finals of the 1978 British Disco Dancing Championship. But as she begins to dance, hip deep in the dream, the audience clapping along, “they started: SLAG, SLAG, SLAG.” Boys on the sidelines, many former hookups, are chanting, cutting over and through her music, the insult taking on a rhythm of its own. Running from the dance floor, the past, the town, she goes to the sea and swears her escape: “And I left Margate, and I left those boys.” The camera moves faster, as if from the window of a car, flying through the remains of summer.

Tracey Emin, How It Feels, 1996, video, color, sound, 22 minutes 33 seconds.

This story—of young desire, lost innocence, public humiliation—could end there. It would be more in line with the artwork Emin is so often accused of making: equal parts sentimental and sexual, confessional without challenging convention. Xavier Hufkens’s online exhibition “Tracey Emin: Video Works 1995–2017,” the first survey of her moving-image work, counters the weighty stack of projection, scandal, and snideness her career has accumulated by reviving an easily forgotten throughline of Emin’s practice. Often overshadowed by her beds, tents, nudes, and neons, the videos are, at their best, anecdotal without being self-mythologizing—slinky, ardent, witty, and wishful, the dinner-party version of one’s worst suffering. Or maybe that’s just the dinner parties I like to go to, full of bad things turned into good stories. Even in what is undeniably the most harrowing of the works, 1996’s How It Feels—which follows Emin striding through the streets of London, monologuing her botched abortion—she has a brutality that is so offhand it veers into the stylish. Style as a marker not of frivolity, but of self-awareness and a commitment to survival. Emin is often tragic, in the most classical sense, but she is never defeated. When the narrator of Why I Never Became a Dancer pledges a life bigger than her small town while the camera lingers on waves, it is undeniably clichéd, but clichéd in the way teenagers usually are, hurtling themselves toward narrative climax like heat-seeking missiles. And of course, her swift punishment for having, and sometimes even enjoying, casual sex is easy to anticipate. The fall from Eden (what is Eden if not a place with no morals?) is perfectly set in the many lands of Margate, where the wheel of joy turned and turned and gave us nothing but modernist poetry. But just as we are packing our bags to go, comforted by another sad story of feminine disgrace, Emin calls us back. “Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard: This one’s for you!” And, like the sonic equivalent of the heavens parting, the opening beat of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester starts to play. We cut. For the first time, we see her, and she’s dancing.

Disco laments; disco restores. Emin spins, in denim shorts and boots, hands pressing out into the empty room. She’s grinning, looking straight into the camera, but there’s not a lot of show. It has the fizzy companionship of the best song in the living room of your best friend, chairs pushed against the wall, the kind of dancing that makes other, shyer people want to dance. A very ordinary resurrection. The Super 8 can’t keep up with her, she’s moving too fast, and her movements appear choppy, like waves crashing over the image. Maybe we can only access such heights of feeling—such triumph—in fragments. What is she, if not becoming, if not a dancer? The “never” of the title winks, twirls. Thank God two opposing realities can both be true! In The Waste Land, Eliot writes, “On Margate Sands / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” In 1980, Sylvester remarked, “They all said disco died. But I don’t know. I go out dancing all the time.” 

Audrey Wollen is a writer based in New York.