Tracey Emin

Only a handful of contemporary artists are household names. In England, at least, Tracey Emin tops the list. I began to understand why a few years ago when she walked into an opening and immediately this warm, happy feeling went through me: Ah, there’s my pal Tracey! I had to quickly remind myself that Ms. Emin and I had never actually met. Yet very few works in any medium give as vivid an illusion of intimacy as Emin’s early videos, most notably How It Feels, 1996—the horror story of a botched abortion—and Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, which recounts an episode of humiliation at a dance contest as the impetus to chuck the buried life of Emin’s provincial seaside hometown, the scene of her rape and ensuing promiscuity. These first-person underdog narratives are far more than just outpourings of pathos or cries for sympathy; rather, the coolly furious analytical acumen the artist directs toward her own feelings tells you that here, at last, someone is leveling with you about the way things are and, indeed, how it feels.

All of which goes to say that Emin’s art is fundamentally based on talking. She is a monologuist. A few of her videos present this storytelling in raw form, but most of her production—cartoonlike drawings in which the captions are more prominent than the images, patchwork blankets blazoned with seemingly arbitrary conglomerates of phrases, and so on—consists of stabs at pruning her anecdota down to some more contained quasi-iconic form. In the process the work suffers twofold: Not only do we miss the speaking person behind the language—the tone, the hesitations, the accompanying facial expressions and gestures that convince us of the speaker’s honesty—but more important, we miss the narrative development at which the artist excels. Emin simply doesn’t draw, sew, sculpt, or anything else with the same adroitness with which she speaks. Nor, by the way, can she act, which is something quite different from speaking for the camera: In some recent videos where she plays out a narrative (for instance, an encounter between the bad-girl Tracey banging on the door and the decorous Tracey who won’t open the door to her impressively spacious loft), she’s working at about the level of the best actress in a high school play.

But then Emin’s self-absorption, even at its most engaging, has always had an adolescent aspect to it. Why I Never Became a Dancer might just as well have been called How I Became a Teen Rebel. Those scrawled drawings could have come straight out of some bright but troubled student’s notebook, and the foul-mouthed appliquéd blankets would be just the thing to turn in for your big art project if you were angling for a suspension. The underlying message, bad spelling and all: BELEAVE ME I AM SPECIAL (Volcano Closed, 2001); I’M BETTER THAN ALL OF THEM—I’M FREE (Why I Never Became a Dancer). But what earns this feeling of specialness and freedom beyond infectious self-belief? Whatever it is deserves a more substantial form. Until she finds it, though, Emin can enjoy the rewards of her success, as we see in the photograph I’ve got it all, 2000: the artist sweeping wads of cash between her open legs toward her crotch—probably a more satisfying recompense for the lost object than the rest of us might imagine.

Barry Schwabsky