TAKE a peek in the comments book at the Tracey Emin 20 Years show and you’ll get a glimpse of the controversy that the artist provokes. “Brave” and “really moving” sit alongside “this is not art” and “she should get some help”. And though the language might be a little more pompous, it’s not all that different a story when you read what the art critics say about her work.
Emin’s first major retrospective kicked off in the summer with all the hype and pop star excess that you’d expect from the queen of the Young British Artist movement who is her own best source material. Six weeks in, the show is pulling in lots of visitors, including many women.
On the wall outside the exhibition gallery is the warning: “This show contains works of an explicit nature.” The fact is that Tracey Emin’s work deals with tough issues – rape, abortion, casual sex, family breakdown, depression. It’s not for the faint-hearted nor the squeamish.
Nominated for the 1999 Turner Prize, Emin produced My Bed for the show, her wrinkled, stained, fag-ash-strewn place of kip.
Other works include the tent decorated with the names of everyone she’s slept with; appliqu blankets charting disintegrating relationships and the trauma of abortion and monoprints of bleeding, wounded female forms. Emin’s art is visceral and personal, it takes all the messy complications of life and it puts them in tasteful, quiet gallery spaces.
So what might you expect if you were taking a group of strangers to see an exhibition of this work? A couple of walk-outs perhaps?
Not if you take Rosanna Chianta, 21, Jill Robertson, 40, Elspeth Murray, 38 and Hillary Watkinson, 62.
Sitting outside the gallery in the September sun after viewing the exhibition, we find that, despite none of these women being art critics, and all being strangers to one another, there is plenty to discuss. To start with, there’s the question of how to respond to art that is this personal.
“You feel as though you shouldn’t be looking at it,” says Chianta, the only one of the group to have seen the show twice. “It’s as though it’s too personal, it’s not for your eyes, that you shouldn’t be witnessing it.”
Watkinson agrees: “I think it’s embarrassingly personal, yes. I think there are things that she really shouldn’t be telling us about because it’s not our business. It’s something that most people would keep inside themselves.”
“It’s almost like a personal therapy rather than an art exhibition,” says Robertson. “It’s quite self-indulgent.”
But one woman’s navel-gazing is another’s revealing insight. Murray says: “I think it was arresting. I quite enjoyed the honesty of the writing. It was really refreshing. I don’t think she’s doing it to try to be shocking and I’m not really interested in the ‘is it art/isn’t it art’ debate. I found it very thought-provoking.
“It makes us ask what is it here we think she shouldn’t be saying, or she shouldn’t be telling us about, or we shouldn’t know? I mean, do none of us have unmade beds? Or embarrassing things that have happened to us we’re ashamed of?”
Emin focuses on her own life with a relentless, searing intensity. It makes much of the work difficult to look at, but it’s also what resonates for these women in the hushed gallery space.
Would a male viewer respond differently? It’s the only question that prompts a unanimous response.
“They’ve got a very different take on things and so they’d probably wouldn’t relate to it in the same way as women,” says Robertson.
Murray says: “I just wanted to give her a hug by the end. She does make you feel that she’s so isolated.”
Chianta adds: “But what I like is that she’s not asking for pity. In the video piece where she’s narrating what happened in every year of her life, she’s saying some really awful things but in a really matter-of-fact way. That’s why it’s so intriguing.”
“I just came away feeling I’d been very lucky,” says Robertson. “I’ve had a really easy, nice life in comparison.”
So, “shocked”, “delighted” and “embarrassed” might have been the entries for the comments book. Some of the group wanted to see the exhibition again – but at least one had seen quite enough. And yet I bet there wouldn’t have been such passionate conversation if they’d been to see the Impressionists.
• Tracey Emin 20 Years is at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art until 9 November. For more information, log on to www.nationalgalleries.org
NOMINATED for the Turner Prize in 1999, this was the work that Emin produced for the award show and which brought her to wider public attention for the first time. Its dirty sheets with used condoms spread around set pulses racing in drawing rooms and tabloid pages alike.
WHAT THEY THOUGHT:
HW: It must be cathartic, she must be getting some kind of help out of it.
JR: Do you think it’ll stand the test of time though? Will people still be fascinated by her work in 100 years’ time?
EM: I think in 100 years’ time people will look back and say, ‘I can’t believe people were so shocked and that this was viewed as controversial’.
JR: I think it’s already got that stage because the bed isn’t remotely controversial now, it’s like do you really want to see it, but not because it’s shocking or controversial. It’s just another artist trying to be different.
EM: I think it’s an artist making work that she wants to make, that she needs to make and she’s a bold woman who’s a survivor of difficult circumstances and she’s not going to take the art world lying down, so to speak.
‘I was just so pleased that she’d escaped from Margate’
WHY I NEVER BECAME A DANCER
A SHORT Super 8 film narrated by Emin in which she talks about growing up in Margate, having lots of casual sex and eventually seeing her chance to escape through a disco dancing competition. The piece ends with Emin as an adult dancing to Sylvester’s disco hit (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.
WHAT THEY THOUGHT:
RC: I liked it. I really wished that the end of it, when she was dancing, had ended the exhibition so you go away feeling a little bit more cheery about it all.
JR: Instead it’s the other video piece in which she’s just screaming. I didn’t stay to listen to it but it certainly wasn’t a positive way to end. But actually I didn’t feel positive the whole way round, so maybe that’s what she wanted to achieve.
CB: By the time she was dancing in that studio, looking so happy, I was really smiling. I was just so pleased that she’d escaped from Margate, from all those men chanting ‘slag, slag, slag’.
JR: The whole subject matter isn’t something that makes you feel particularly good. You’re conscious that it’s going on around you in different levels of society, but it hits you between the eyes in something like this. I think it’s important.
‘It was just fascinating’
WORKS ON ABORTION
THESE are a collection of pieces in the exhibition, including drawings, an installation of surgical gowns and a video featuring Emin talking to her mother about her decision not to have children
WHAT THEY THOUGHT:
EM: What I liked most in the room that dealt with her abortions was the little video of Tracey Emin and her mum just talking. It was just fascinating. She said she didn’t want children and her mum was saying, ‘I don’t think you should have children, you’re a free spirit’.
HW: That’s very judgmental.
EM: I’ve had interesting conversations with my mum about having kids and I’ve decided not to have them. But women not having children is something that you don’t get a lot of airtime for, so just that is interesting. It was totally unmediated, it wasn’t like she was being interviewed. Fascinating.
‘I found myself with a lump in my throat’
TEXT WORKS THAT DEAL WITH RAPE
FOCUSING on her life story, there are both text works and visual works that deal with rape. Emin was raped for the first time at the age of 13.
WHAT THEY THOUGHT:
RC: It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially when I was reading some of the pieces of text that are part of her life story. I found myself with a big lump in my throat every time I came to something really awful.
JR: I found the narratives so long that they actually didn’t hold my attention. They say that a picture says a thousand words and I studied the visual side much more.
I lost concentration reading through the text and it wasn’t gripping enough for me to keep going. A friend of mine told me she’d got a lot more out of it the second time around.
EM: I quite enjoyed the honesty of the writing. It was really refreshing. I work as a writer and I work in schools.
At the moment I’m trying to urge young people to write what they think, what they feel, what they’ve seen or experienced and it’s not easy to do that. I thought it was great that she did.
RC: What I found more shocking than the art that deals with abortion were the pieces that dealt with rape. You hear about abortion a lot more, for better or worse, but with rape it’s often a statistic in a newspaper that doesn’t really have much of a story behind it, so here it really shocked me.