Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin - Biography and Legacy

British Sculptor, Photographer, Painter, and Conceptual Artist

Born: July 3, 1963 - London, UK

Biography of Tracey Emin


Tracey Emin was born in Surrey, in England. She grew up in Margate, on the coast of Kent, with her twin brother Paul. She lived with her mother in a successful seaside hotel, where she claims she was treated "like a princess." Her Turkish father lived with them for half of the week, spending the other half with his wife and other children. After a few years, Emin's father left and took his money with him, leaving Emin's mother bankrupt.

The family was then forced to live in poverty; Emin later recalled that they had two meters, one for gas and one for electricity, but they could never afford to have them both on at the same time. When she was 13, Emin was raped; something that she later claimed "happened to a lot of girls."

Early Training and Work

Emin left Margate to study fashion at the Medway College of Design between 1980 and 1982. She met the avant-garde personality Billy Childish, who was also a student at the college until he was expelled. Her relationship with the colorful writer, their work at Childish's small press, and her study of printing in Maidstone Art College, are all what Emin considers important artistic experiences in her maturing as an artist.

In 1987, Emin's relationship with Childish ended and she moved to London. She studied for an MA in painting at the Royal College of Art, which she received in 1989. However, after leaving the college she went through an emotionally traumatic period in which she had two abortions, and this experience caused her to destroy all the work she had made at the Royal College.

While she was still coming to terms with her own artistic practice, she influenced a reactive movement called Stuckism, which sought to promote figurative painting rather than the sort of conceptual art that Emin was focused on at the time. It was founded in 1999 by Emin's ex-boyfriend Billy Childish. The movement's name was inspired by Emin, when she had told Childish his paintings were "Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!"

In the years after breaking up with Childish, once Emin rose into fame, he became very vocal about Emin's art practice. He opposed the art business and in turn the popularity of her work and said, "Taking cultural things and turning them into mere commerce is very dangerous. Professional football has ruined football and professional art has ruined art. A decadence and superficiality has set in and sometime I wonder if maybe we have got what we deserve. I think it is odd that the Brit artists cite the influence of someone like Duchamp who was involved in anti-art and who was taking the piss out of the pompous pretentious art establishment. The biggest irony is that now they are that pretentious art establishment themselves yet they still put forward this idea that they are undermining something." Childish's own Stuckism movement is more about rejecting the frenzy of conceptual art, and sought to champion the work of figurative painters. The Stuckism movement is still quite active, and is famous for protesting the Turner Prize every year to show their continued opposition. The Stuckism art movement is an action against artists such as Emin, and yet her artistic presence is the basis for their fundamentals, for their movement would not exist without Emin. She inspired the movement not only through her criticism of Childish's work, but also through her artwork and the public acceptance of her work. They may be in opposition to her, but require her particular brand of art fame to continue their plight.

Mature Period

Upon moving to London, Emin become friendly with many of the other artists who would later be called the Young British Artists, which included Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. The group began to exhibit together in 1988, although Emin did not join ranks with them artistically until the early 1990s. The gallerist Charles Saatchi was a supporter and collector of the artists from the beginning of their careers, and is often given credit for "discovering" them. The name of the group was from the title of an exhibition at Saatchi's gallery in March 1992 titled "Young British Artists I" but it was artist and writer Michael Corris who referred to the group of artists with that title in an ArtForum article in May 1992. Often all artists of that generation from Britain are called YBAs as it now holds a historic reference.

In 1993, Emin joined with Sarah Lucas to open a shop called "The Shop" in Bethnal Green, which was in the East End of London. They sold work by both artists, including anything from t-shirts to ash trays, to paper mache sex toys to dresses, adding a previously little-seen commercialism to their artistic practices, which would become a defining feature of Young British Art.

Emin had her first solo exhibition at London's White Cube in the same year. Named My Major Retrospective, Emin drew together a collection of personal items and photographs, creating a part-installation part-archive with a strongly autobiographical slant. This element of autobiography is key to her ongoing practice.

In the middle of the 1990s, Emin began a relationship with curator and art world figure Carl Freedman. Freedman was friendly with Damien Hirst and had worked with him on some of his important early shows that introduced Young British Art to the public. In 1994 the couple traveled in the US together, where Emin paid her way by doing readings. They also spent time in Whitstable on the Kent coast together, often using a beach hut that Emin purchased with her friend Sarah Lucas. She has spoken about how much she enjoyed owning property for the first time saying, "I was completely broke and it was really brilliant, having your own property by the sea." In 1999 she later turned the hut into an artwork by bringing the structure from the beachfront into the Saatchi Gallery and calling the work, The Last Thing I Said to You is Don't Leave Me Here (1999).

In 1995, Freedman curated a show called "Minky Manky" for which he encouraged Emin to make artwork larger and less ephemeral. The result was her well-known work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995), which was a tent embroidered with the names of everyone with whom she had shared a bed, sexual or otherwise. This artistic touch through words is a common theme throughout her work. Emin uses her own handwriting, as seen in her neon messages, embroidered words, monoprints and hand-cut letters for her applique designs. Misspellings and grammar mistakes are present in her artworks, as if to add humiliations and failures to her authenticity.

Emin first came to the attention of the wider British public when she appeared on a television show about the Turner Prize in 1997, where she was belligerent and drunk, swearing on live television among a panel of academics. She finished her appearance by saying, "I'm leaving now, I wanna be with my friends, I wanna be with my mum. I'm gonna phone her, and she's going to be embarrassed about this conversation, this is live and I don't care. I don't give a fuck about it." She ended with, "you people aren't relating to me now, you've lost me" before taking off her lapel mic while still talking and walking off in the middle of the live show.

Two years after her drunken television appearance, Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize for her controversial work My Bed (1998). Only one British artist of the four nominated can win the prize, and Emin lost the Prize that year to Steve McQueen. The surrounding press coverage dubbed her the "bad girl of British art". At the time, many voiced opinions about the types of stains and impurities contained in her artwork, even the lowest English tabloids weighed in. Although she never won the Turner Prize (yet), it was the catalyst for her fame.

Her work evolved during this period and she developed a more specific style. Her choice to use needlework and applique techniques place her work within a tradition of feminist discourse within modern and contemporary art. These techniques were considered domestic handicrafts and were typically considered low in the hierarchy of art, and a part of normalized feminine practice - a concept that Feminist art has waged war against with significant success. Emin herself has no fear of being associated with "low art" or "women's work", for she embraces her own sexuality and femininity; and most certainly places importance upon it.

Current Practice

Emin's personal life and public appearances have become less sensational since the late 1990s. Her work is in a variety of important collections, and many celebrities have become collectors of her art, including Elton John and George Michael. She has also become friends with many famous people from the music and fashion worlds, including Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Vivian Westwood, Kate Moss, and Madonna. Madonna has described Emin as "intelligent and wounded and not afraid to expose herself."

In 2007, Emin was made a Royal Academician at London's Royal Academy of the Arts, marking her ascent into the upper echelons of British art society and her acceptance by the establishment. She was later also made a professor of drawing at the institution. In 2013, she was included on a list of the 100 most powerful women in the country by BBC Radio 4, and in the same year she was awarded a CBE for her services to the arts.

For the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 Emin was the second female British artist to be nominated to represent the British Pavilion (the first was Rachel Whiteread in 1997). She exhibited a work titled, Borrowed Light which featured many of her early drawings alongside her recent works. The show received mixed critique, and she was criticized for being limited in her art practice.

In 2015, Emin took the unusual decision to "get married" to a rock in her garden in France. She later stated that "somewhere on a hill facing the sea, there is a very beautiful ancient stone, and it's not going anywhere," describing her rock-husband as "an anchor, something I can identify with." She symbolically chose to wear her father's funeral shroud for the short and unconventional ceremony. This is to be understood as a universal expression of love, and an expression of the soul or the invisible self. Emin has announced numerous times that she no longer has sex and is not invested in physical conquest, but rather, seeks to focus on love and her work.

The Legacy of Tracey Emin

Emin's work as part of the Young British Artists movement placed her firmly within a key legacy that was to affect the development of art in Britain for years to come. Similarly, she holds an international stage, for her work tackles universal ideas through her relationship to human behavior and gender. Her seminal work My Bed helped redefine what a liberated woman can be. In particular, Emin's work influenced a generation of female artists who explore womanhood and feminism through a self-confessional tone. These include artists such as Marie Jacotey-Voyatzis, whose print works explore her emotional life as a woman and include Emin-like misspellings, and Laure Prouvost, a Turner Prize winner who works with self-revelatory video as well as textiles and found objects to create striking tableaux. Emin has evaded aligning her ideology with a larger political cause, and has stated, "I'm not happy being a feminist. It should all be over by now."

Her work can be understood as belonging to the ethos of third-wave feminism; a belief that a woman can define her sexuality on her own terms. The lack of symbology in Emin's work forces audiences to focus on the real and often taboo aspects of femininity through modern women's issues, such as menstruation, abortion, promiscuity, and the shame associated with these topics. She has carved her own place and continues to produce artwork with her signature strong, yet vulnerable edge.

Emin continues to be active in her art practice, and the basis of her work remains tied to physical identity through corporeal and spiritual anguish. She is an active participant in her artwork, and through this she lends an openness and vulnerability to her audience through universal emotion. She rejects discussion of the feminist authority in her work, and yet she engages directly with modern female identity. Art allows the violation of social norms, and in turn a way for viewers to enter into sharing the human social condition - often in a controlled environment.

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Tracey Emin Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 12 Dec 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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