When art and life mix and thrive from their reciprocity to the point at which they become blurred together, the boundary that separates them becomes difficult to understand and easy to cross. Thus in viewing Tracey Emin’s works, we are not satisfied with their purely formal aspect but, like self-conscious voyeurs, we futilely attempt to understand where the person ends and the artist begins. Yet while Emin’s sources—both in terms of subject and technique—can be found among the masters of Expressionism, such as Edward Munch and Egon Schiele, we should also not be surprised that it is precisely from the depths of the soul and its lacerations that these sometimes blatantly provocative works arise, but that they contain all the violence and desperation of present-day society.
Using various media, some of which are traditionally feminine, such as embroidery, Emin tells a story—her own—by using her body and words, in painted, embroidered, or neon form, or simply evoked. She is the author of various books, the first and most well-known of which is the autobiographical Exploration of the Soul, 1994, which, in its beguiling honesty, wields raw language like an assault weapon. Crude phrases and epithets, mainly linked to sexuality, appear in her works on canvas and her skilfully embroidered collages, the gesture and the typically feminine craft, in their obvious contrast, heightening the vulgarity of the words. In Take What the Fuck You Like, 2001, the crude verbal expression is emphasized by the contrast with the work’s disarming graphic simplicity.
When the words are fewer in Emin’s work, bodies do the speaking. Provocative bodies, ambiguously arranged for the viewer’s indiscrete glance, drawn in terse, essential strokes, accompany at intervals passages of an autobiography in images, which make no mystery of the sexual violence the artist herself was subjected to as an adolescent.
In Dolly, 2002, the drawing is reduced to a minimum and almost angular lines that delineate the body, recall the female portraits sketched by Schiele. The floral embroideries that loom over and embellish the word “Dolly” underscore the contrast of the figure’s naked simplicity.
A flower hides, or perhaps reveals, the subject’s intimate parts, the origin of the world according to the artist
Gustave Courbet, but also an explicit sign of the loss of innocence, as if to uncover a more conscious and profound nakedness, that of the soul, which the artist offers up to our indiscretion.