A polite dance through defecation and decapitation

The Art of Tracey Emin

November 22, 2002

In The Art of Tracey Emin , ten distinguished critics from Britain and the US try to make sense of the artist's success from a number of not-so-different angles. The editors, Mandy Merck, professor of media arts, and Chris Townsend, are colleagues in the same department of London University.

Merck's essay "Bedtime", although midway through the book, is for me the starting point. After a few words on the Turner prize and a few more describing the post-coital detritus of Emin's My Bed (1998), Merck cuts to the chase. "Born in 1963, Emin grew up in the coastal resort of Margate, where her Turkish Cypriot father divided his time between two families and her English mother ran a hotel. Abused at the age of 8, raped at 13, promiscuous in her early teens, derided as the town slag, she has subsequently made this biography (which also includes suicide attempts, the decapitation of a favourite uncle in a car crash and a prison sentence for her twin brother) the subject of her work."

Because each editor seems so insistent we know all of this before we start, The Art Of Tracey Emin should really be called The Art of Being Tracey Emin . The editors' motive, I feel fairly certain, is a desire to add gravitas through objectivity and scholarship to the career of an exceptionally clever contemporary artist. While Emin's art strives to be raw, and that is how it appears in the book's illustrations, the text is a rather formal and polite dance. The detail of Emin's sad and at times decoratively lurid autobiography is partnered with her abilities as a social commentator.

In Jennifer Doyle's contribution, "The effects of intimacy", the dance partners fuse. "I am compelled somewhat counter intuitively by Emin's work in so far as it enacts a series of immediately recognisable, cliched performances of feminine sexual abjection. I recognise myself in those cliches. And, worse, I find myself caught in the cliche of a woman's response to a woman's work."

Townsend, however, seems to fall into becoming someone willing to be entertained by Emin. In his "The heart of glass", he starts by describing Emin's two weeks in Stockholm in 1996, "naked save a thin gold chain around her neck, constantly available for public scrutiny - at least during gallery opening hours - through 16 fish eye lenses set into the walls of the space she occupied".

More anthropological than critical, each essay seems purposely to ignore the fact that when we gaze on Tracey we are buying into a visit to a very exclusive zoo in which she, as the sole exhibit, emerges as an exotic variation of ourselves stripped bare of any real cover with just a security blanket in hand: defecating, masturbating, urinating and procreating in more or less full view of the visitors. Sure, unlike the chimpanzee, she conspires to play the game. She builds her own see-through shelter, locks the door, and then tells us it's all OK really because she has not thrown away the key and has always gone to all the right parties.

Art students who want to see what contemporary critical art writing looks like, or collectors of contemporary art who are wondering if Emin matters, will find this book of interest.

Stephen Farthing is an artist and director, New York Academy of Art.

The Art of Tracey Emin

Editor - Mandy Merck and Chris Townsend
ISBN - 0 500 28385 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £12.95
Pages - 224

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