by Katy Landles
Tracey Emin is renowned for her controversial work as she explores deep-rooted topics, from sexuality to capitalism, through new mediums, often pushing the limits of what we know as ‘art’. It is undeniable that Emin’s art sparks powerful debate – a marmite artist; you either love or hate her, there is no safe in between. Personally, I am neither a great admirer nor do I loathe her work – I’ve just never been compelled to pay much attention to it. However, this all changed with her most recent exhibition at the White Cube, Bermondsey; A Fortnight of Tears.
Ordinarily I would not have an Emin exhibition high on my list, yet with the media furore and reviews surrounding it emerging from a variety of circles within society – not just the usual art critics, I could not resist. I didn’t really know what to expect, I had done a lot of investigation beforehand, watching and reading interviews with Emin about her most recent artistic output as well as background on her life culminating in A Fortnight Tears. Ultimately the exhibition was born from the passing of Emin’s mother which had a huge impact on the artist, seemingly not only causing deep grief but also forcing Emin to reflect on moment’s in her life that similarly triggered such emotions and that, presumably, her mother had been a significant guiding light through such episodes. Reading about Emin’s rape, abortion and insomnia I knew that it was going to be an emotional experience, however I was hesitant – worried that such a personal exploration of herself might be too self-absorbed, risking the exclusion of her audience from truly connecting with her art.
My fear could not have been further from the truth. Emin proved that, contrary to modern art-historical opinion, art does not need to be a separate entity from its producer in order to be experienced ‘properly’. The auto-biographical nature of Emin’s art was essential to its meaning and therefore its projection on its audience. Emin’s deep connection to her work far from created a barrier for everyone else but allowed the audience to feel these powerful emotions. We could share the intense pain and grief felt by Emin, transforming and translating them to our own experience. Despite the focus on Emin, I don’t think I have experienced art that felt so close to my own heart. Lucky enough not to have suffered the tragedies that Emin has been through, I could not directly relate, however the work allowed me to begin to understand the emotional turmoil one would experience. This may not seem too ground-breaking, but the most remarkable thing was that I felt that I could access this empathy on a higher level. Emin’s work was so powerful that it could trigger my own personal emotions when it came to pain and loss. I did not only empathise due to understanding the artist’s feelings, but I knew how it would have felt to me.
In the room focusing on Emin’s insomnia, the huge, raw self-portraits taken in the early hours of the morning in the depths of sleeplessness, were invading but not menacing – I could almost replace them with my own tired eyes and imagine the hopeless trappings of the condition. Walking through the room devoted to the loss of her mother had the biggest impact on me. As I looked at the various paintings of lonely figures, haunted by the lost maternal figure, the poems and notes hurriedly scribbled as if through deep sobs, I felt a lump in my throat as I thought of my own mother – realising how lucky I was to know that she was back at home, always there for me if ever I need her.
Contrary to Foucault’s theory of the ‘death of the author’, it was the author’s presence that was so tremendously vital. Recent opinion has advised the necessity to rid art of its producer as we have become progressively more obsessed with the individual responsible for the work rather than the contextual building blocks and the creation itself. On the contrary, without Emin bravely laying everything bare for the world to witness, one’s own deeply personal connection with A Fortnight of Tears could not have been even remotely experienced. I commend Emin greatly for such a courageous and provoking exhibition, and can proudly say that - on the marmite scale - I LOVE Tracey Emin.