One of the Young British Artists (YBA) Tracey Emin uses a variety of media: installations, paintings, sculptures, videos, prints, photography, embroidery, neon, and ready-made elements to make an autobiographical and confessional art, which tells of her life experiences.
Born in London, Emin grew up in Margate, a town on the south coast of England. In 1987, she moved to London and studied painting at the Royal College of Art. In 1989 to 1990, Emin became pregnant and had an abortion. She stopped art, stopped reading, and – according to her – stopped living. She had already smashed her paintings the year before, and in 1989 she threw a load of them into the trash. She then destroyed everything in 1990. One of the few things that remained was her “After My Abortion,” a 1990 watercolor on paper.
Emin began to include writing into her art when she realized that she herself had some value. She had always kept a diary and was a prolific letter writer. Incorporating the written word into her art opened up a part of her which she hadn’t explored before. Her handwriting appears in her works and is reproduced in embroidery, neon, or mono print. Her appliqué blankets: “Love Poem” 1996, “Mad Tracey From Margate, Everyone’s Been There“ 1997, and “Something Really Terrible” 2001 contain her written messages about her feelings.
Her revelation of her personal life is also evident in her 1995 installation, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995,” which is a tent embroidered with a list of 102 names, including her twin brother whom she ‘slept’ with before they were born. This was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 to the consternation of Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York at that time.
“Every Part of Me’s Bleeding” 1998 was her first solo show in the U.S. Her 1999 installation“My Bed” showed an unmade bed covered in objects such as underwear and vodka bottles, a literal representation of Emin’s bed after she suffered a suicidal depression following a breakup. Many found it grotesque, and its reception created an uproar. It was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2000 and shown at the Tate. In 2001, she made the installation of neon and mono prints “Your Forgot to Kiss My Soul.”
Emin defines her large sculptures as metaphorical. However, it is their titles that give these assemblages of reclaimed wood and other materials their connection with herself. “Knowing My Enemy” (2002) and “Sleeping with You” (2005) use the first and second person to suggest direct address. The implied speaker could be her or anyone.
Her paintings, such as “Black Cat, 2001-2008,” are similar to her sculptures in that they are metaphorical rather than declarative. They are wordless, unlike so many of her drawings, although they share much of the same imagery. In becoming less like a diary, her work is more available for the evocation of anyone’s life without always having to refer back to Emin herself.
Recently in Sydney, Australia Emin unveiled 67 handmade bronze birds, affixed to doorways and awnings. They traced a path towards a solitary bird in a birdbath, titled “The Distance of Your Heart.”
Emin’s work has been shown in dozens of exhibitions in Germany, Japan, Istanbul, Great Britain, and the U.S. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and was the second woman to produce a solo show, “Borrowed Light,” for the U.K., following Rachel Whiteread in 1997. In March of 2007, Emin was made Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts. In 2008, there was a major retrospective held in Edinburgh where 40,000 visitors saw her work. In 2011, there was a retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery where she made new outdoor sculptures just for this show.