Tracey Emin’s art has brought her notoriety in the form of violently divided opinion: she is regarded as provocative, attention-seeking, and unartistic, as well as powerful, visionary, and of great cultural and artistic significance. I would argue that she is all of the above, and these descriptors are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Her rise to celebrity status in the Young British Artists (or Britart) movement of the late 80s coincided with a trend of increasingly confrontational film, theatre, and art, which was necessarily reflective of the creative response to the Thatcherite years.
The room itself, situated within a retrospective of art from the 1910s to the present day, features as its centrepiece the infamous My Bed, a recreation of the state of Emin’s bed during a depressive episode, characterised by its unmade, soiled sheets, lingerie and hosiery, condoms, oral contraceptives, cigarettes, empty bottles of spirits, photographs of the artist, and even, poignantly, worn slippers and a stuffed toy: the detritus and disjecta membra of a life. The piece is haunted by the sense of lived experience, which is emphasised by the inclusion of two Francis Bacon paintings selected by Emin from the Tate’s collection. His own liminal figures are powerfully emotionally charged, contorted in pain and isolated on the canvas; these highlight the themes of My Bed as well as of her surrounding six recent line-paintings of a reclining woman, which present the ghostly images of a figure flickering indistinctly, half-impressions of a life.
What remains fascinating about Emin is her sense of lineage, the artistic precedents which she self-consciously both clings to and attempts to break away from. The sense of abjection of the squalid bed is carried across from Bacon’s agonised figures trapped within their frame, and the hauntingly scribbled-out face of one of her recumbent women echoes Bacon’s own indistinct screaming faces; the jutting hipbones of her nude female figures resemble Egon Schiele’s elongated bodies, and suggest the primacy of a specifically feminine sexuality, as exemplified by Louise Bourgeois: these overt echoes are present amongst many other more muted ones. In this way, Emin bridges the gap between the highbrow and the commonplace, and allows for her art to be accessible to her viewing public regardless of entry point. Emin herself becomes a precedent for later artists. Perhaps a natural extension of Emin’s Bed (sold last year for two and a half million pounds) is Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s viral endurance performance piece Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), in which Sulkowicz carries the mattress on which she was raped by a fellow student wherever she goes on campus, planning only to stop when her rapist is reprimanded and expelled.
In a similar vein to the confessional verse of Anne Sexton, Emin explores what is highly personal and emotional. My Bed holds a tenuous and dual role, both as apparent autobiographical outpouring of emotion, and carefully crafted piece of art. The work is uncanny in its artifice: it appears to be haphazardly put together, but this impression is frustrated by the knowledge that it is intentionally so. Returning to the question of femaleness, the exploitation of the domestic scope to portray Emin’s personal anguish is symbolically striking, performing extremely complex and meticulously organised artistic expression. The concern with the self resonates strongly with a legacy of psychoanalysis with reference to art, with Emin and Bacon suggesting the subconscious drives of the hysteric. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes of one of Bacon’s paintings in his artistic treatise on the artist, The Logic of Sensation: “It is a scene of hysteria. The entire series of spasms in Bacon is of this type: scenes of love, of vomiting, and excreting, in which the body attempts to escape from itself through one of its organs in order to rejoin the field or material structure”. This strikes me as similar to Emin’s attempts, concerned as she is with materiality, with the body, with self-expression and self-destruction. Thus in both Emin and Bacon we can trace an affirmation of hysteria, and the dialogue between this unexpected pairing opens up a discussion about trauma and emotional suffering which resounds within the walls of the room.
The exhibition is running at the Tate Britain from now until June 2016.