Lets turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands 'cause you're wonderful […]
[The end of David Bowie's 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide', The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)]
Whilst drawing comparisons with male painters she's admitted to admiring - Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch - Tracey Emin's 2007 Biennale show also saw her following artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Bridget Riley and Barbara Hepworth to the Pavilion, none of whom found their gender particularly relevant to their creative processes.
John Roberts has written that one key change in art in the 1990s was a 'loss of guilt in front of popular culture'. David Bowie has a right to think of himself as a presence in Borrowed Light's combination of figurative drawings, neon texts, prints, paintings and sculpture; Emin's life is her material, and as she told Bowie himself in 2001,
Throughout my life your music has had a big influence on me. I remember at the age of 14 vomiting at the end of Rock 'n' Roll Suicide after drinking a bottle of sherry, and in later years sailing down the Nile listening to Young Americans on a Walkman full blast.
Bowie: I also remember vomiting at the end of Rock 'n' Roll Suicide. I remember vomiting at the end of quite a few songs.
As well as the early excess, Emin has taken on Bowie's cherry-picking of perceived gender characteristics for artistic effect. Rather than simply replicate the success ofWhen I Think About Sex… (2006), which had been largely based on a needlework, she decided to concentrate her efforts on painting. This was the discipline for which she was elected a 'member without a member' – her words – of the Academy in 2007, and one she'd once called
a misogynist pastime. All those old men with beards painting girls then fucking them.
More academic – possibly the wrong word, as Emin is now an Academician – art histories view nude painting as a discipline within which artists can develop mastery of colour, line and form. Mastery is certainly the right word here; the psychologist Liam Hudson argued that, in the classic artist-model relationship,
she flaunts her body, he flaunts the fact that he has privileged access to her.
Emin, however, cuts out the middleman, or more simply, the man:
Many artists have used female nudes in their work. I've got a good female nude I can use whenever I like and its mine.
Ziggy Stardust was a persona Bowie invented to articulate versions of his own emotions - and thoughts on his art form, pop music - at a sufficient distance to analyse them: a sort of dramatic monologue. Emin's practice takes over from 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide', the last track on the album, in which the character leaves the stage. Without the consoling distance of metaphor, and often without any clothes, the persona Tracey Emin uses to articulate her emotions and thoughts on art is Tracey Emin, telling her own story.
A First-Class Printmaking degree from Maidstone College had rescued her from an unhappy childhood in Margate, but she later described her MA programme at the Royal College of Art as 'the worst two years of my life'. TRACEY EMIN CV PART I(1997) describes her finishing in 1989, all but quitting painting, and suffering a botched abortion, catching a foetus against her thigh in a taxi to the hospital. There was a second abortion in 1992, and then, in her own words,
Middle of 1992 – committed emotional suicide. Emotional suicide is killing yourself without dying. Destroying each friendship and relationship, one by one, till I was alone. Destroyed all my art, left my studio, threw away my curtains, my carpet, my cushions, my comfort. Made my home in a cell and waited.
Meeting the artist Sarah Lucas, and then, via a scheme where she effectively sold Emin shares, the gallerist Jay Jopling, she began to find her way. In 1996, she staged Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made in Stockholm, isolating herself in a small gallery room and stripping. The 'action' was an important step in a career Sarah Kent describes as,
Rather than viewing the female body as a beautiful envelope, an object of desire, [describing] the experience from within – as an inhabitant of female flesh.
Observed through peepholes by unseen visitors, she painted alone for just over three weeks - the period between menstruation. Her only feedback was hearing comments like 'she's doing an Yves Klein' as she smeared paint on her body and used it to make imprints on paper, referencing the Frenchman's Anthropometries. This actually used her femininity as a means to push Klein's minimalism further, and trade its glamour for squalor; where he took out one stage in the artistic representation of a woman's body, she took out two.
Prints like the Biennale Tower Drawings (which correspond to the tower-like wooden sculpture in the main room of the Pavilion) and Working Drawings extended the idea of making impressions of Emin's body on paper: often crudely-rendered likenesses haunted by penises, animals, unidentifiable shapes and text like 'DARK DARK. DARK. DARK. DARK'.
This is how Emin originally wrote it, but it has been reversed by her use of the monoprinting process, a one-shot, disposable way of making an image. The product is unrepeatable, strengthening the basic sense of physical isolation and forming a neat metaphor for trying to communicate individuality:
With myself, always myself, never forgetting.
This comes from Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995(1995), the famous tent appliquéd on its walls with a mixture of people Emin has shared the intimacy of sex, or simply sleep with – boyfriends, platonic friends, aborted foetuses, her grandmother. As enveloping as these intimacies were at the time, at a distance, it's a flimsy, mass-produced shelter, another metaphor for the passing of company, and the permanence of aloneness, which, aptly, was lost in the 2004 Momart fire. It suggests experience is incommunicable, unlike disease, or human DNA.
Emin's 1990 pregnancy came as a surprise, as doctors had told her a dose of gonorrhoea had made her infertile. The Venice Abortion Watercolours demonstrate what she meant in describing the show as 'pretty and hard-core', and form part of the process that led her, in 2009, to watch bombardments in Palestine and feel
so grateful not to be the kind of mother who gave birth to a human being, but the kind of mother who gives birth to a creative notion, a creative idea, something that isn't evil and could never have that capacity.
They take a stereotypically Sunday painter's medium and use it to move a subject from as private a space as Emin's womb, to as public a space as the Venice Biennale. Even the title forces us to imagine the coloured wateriness of the experience; and their initial appearance as rather like a child's work hints at the sort of grief that might be involved, reminding the viewer of the carefully-placed baby's bootee on the Pavilion steps on the way in. Andrea Rose thought
It may be she who tells all, shows all, but it is we who leave feeling exposed, revealed.
The Biennale selection process leaves artists roughly nine months to prepare, and as with many artists in its history, this didn't prove enough for Emin to produce the intended amount of new work. To critics like Adrian Searle, the end result seemed to present her 'bravely if ill-advisedly ditch[ing] her strengths in favour of playing up her weaknesses.' Hung on pale blue and soft white walls, art that had been a controversial choice to represent Britain at the Biennale looked quieter and less confrontational than many had expected, but Michael Glover wrote
The best pieces are some new, large-scale paintings of the human figure, feathery in touch, and delicately coloured. The colours are particularly restrained – pinks, yellows, blues, a little reminiscent of Cy Twombly. The entire show seems to be in fruitful dialogue with its very particular architectural context.
The experience returned her to painting with the confidence that
This is what I can do; it's my language.
Tom Overton, 2009.
Tracey Emin, 'Tracey's Survival guide to Venice', The Times, 12th June 2007.
Tracey Emin, 'I felt that, in return for my children's souls, I had been given my success', The Independent, 29th January 2009.
David Bowie & Tracey Emin, The Guardian, 18th July 2001.
David Bowie, 'William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh', Telegraph, 3rd August 2008.
Neal Brown, Tracey Emin (London: Tate, 2006).
Neal Brown, Sarah Kent, Matthew Collings, Tracey Emin (London: Jay Jopling, 1997).
Peter Conrad, 'Confessions of a saucy seamstress', The Guardian, 31st May 2009.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, 'Installation Politics', The Sunday Telegraph, 17th June 2007.
Toby Forward, Rudi Fuchs & Andrea Rose in Tracey Emin: Borrowed Light [Venice exh. cat.] (London: British Council, 2007).
Carl Freedman, Rudi Fuchs & Jeanette Winterson in Tracey Emin: Works 1963-2006 (NY: Rizzoli, 2006).
Michael Glover, 'Exhibition: Venice Biennale', Blueprint, August 2007.
Charlotte Higgins, 'Lonely Pleasures', The Guardian, 27th May 2005.
Genevieve Roberts, 'Tracey Emin is made Royal Academician', The Independent, 29th March 2007.
Scott Tenorman, 'Tracey Emin: 60 Second Interview', The Metro, 26th June 2007.