"My Five Year Old Could Do That!"
Looking at art that enrages - Part 2 continues
For some Tracey is like a modern-day Joan of Arc, carrying the mantle of the working class. She is a tell-it-like-it-is crusader against the pretentious art world – a lone big hitter in a world of male celebrity artists. But there’s something about Tracey that makes people want to tie her to the stake. Even the articles written about her are strange – she doesn’t get a usual response from anyone. Something about her makes everyone a bit extreme and outré in whichever area of her life or her work they are looking at. All her critics and admirers share one thing in their discussion of Tracey – they are never dull.
The biggest criticisms against her are: she’s a CELEBRITY (not said as compliment); and a bit common (as UK male critics in particular seem to have a disregard for her it’s been speculated there is a class issue); her attitude to money – she lets us know she has some; her art is too personal – in fact it isn’t really art, it’s just biographical detail; she is stuck in the past – not updating her art to reflect the here and now.
To cover her back we could throw out these points:
The issues she addresses in her life are not going to resonate
with many of her male critics – too personal or too female?
A man who is confident and not too coy about money and status is an alpha male, but it’s unattractive in a woman as that isn’t her role.
Is revealing intimate details of her private life just a bit too much for British sensibilities?
Her old life is the area she chooses to dwell on as she feels it is of more artistic interest.
Emin’s most widely known work is My Bed, which was exhibited as part of the 1999 Turner Prize (she didn’t win but apparently most people think she did). Getting back to our elephant joke, Emin’s bed outside a gallery is just someone’s messy bed. Or is it? I was one of the hoards who shuffled past her bed at the Tate Britain. The bed appears “real” – mainly by the inclusion of lots of unsavoury personal stuff.
Everything is there - all sorts of personal debris. In fact it’s all there. There’s a razor on the bedside table. Mine’s in the bathroom. You start to see that it sort of looks real, but really it is staged. Nothing is left out – nothing has been left in the bathroom. The staged component becomes more evident as you look closer: photos of her are right there in a fan shape, over a mirror even, alluding to Tracey herself: a self-portrait; her face in the mirror. We can see the nylon tights are tights – they are strewn across, not hidden under sheets. Things looks a bit layered for optimum viewing – small things sit on larger things.
This exercise in sharing her personal space, and her own imperfection we find unsettling. I don’t want to see my own mess let alone pull back the curtain into other people’s darkest corners. There is the strange effect of being drawn to it but wanting to reject it at same time. A “Life of Grime” moment when you are fascinated by how others live but don’t like to spot anything that might point the finger back to yourself.
Although described as “the bloody aftermath of a nervous breakdown”, My Bed reminds me of a crime scene. All the personal trappings but something has happened and the person is not there; death, and a lonely death where they had no need to keep their personal stuff in check. Tracey is a storyteller, usually of dark tales. Text often features in her work and like most artists what it reads is only part of the story.
The confessional nature of her art is very apparent in Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995. It’s very personal but also concerns how women’s sexual reputations compare to men’s. The revealing details of her life in her artworks: the abortion, trying to become a dancer, being ridiculed and called a slut, yes it’s all about her, but many will identify with what is being expressed, and it transcends class. A lot of it is about power and who has it in relation to: sex, money and fame. Tracey had none. Now it’s payback time. In Stockholm she painted naked for an exhibition – this poses questions about certain relationships: viewer and artist, model and artist, and how well we know the artist, but also her body is now working for her. She enjoys her celebrity and money regardless of how it sits with others. All those people from her past that did her wrong are manipulated skilfully into her artworks.
So is it art? Like the Rodin statement is her life outside an art gallery just her life? Yes, up to a degree. These observations have been made to support the very close links between Emin and her art: that her art flags up questions about why we separate aspects of our lives, and it reflects today’s interest in reality and confession; Tracey has decided to look to her own life instead of at other peoples. And probably the most interesting is that her experiences are shared by others and the collective sharing evokes debate, deep thought and catharsis.
In works like those by Emin and Andre there is still a creation process (planning, thought and action) but we are nervous about the degree this is apparent in the artworks. We have a real problem with these almost unmediated art exhibits.
If an artwork is recognisable as an artwork – showing creativity in its design – it’s easier for us to call it art. If it looks almost everyday, not particularly unusual, and subtle in its approach – it’s hard for us to get it. Many of these art objects belong to the ideational gestures that started with the early paintings of Frank Stella, and their purpose is to generate a response in us.
The more subtly the art piece can be differentiated from non-art objects we look to the artist to reinforce that the work is of good standing. This is where we confront the Emin conflict. Maybe it’s not that her art doesn’t fit, but that SHE doesn’t fit? It’s like we’re buying a car from a second-hand car salesman and instead of looking under the bonnet, we are checking out her suit. Do we trust her?
One interesting aspect that is shared by the Spain hoax and
Tracey Emin is how they have increased public awareness of art and
the issues surrounding it – many suggest that this is more important
than whether it is art or not. We are being pushed towards
another way of looking. The elephant in the fridge amuses us,
and the pile of bricks in the gallery is unexpected and challenges
us. The setting affirms its status as a work of art, and gives
us a new dimension to assess it against. The shape and
definition of art may change but the Art War and who will win really
hinges on what we want from art – are these works performing?
Many seem to think so, including many members of the art world
elite. As long as we are moved by these works, go and see
them, buy them, put them in our galleries and imbue them with
creative and intellectual value then yes Andre can stack a few
bricks and call it art. Like most battles, what you see on the
field hides what is really going on – the underlying campaign is
what is infiltrating our judgment of their performance – but that’s
a tricky subject for another day.
Art is the means by which life reflects on, transforms and indeed creates its values; human life without it would not properly be human at all.Antony Gormley
Images that accompanied article
IMAGE: My Bed by Tracey Emin © Emin/Saatchi Gallery, London
IMAGE: Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995 By Tracey Emin © Emin/Saatchi Gallery, London