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Tracey Emin’s art is one of disclosure, using her life events as inspiration for works ranging from painting, drawing, video and installation, to photography, needlework and sculpture. Emin reveals her hopes, humiliations, failures and successes in candid and, at times, excoriating work that is frequently both tragic and humorous.
Emin’s work has an immediacy and often sexually provocative attitude that firmly locates her oeuvre within the tradition of feminist discourse. By re-appropriating conventional handicraft techniques – or ‘women’s work’ – for radical intentions, Emin’s work resonates with the feminist tenets of the ‘personal as political’. In Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With, Emin used the process of appliqué to inscribe the names of lovers, friends and family within a small tent, into which the viewer had to crawl inside, becoming both voyeur and confidante. Her interest in the work of Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele particularly inform Emin’s paintings, monoprints and drawings, which explore complex personal states and ideas of self-representation through manifestly expressionist styles and themes.
In 1993, in the former London borough of Bethnal Green, Emin and fellow artist Lucas opened a store where they sold their own handmade items. One of Emin’s earliest exhibitions took place in 1993–94 at the influential White Cube gallery on Duke Street (1993–2002).
The show, ironically titled “My Major Retrospective,” gave a hint of things to come. It displayed personally significant artifacts from Emin’s life, such as a hospital bracelet and personal correspondence, in addition to a quilt on which she had stitched the names of family members and notes to them.
In 1994 Emin undertook a U.S. tour of performance art for which, sitting in her grandmother’s chair, she read from “Exploration of the Soul,”” a handwritten autobiographical book (it was published in 2003) chiefly about her childhood. For a mostly YBA group show called “Minky Manky” (1995) at South London Gallery, she produced Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995; now destroyed), a tent embroidered with the names of everyone she had (literally) slept with, including her twin brother, her mother, and her two aborted fetuses, as well as assorted lovers.
In 1999 she became a finalist for the Turner Prize with the installation My Bed (1998), which displayed not only the artist’s actual bed but also rumpled bedclothes and what one critic called “uncomfortably personal debris,” including soiled underwear, empty liquor bottles, and used condoms. That work, like many others made by YBAs, was purchased by advertising mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi, and it was among some 200 works of art he would donate to the creation of the Museum of Contemporary Art London in 2012.
Throughout the following decade, Emin explored a variety of media. She represented Great Britain in 2007 at the Venice Biennale with the show “Borrowed Light,” which included some neon pieces and embroidery as well as a series of watercolours and sculptures. She joined the ranks of Zaha Hadid, Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, and many others when she was elected a Royal Academician (“among the greatest names in contemporary British art”) that same year. In addition, Emin was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2013. Strangeland (2005) is a collection of her writings.
Some of Emin’s work from the 2010s was included in “Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul” (2020), an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, featuring her work in dialogue with a selection from Edvard Munch’s vast oeuvre. While promoting the show, Emin spoke frankly about undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of cancer the previous summer.