Women in the arts: Tracey Emin
Life as art
Like Frida Kahlo and many other female artists, Tracey's Emin's work is part confessional, part personal narrative. While she was once known as the expletive-laden bad girl of the art world, in later years she has been embraced by the establishment.
Born Tracey Karima Emin on July 3, 1963, in Croydon, South London Emin grew up alongside twin brother Paul in Thanet, East Kent. Her parents were of British Romani and Turkish Cypriot descent and her father owned the Hotel International and Margate. Married to another woman, her dad would split his time between her family and another. While Emin's early childhood was privileged, things worsened when the hotel business failed. "I went from spoilt little witch about to go to private school into this really poverty stricken existence with my mum," recalls Emin.
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Emin suffered from a troubled adolescence - she was raped at 13 and has admitted to being sexually abused, but refuses to go into detail about it. She later underwent an abortion at 18, an event which was touched on in her later works. While studying fashion at the Medway College of Design in 1980, she soon became involved in a punk-based performance art group called The Medway Poets.
After working for a book publisher upon graduation, Emin decided to pursue a career as an artist, attending Maidstone College of Art. She graduated 1986, moved to London and completed a Master of Arts degree in painting at the Royal College of Art in 1989. In 1990 she went through a couple of abortions and nearly gave up art altogether, until another artist - Sarah Lucas - convinced her to continue.
Emin would eventually become classified among the entrepreneurial Young British Artists or YBA of the time, and in 1993 Emin set up 'The Shop' in Bethnal Green with Lucas. Together they would sell their art and try to attract investors, and it was at The Shop where Emin would meet her future art dealder Jay Joplin.
In 1994, Emin hosted her first solo show My Major Retrospective which consisted of photographs, paintings and highly personal objects - teenage journals, letters to exes and relatives, even newspaper cuttings detailing the death of her uncle. The frank, often uncomfortably autobiographical nature of Emin's work would become her trademark, culminating in one of her best-known works, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.
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This 1995 work, a blue tent embroidered and patchworked inside with the names of every person she had ever shared a bed with, offered viewers a metaphorical and physical insight into her life. By the time she was exhibiting the controversial My Bed in 1998, she had cultivated the public persona of a true eccentric, after she appeared on television slurring and drunk out of her mind. If Emin's earlier work could be called voyeuristic, My Bed was something else entirely - showing the physical remnants of a failed relationship and a woman in all her messy, imperfect glory. From the used condoms, dirty underwear, cigarette butts, empty alcohol bottles and stained sheets - it was shocking to the public, yet was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 (but didn't win - the prize went to 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen).
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With friends in the fashion industry such as designer Vivienne Westwood and model Kate Moss (who was the subject of her drawing work in 2000), Emin's rise to notoriety in British popular culture and the art world has seen the sexualised, navel-gazing aspect of her work now accepted, instead of reviled.
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Her powerful use of language is particularly evident in her popular neon light installations and she has worked across a variety of mediums including watercolour, drawing, installation, film, fabric, sculpture and even found objects. Tackling emotional subjects such as her own childlessness, words have always formed the basis of her work. "I think every artist has a backbone to what they do," she says. "For some it could be photography, painting, the ability to make a formal sculpture stand, but for me it's writing."
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In 2005, perhaps unsurprisingly, Emin wrote a memoir, Strangerland and in 2011 was appointed professor of drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London - a move which further cemented her status as part of the British art establishment. She has lectured, exhibited at the Venice Biennale (in 2007), produced art for the 2012 London Olympics and had her work exhibited as part of major career retrospectives - and at age 51 shows no sign of slowing down. Considering that My Bed fetched 2.54 million at a Christie's auction this year and is now on display at the Tate Britain - it's safe to say that Tracey Emin's life and work, so closely intertwined, has today reached national icon status.
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