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Tracey Emin

22 Jul

I did not always like Tracey Emin. When I saw her as an eager 17 year old art student on a field trip to London at Saatchi’s County Hall gallery I looked at her unmade bed with horror. It was nothing like what we were taught art was all about. Predictably it became a running joke along the lines of ‘Hey, my room’s a piece of art, Miss! Can I enter that into my final exam’. In the years that followed I didn’t really give her work much more thought until I came to write my dissertation. I went into it thinking I knew what I’d say about her. But my mind was completely changed by the end.

Emin regurgitates what is on her mind by using needle and thread so that we are able to follow her rambling train of thought.  By viewing Emin’s art within the gallery (rather than from a photograph in a book), the details are more apparent, and her route to the finished piece, more evident.  The tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995), has been made exceptional by her hand.  The events that mark her memory seem to give her conviction that they should be told in the form of art.  Her tent stands proud in its setting, contrasting the academic walls.  The words, applied to each panel, blare out from every view.  The work should be hideously embarrassing, because of its intimate nature, but instead by embracing the madness you are included in Emin’s world.  Emin’s work is personal.  Making the work deeply reassuring to women who share Emin’s experiences, the comfort lies in not being alone in them.  Her life has directly influenced the process, meaning there are areas where the line between her life and her art cross.  She became a household name[1]; making thousands privy to her imperfections and insecurities.  Emin’s tent was one of the pieces lost in a fire at Saatchi’s warehouses.  This was a tremendous loss, and I feel fortunate to have seen it in 2003; it seems to me a great shame that other people, particularly women will not share this experience.

The concept of Emin’s art explores her identity as a woman, as she expresses herself without the ties of patriarchal dominance.  Dale Spender, an Australian linguist who wrote Man Made Language, uncovered how male meaning is encoded into language, literally making it man-made.  This means that women are at a disadvantage when expressing themselves, as they must do so within a male created reality.  She said that,

Language [is] a paradox for human beings: it is both a creative and an inhibiting vehicle.[2]

Spender highlights that language has inhibited human beings, particularly women, however through her work Emin begins to unravel this paradox; her self-belief allows her inhibitions to be cast aside, leaving her creative self to tell the experiences.  Feminist work, in its many forms, had come to establish a crucial position within contemporary art.  Plenty of people queued to see Emin’s work, experiencing a voyeuristic pleasure[3] and disturbance at seeing this young women’s life shown in such a lamentable dreadfulness.  It is not just that Emin’s personal troubles are interesting, but the art that she creates from them is a platform for her own story, told in her own creative way is.

For me, Tracey Emin has come to deserve the title ‘Contemporary Master’. She creates intricate pieces that are sensational but not over-hyped.


[1] Collings, M. (2008) God Save the Queen: Tracey Emin: failure + charisma = success; Modern Painters’, New York: Louise Blouin Media, p24.

[2] Spender, D. (1988, 3rd edition, first published 1980) Man Made Language, London: Pandora Press, p141.

[3] Cork, R. (2003) Breaking down the barriers: Art in the 1990s, London: Yale University Press, p28.

Rachel Whiteread

15 Jul

Rachel Whiteread’s work focuses on loss and memory. In her sculptures, Whiteread recalls the object through its negative space. She uses domestic objects such as a sink, bath, one hundred chairs and even an entire room from a Victorian house. With this imprint, she creates a relic of what was lost, and suddenly private spaces became public through the medium of the gallery. Her work pin-points society’s obsession with exposing private matters publicly, usually through media and what would be considered ‘low’ forms of entertainment: tabloid papers and gossip magazines. Her work became popular and she won the Turner Prize in 1993, but since then her work has not varied in its approach.

The fundamental factor that enraged critics such as Julian Stallabrass was that this art was readable by those outside the jargon of art history appreciation. If as Ruskin, Morris and Pugin suggested in their writings that culture was a merging of society and art, what does this exhibition show about today’s culture? The idea that culture should be accessible to everyone was symptomatic of the New Labour society Sensation was created in.

Since the rise of social media networking sites, weekly magazines and blogs we are all more aware of what is going on with the people who interest us. The Tate has experienced a phenomenal rise in visitor figures and some artists are recognised household names. I admit that I’m interested in what’s on the other side of that unopened door. What Rachel Whiteread did was show us.

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