Tracy Emin: 20 Years
The notorious artist's first retrospective show
The new Tracey Emin retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art reveals an intimate portrait of one the UKs most controversial cultural figures. Jonny Ensall picks through the cigarette packets and vodka bottles of ‘20 Years’.
In the first major retrospective of her lifetime’s work, Tracey Emin is showing her most famous pieces at the Scottish National Gallery or Modern Art until 7 November. Emin has been a controversial figure in the British art scene for over a decade. Even today, having completed the transition from angry upstart to establishment grande dame, there’s some division over whether her homemade videos, scrawled drawings and appliquéd blankets are powerful works, or simply self-indulgent confessions.
Emin was born in Margate, a British seaside town, in 1963 to Turkish-Cypriot parents. Her young life was a mixture of sex and self-destruction as she floated between different men and different art schools - often destroying large bodies of her work in (now famous) angst attacks.
Rape, abortion, family tragedy and a whole of host unpleasant diseases feature in her history and most of these milestones are well-documented in the ‘20 Years’ retrospective. ’My CV’ - a 10-minute video that lists the highs and lows of every year of her life until 1996 - is a
good introduction to the hard times Emin went through in the period before she became an art superstar.
Today, Tracey Emin is part of the British Art establishment. She was this year’s UK representative at the Venice Biennale and, since March 2007, had been an Academician of the Royal Academy – Britain’s most well respected body of artists. Her life is a much more sober state of
affairs than when she burst onto the world art scene in 1997, at a time when friends and artists such as Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst - part of a group that came to be known as the YBAs (Young British Artists) - were forcing shock, sex and highly conceptual art onto the international table.
Emin was nominated for the UK’s highest art award, the Turner Prize, in 1997 and exhibited ‘My Bed’ at the Turner exhibition. ‘My Bed’ is just that – Emin’s bed from the mid-90s; unmade, soiled, surrounded by cigarette packets and vodka bottles and, for many, the complete antithesis of what should constitute award-winning work. Even now, Emin courts controversy, and critics have come to the Edinburgh exhibition to condemn her work as shallow and self-concerned. These claims are easy to make, but it’s harder to downplay her significance in
the 90s Britart scene that, along with its musical cousin Britpop, defined an era of ‘Cool Britannia’ and led the way for the rest of the cultural world to experiment with new levels of irreverence and openness.
Emin’s confessions may have lost their edge now we know how it all turned out, but its best to keep the 90s in mind as you view this exhibition. Somewhat dated it may be, but as an examination of what made Emin, and the British art scene, what they both are today, this is
Tracey Emin: 20 Years
Until 9 Nov, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (A4), 75 Belford Road, 0131 624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org, open daily 10am-5pm, Thu 10am-7pm.