Conversations with the Collection | Staff Insights on Tracey Emin

Please be aware that this blog references experiences of miscarriage and trauma.

Being so close to the artworks every day, our Security and Visitor Services team have a unique relationship with our collection. Colleagues from this team have written creative responses to an artwork or artist of their choosing from this display. These personal pieces aim to open up different ways of seeing our collection. This blog was written by Zhu Tian on English artist Tracey Emin.

Tracey Emin is probably one of the most talked about living artists in Britain. Why do I want to write about her work? Maybe it is because of a heated debate a couple of years ago with a family friend at an otherwise very serene summer lunch by a pool in the south of France. When she expressed her fury at Emin’s work (My Bed (1998) was inevitably mentioned), as an artist, I felt compelled to defend Tracey. I can’t fully recall my response, but in any case, it wasn’t enough to convince her. That conversation has haunted me ever since. So here I am, having my esprit d’escalier moment to compose a more considered counter.

I am an open wound
of language

to say so little hurts

I am an open wound by Beatriz Miralles De Imperial

It seems almost impossible to have a half-hearted opinion about Emin’s work. Like artistic marmite, you either love it or HATE it. What is curious to me is why people are provoked to anger by her work. I think back to my experience at her exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London in 2011. While in that space, I felt that I was having an exchange with her, intimate and painfully honest. Emotions were both received and emitted. I found myself on the verge of tears. However, upon leaving the exhibition and back in contact with the concrete world, that feeling quickly changed. I was… annoyed! Again, why? Was I angry about losing control in public? Did I feel emotionally manipulated and bullied? Or was I angry about having to confront the difficult emotions evoked by childhood abuse, sexual assault, drugs, abortion, sex, desire, love, grief, anxiety, loneliness, and neediness? She claims these are autobiographical, yet it all feels so unwillingly familiar and dangerously close to those most vulnerable wounds that we try so hard to cover up.

Tracey Emin Blood Thing at 10 (from Family Suite) 1994 © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved. DACS, London 2023
Tracey Emin Having twins (from Family Suite) 1994 © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved. DACS, London 2023

I spend eight hours a day in the gallery, pacing back and forth in front of these two prints which include allusions to Emin’s experience of abortion. I sense danger yet I can’t help staring into the depths of the vortex. In 2015, a year after I graduated from the RCA, I had the opportunity to do a performance in an east London gallery. Almost at the same time, I found out about my first pregnancy. It wasn’t going well, I kept bleeding. Chinese doctors advised to stay still to ‘stabilise’ the pregnancy. Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead with the performance. I had a miscarriage. It was traumatic. I thought that bundle of sorrow would never leave me. Whatever I was doing, it was there, watching me silently from a dark corner, like an enduring lonely child. I couldn’t even bear to look at the photos of that performance. A year later, I decided to reconstruct it in an animation, Throat (2016) named after the belief in Chinese martial arts that the throat is the only spot on the human body which cannot be trained to withstand attack and will therefore always remain vulnerable.

So, for me, that was the drawer where I locked away that bundle of sorrow once I didn’t know how to process it. I will never know if Emin’s work is also a large filing cabinet for her emotions. If it is, then by opening it up and revealing the contents, she somehow unlocks mine. Maybe others’ too. Perhaps this violation is what makes people so angry. It’s all so raw, so tender, and so frighteningly powerful. Most of us are not prepared to admit it, but the truth is, many of us are a bit messed up inside. I know I am. You know I am. Maybe you are too. We keep the secret for and from each other, as we parade around in our emperor’s new clothes. Then, in barges Emin’s art, that unwelcome boy. How dare you, breaking the unspoken rules, unceremoniously exposing us all! 

And that’s that. Tracey Emin and her work:

Too familiar to tolerate. Too different to ignore.

By Zhu Tian, 6 March 2023