Tracey Emin: Stitching Up the Extreme

Tracey Emin: Stitching Up the Extreme

In recent work, British artist Tracey Emin has appropriated two objects that arguably command some of the strongest associations with domesticity and the feminine: the quilt and the embroidery sampler. It would be easy to assume that the medium offers an attractive element of catharsis for an artist known for the intimate and confrontational nature of her work. In an interview with Anita Chaudhuri quoted by Janis Jefferies, Emin explained: ‘It’s boring to say that confronting these experiences and making beautiful things out of them is something of a therapy for me… it’s something much darker than that,’ The comment sums up the Tracey Emin enigma. The resulting work is loved as vehemently as it is hated. Whatever this aforementioned darkness may be interpreted as, Emin’s use of textiles heightens its impact.

These days, it is difficult to be shocked by the content of contemporary video, photography or multi media work. The textile, still firmly situated on the craft side of the art/craft divide, has maintained an air of innocence. This is informed to a large degree by the galleries and museums that continue to choose to set textile work outside the rubric of “serious” art, thereby denying its ability to address weightier issues presumably tackled by fine art. While many are working to see this thinking evolve into an appreciation of visual art that is less determined by boundaries, for now at least, the prejudice is holding.

It is the maintenance of the assumption that the crafts pose little competition to the broader world of visual art that so effectively heightens the impact of Emin’s work. Precisely because it disrupts expectations, Emin’s appliqued sperm drops are more shocking when laboriously sewn onto the surfaces of her quilts than the infamous bed viewed by the world during the 1999 Turner Prize for Contemporary Art. The fact that Emin is considered to be part of the YBA (Young British Artists) scene, rather than a celebrated quilter, means that her work appears in the contemporary art galleries of New York and London. But the impact of her work relies on an effective reversal of conscious, or perhaps unconscious, familiarity with fibre that we all experience.

Rozsika Parker notes in The Subversive Stitch (1984) that, ‘The art of embroidery has been a means of educating women into the feminine ideal… but has also provided a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity.’ Noting a similar paradox, Sarah Kent, in her essay “Tracey Emin: Flying High”, notes of the female role model that, ‘The model appears to be the subject of the interaction when actually she is a form of currency.’ Of Emin’s work, Kent writes: ‘We have to acknowledge that her sexuality is hers to offer, not ours to take’ (p. 31). Both Parker and Kent mine a similar vein when they note that through her appropriation of a forced or assumed form of women’s work, be it thread of the female model, a reversal in the communication can occur which derives its power through the disruption of associated values.

Emin’s work is rooted in ambivalence on several levels. One can be gripped with its honesty and forthrightness or see shock value to be yet another formula fuelled by the trends that dictate to and define contemporary art. On a mechanical level, she does not stitch her own larger works. The employment of anonymous craftspeople, while it may be no stranger to the fine art world, could rest a little more uneasily with the world of craft. That is, if we are to continue for the sake of practicality rather than desire, to acknowledge these divisions. The great Renaissance painters had at their disposal stables of artisans priming, preparing and even painting in the larger, less complicated, areas of frescoes and canvases. The controversial American artist Judy Chicago’s recent “Resolutions” exhibition featured 20 embroideries designed but not sewn by Chicago. In fact, Chicago does not even know how to embroider, famously sewing just one symbolic stitch into the title sampler of the show. But whereas Chicago aspires to elevate needlework to a major fine art medium, Emin’s use of this medium has no such agenda accompanying it.

From a distance it would be difficult to discern that Emin’s small-scale embroidered studies are not rendered through the ink of the monotype printing ubiquitous to many of her other projects. In her larger quilted works the monotype also informs, with the reversal of letters or words echoing the mirroring that occurs in her favoured printing process. Subject matter relies on the intimate, the confessional and the confrontational with content defining purpose. From this analysis, it must be concluded that Emin’s design decisions are both precise and predetermined. The incorporation of text, and the appearance of misspelt words, garner greater impact because they are rendered in cloth and fibre. Graffiti spray paint on the wall of a tube station with such mistakes would go all but unobserved. In contrast, she creates objects infused with a history of meticulous and time-consuming acts of personal expression and creativity. The result is that such mistakes are read with an assumed intent.

Emin’s depiction of the graphic is often sexual in content. The results render scenes of a threatening frankness. Philip Monk, in his catalogue essay for Hypermnesiac Fabulations (1997), describes her ‘penchant for drawing upon unlikely reserves’ (p.5). Diary entries and fragments of real or imagined dialogues remind one of all those responses stored inside us, unspoken because they occurred too late, or fell under the spell of self-censorship. The point is, we all have them. We have all thought of them. All seem foreign, but somehow connected to the rote alphabets and “Home Sweet Home” clichés of the embroidery sampler. In many ways the association is an important one. Emin’s work spurns anything close to the preconceived and expected. What is exposed is more than a self-obsession with the traumas of her turbulent life. Instead we are confronted with an honesty so brutal that all are implicated. Because Emin uses images of her own body and pages from her own diary, voyeurism is not the issue. This is Tracey Emin. This, in one form or another, is all of us stripped bare of the discretion which culture, language, education and family have instilled.

The complexity of this work appears in the confluence of medium and message. We are stunned not simply by her imagery, but the extremes to which the image has been taken. The female nude is no longer available for the consumption of the male gaze, she is presented as occupied with the act of her own consumption. The cloth and thread on which this is rendered act to increase the intensity of familiarity and therefore self-inclusion in the message and mode of transaction. Monk notes that many of Emin’s textile works ‘wrap or enclose the body, as if the somatic is essential to the evocation of memory’ (p. 10). The combination of textile art, rendered by the female artist, is also misleading in many ways. Kent notes that an early exhibition of paintings by Emin of the female nude, legs splayed, were based on drawings by Egon Schiele (p. 31). It is perhaps important to note the difference of public acceptance between an image rendered in pencil or oil by man, now sent to the hallowed list of art history, and that similar image rendered by Emin. Beyond the cynicism and weariness of our times, Tracey Emin seems to provoke a far more mercurial response.

Craft Arts International (No. 56, 2002-3: 72-75)