Unlike most other famous contemporary artists, both British and otherwise, Tracey Emin is a household name and that is quite an achievement given the fact that art’s reach is exceptionally limited these days.
The fame and notoriety of others is largely industry specific and historic, to be remembered in books yet to be written. Emin however, she is known by average Joe,who, when asked why, says she’s that artist who appeared on TV drunk and got rich off a messy bed.
Every other contemporary artist, unknown or known, well, they’re just faceless names, no more significant than all the strangers you pass on a regular basis – largely forgettable, transient and inconsequential to one’s own personal experience of the world.
And while Emin may just be a ‘fact’ one possesses – as opposed to something/someone of interest – it does go to show how far she has come as an artist and as a public figure, for want of a better word. We all know who she is and for someone like Emin, that’s important.
Her art is, after all, almost exclusively autobiographical, a distinction that marks her apart from Damien Hirst, who likewise is a fairly well-known force. Think Hirst and we see spots, a shark in formaldehyde. Grayson Perry maybe figures as a close third, although more so for his curious alter-ego Claire.
Emin is a star, vindicated by the passing of time, and somewhat cheerily, in her own lifetime, so, unlike Vincent van Gogh, she can feel pleased about her life’s work in the greater sphere of things. Although, ultimately, it is a slightly moot point, as she told Will Self in 1999, saying she could no longer go on making art without it meaning something to her.
Her eventful life has been her greatest theme and her inescapable subject has been herself. It’s not narcissism to confront one’s demons and share them with the world because as an artist that is the one thing she has ever been sure of.
Well, that and solitude/loneliness. She said of her latest show at White Cube, The Last Great Adventure is You, that “the work is about rites of passage, of time and age, and the simple realisation that we are always alone”.
Emin, today is 51, single and without children. Some would think that sad, others tragic, but for this seminal artist, it is life. What’s the meaning of that? Well, what’s the meaning of any of it? How much can you really understand of yourself in the chaos of the universe anyway?
Emin, with art, tries to understand that, her own personal experience reflecting our own decidedly unique narratives. She may be resolute in her current philosophical ruminations, but she was once as giddy about love as the best of the romantics, hopelessly infatuated with the idea of the one, which she now thinks of as a dream.
However, as this exhibition demonstrates, no one knows what is going to happen from one day to the next. Emin did, after all, once remark: “I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again.”
If you asked her then whether she believed that each of us is, despite our intentions, alone, she’d have scoffed. But, there you have it, life is quite the surprise. That same artist, in her most chaotic early days would never have believed the woman she is today either – a professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, a CBE, a well-known artist.
And, lest we forget, one of the greatest artists of her generation.