Wearing Sleeve Feelings.
'How it Feels' at the Tracey Emin Museum
Josephine Berry ©1997
Tracey Emin's museum shines out like a beacon on the otherwise bleak Waterloo Road. The passer-by is alerted to its existence by the words, 'Tracey Emin Museum. A Place to Grow' painstakingly stitched in felt lettering to a piece of white muslin that hangs across the shop front. At first it is hard to know whether this sign is an ironic play with new-age American-style spiritual earnestness or whether it is sincerely meant. Staring through the back-lit muslin a small sky-blue and orange sitting-room-world is revealed. The traces of its utilitarian purpose - visitor's book, video beam, roll-up screen - mix with an almost Victorian quality of domestic industry. The patch-work encrusted on the artist's armchair in the corner and the room's other various 'feminine' touches of handicraft deepen the disconcerting cosiness created by the collision of intimacy and impersonality. Emin's work hinges on precisely this f(r)iction. The small crowd of five or six people huddled outside had a long time to contemplate its cosy interior as we stood waiting for the museum to be opened at 6 o'clock on a Thursday evening. When a lanky girl, swaddled in a bright fuchsia scarf, arrived with a couple of cans of Grolsch and a mildly proprietorial air I knew that we, the audience, would not get away with just watching the film, making our judgements, avoiding our neighbour's gaze and then departing. This would not be a 'zipless fuck' art experience.
The film Emin is currently screening in her self-constructed Gesamtenviroment attracts and repels intimacy in much the same way as the museum itself. A feeling that can be likened to sitting in a living-room with its roof taken off - ensconced and exposed. 'The Way it Feels', I was warned, is a harrowing documentary-style video that relates the story of Emin's traumatic abortion in 1990; an experience that irrevocably altered her life and her art. Emin will be sitting there while you watch... I must confess to having felt a little cynical about such a sustained programme of self-exposure. But Emin has not worked self-exposure into a party trick. Her hosting of events in the personal fantasy-space of The Tracey Emin Museum has not yet become jaded by familiarity and over use. The sense of occasion remains intact; the artist and audience pass through moments of mutual unease and elation. The film, even without the ritualising auspices of the Tracey Emin Museum to enrich it, would still pack an emotional punch.
The cathartic revisitation of the sites of Emin's misadventure provoked in the artist a knee-jerk response to past events that she could not have foreseen whilst planning the film. The story's inherent horror also guarantees a sympathetic response from the audience; Emin's termination resulted in her own grave illness and has most probably ruled out the (in any case already slight) chance of her conceiving a child in the future. The operation was not thoroughly enough carried out and the dead foetus remained inside her womb for almost another week before she was dragged to hospital by a concerned friend. While getting out of the mini-cab she felt something slide down her leg and caught it between her hand and her thigh. It was the mangled remains of her child. According to the artist her decision to make a film about this episode was not intended to protract the cathartic response provoked by its revisitation, nor was it to satisfy her desire to reap revenge on the others involved in the story, but rather to explain the impact it had on her artistic life. The realisation that, "If I was going to make art it couldn't be about a fucking picture".
The intention to cite this turning point in her artistic career complicates the subject ostensibly under discussion - the emotional and ethical issues raised by the voluntary termination of a human foetus. The film, which deals intimately with this ground often blurring the line between the problem's representation and its cathartic reliving, triggers a question which is strictly extraneous to the ethics of abortion: what the seat, source and subject of art might be. Emin artfully employs her own (genuinely elicited) confession to capsize the audience's habitually critical relationship to art, to get them engaging with their emotional faculties at full throttle. Once this has been achieved, once the spectre of art has almost completely abandoned the event, it slips back in and catches us unawares.
The abortion which triggered Emin's total reassessment of her own life was after all considered by her to result most significantly in a reevaluation of here artistic life. Her work altered unrecognisably. So the artist's emotional 'life' is construed as the most influential force behind art, which in turn is seen to be 'life's' most significant outcome. Two systems cannibalising each other. Mirroring this cannibalistic exchange, the personal confession recorded by the film, the intimate domestic sphere of the simulated living-room, the presence of the guiding force of the artist, gains significance through its ingestion into the digestive tract of public life. The confession is so intensely private because its exposure is so intensely public.
The paintings hung along one wall of the museum and executed during Emin's convalescence after her termination are described by her as the most simple and loving paintings she has ever made. She wished she could work like that again because the images came so easily and fluently. These paintings, which dispose with all technical virtuosity, deal mainly with themes of love, sex and sensuality. They employ signifiers of pre-pubescence such as pastel shades and emblematically drawn hearts. They also employ signifiers of unimpeded subjectivism, by which I mean their stylistic flirtation with 'outsider art' and the fluent and spontaneous markings that have historically come to function as an index of the self. The overtly legible nature of this artistic idiom has sparked a myriad of post-structuralist commentary on the plausibility of a language of self per se. A language that cannot - by virtue of it being a language - be capable of acting as an index of individual selfhood if legible to a society at large. Emin would seem to operate on the interface between the social conventions that inform representations of subjectivity - their learnt nature - and the irreducible individuality of the subject. Her ritualised use of confession, her arrangement of signs of intimacy such as the sitting-room and its aura, her display of paintings created in an almost automated way whilst under the traumatic spell of her abortion add up to a highly conscious assemblage of a pre-existent vocabulary of subjectivity. The syntactical arrangement of the expressions of the monad.
Emin's creation of space around every expressive component promotes the self-consciousness of her gesture and rescues her work from a classically expressionist terrain. 'The Way it Feels' is cut in such a way as to make its construction overt. Each change of location visited by the artist - the steps of her GP's practice, the park where she talked the abortion through with her boyfriend, the hospital where she had the operation - provides a form of chapter heading for her narration of events. A device too conventionalised to allow any notion of unmediated expression. The 'naive' execution of the paintings on the wall is undercut by signs of her highly skilled and conscious means of working evidenced by the film, the patch-worked objects and photographs that fill the museum. Her presence in the museum itself detracts from the stasis of the art works; her changing relationship to the story related in the film undermines the one-to-one relation of meaning and subject. During my visit she commented, "The more I see this film the more distanced from it I become". This very distance provides the artwork with a degree of autonomy beyond the artist's reach. These spaces or lapses between expressive components establish a system of display in itself (not anomalously) reminiscent of a museum. Like in a museum where the relocation of an artefact away from its original cultural and temporal fabric and its relation to other similarly displaced artefacts creates a new syntax, Emin's museum locates the emotional and experiential artefacts of her life within the syntax of art's making and mediation. But Emin's museum, in contrast to more conventional museums, embeds the artefacts into a museological fabric which is ignited and kept in check by the living presence of the artist. The artefacts have not been completely severed from a now absent origin, but merely set at a distance from it. That origin, Tracey Emin, constitutes the museum and refuses us the possibility of treating the artefacts as displaced and parentless. The artworks obtain a dual status being both objects of scrutiny, reminiscent of the museum artefact, and components of a continuous, living fabric which is the artist. The intimate nature of Emin's means of display forces the audience to recognise the personal and exposing nature of exhibition. The twist is that in treating exhibition so consciously, partly achieved through revealing so much, Emin holds much of herself in reserve. This is the elusive charm of her work.
last update: 2.3.1997