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Tracey Emin has had a huge impact on artistic Tracey Emin carries a lot of cultural baggage. The drunken walkout from a Channel 4
life in this country over the last 20 years. As an artist discussion programme on the death of painting, the in-your-face confrontational nature of so
she has opened up a whole new way of young artists much of her work, her enduring status as a tabloid hate-fi gure and, of course, that unmade
bed in Tate Britain’s Turner Prize show. Like to express themselves: she follows in the path that
Damien Hirst, the Chapmans and Sarah Lucas,
Tracey Emin will always be branded with the Helen Chadwick hacked through the undergrowth
sobriquet Young British Artist, although, as her
junior by nine years, I fi nd that a little tiring – as,
of the British artworld, widening it to build a virtual I suspect, does she. No, the thing that is most
important for me about Tracey Emin and her
superhighway for today’s young artists to dance work is the way that she has moved the boundaries of how far art can travel, and the
light-footedly along. area it can cover. Her work is genuinely intimate in a way that is very often dif_f_i cult to take.
For my part, I am happy enough to make the
journey, but very often shocked and disturbed
when I reach the destination.As a public fi gure she has been instrumental
The defi ning moment for me in my feelings in helping the general public understand that
about her work came on 24 May 2004, when the
Momart warehouse burnt down and much of the
they can ‘get’ contemporary art and that it is a whole Saatchi Collection – including two of Tracey
Emin’s most outstanding works – was lost.
new area of discovery to engage with, in which they The media reaction was, I thought, quite disgraceful, with some commentators revelling
can have the confi dence to have opinions and in her misfortune. She handled the ridicule and philistinism with dignity and intelligence –
preferences. Tracey should have won the Turner qualities conspicuously lacking in her detractors – and I thought that, in a small way, a dif_f_i cult
and challenging strand of contemporary art Prize; I hope she gets the big prize in Venice and a
came of age that day.
knighthood when she returns, for services to the DAVID LAMMY, UK Minister for Culture
cultural life of this country.
Here’s how I picture her. On the cover of her memoir, Strangeland, photographed sometime in the late 1970s, her faintly feathered haircut is enough
of a reminder of her protean teenage idol, David Bowie, to suggest that she already understands the necessity for self-invention. She has a face full of
cheek, 1950s-style sunglasses slipping down her nose, the collar of her corduroy jacket turned up in imitation of all the dead rockers whose voices still
soundtracked the seafront. Mad Tracey from Margate.
She hung around Dreamland, the resort’s decaying 1920s amusement park. When the punks arrived, in the summer of 1977, they took her for a spin
on the Scenic Railway and called her their ‘baby punk’. At fi fteen she braved the boys who called her a slag and tried to dance her way out of town.
‘I knew there was something better: there was an outside – an outside of me.’ She ran away to become Tracey Emin.
With its fearless reckoning of her seaside past, and its swift slump into sentiment, the best and worst of Tracey Emin is in her book. And the best and
worst of Margate (‘a fucking UNSYMPATHETIC SHIT HOLE’) is in her art, even now. ‘Thrusting like a bent forefi nger from the crazed knuckle of
England’, the place embodies everything we seem to want from Emin: a littoral land of vulgarity, cheap sex and sudden violence, the kind of town
where, in the full glare of its neon assault, you want to run for the shadows. But it’s also where twentieth-century England took snapshots of its future,
fantasised about fame, leisure, lust and self-fashioning. Tracey Emin comes from the edge of the English imagination, from a place where the gap
between public and private might melt away. Tracey Emin comes from Dreamland.
BRIAN DILLON, writer and art critic
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