I kept a photo of Tracey Emin’s installation Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With 1963-1995 in my high school diary, even though at that time I had not yet had sex with anyone. It was a blue tent one could slide inside, a warm womb of names, the insides appliqued with colorful letters. Not all the names, each letter sewn on a square of bright cloth, were her lovers. In one square was her grandmother’s name. The name of her twin brother. Her two aborted children. She meant sleeping quite literally. Anyone who had ever shared her bed. Anyone whose body had touched, or almost touched, hers. On floor of the tent were stitched the words, “With myself, always myself, never forgetting.”
I admit I’ve always loved Tracy Emin. She is one of those artists who reveal the unkempt edges of themselves, who cut themselves open in their art again and again. I discovered Emin the way some teenage girls discover Plath or Sexton. Emin has always been interested in language, and I think of her as a poet. Her words: scrawled and misspelled on drawings, wrangled into neon shapes that burned against the darkness of the gallery, or sewed on pillows and pieces of fabric. It was the rawness of her words that undid me, the total fearlessness which which she embraced her own messiness. I imagined crawling inside the tent, both witness and voyeur to her pain, and staring up at the apex of it. The tent called for a body inside it, curling up on the floor among all those ghosts.
Throughout the course of art history, the female body has been depicted in the most sanitizing fashion—it becomes not naked but nude. The difference between naked and nude is the difference between a wild forest and a garden. They are cast of the same material, the same substance, but one is idealized and one is not. Emin depicts only the naked—crass unquiet forms—in the most fine and fragile of lines. She is unafraid to express female want—the figures are often masturbating with their crotches exposed—and she is unafraid to express female pain, the aches of abandonment. She is unafraid to be tempestuous, complicated, and desirous. I needed an artist like Emin to allow me to feel.
I watched an interview with Tracey Emin recently where she said she didn’t want to be “that screaming adolescent girl anymore.” Or maybe she did, she admitted, but she wanted to see herself now from a different perspective. That girl in Margate, growing up in an English seaside town, having sex in trucks at the age of thirteen, dancing in the discotheque to the jeers of “slag, slag, “slag,” aborting her children (these memories are all part of her artwork)—she now wants to see these stories with the eyes of a woman in her fifties. She wanted to see them with the eyes of the woman whose body had changed, who was that much closer to death, the single woman who had never born children.
In 2015, while taking a sabbatical from the art world, she performed a ceremony in the south of France in which she married a stone. I imagine her body draped, falling over the large lichen-speckled rock as water might, an expression of self-love. “The stone is not going anywhere,” she has said. “The only way the stone changes is in the light, sunsets, sunrise, and its temperature by the warmth of the sun and the coldness of the air. It’s like marrying a poem.” Now that I am older, this act means as much to me as the blue tent did then.