“There is no comparison between him and me; he developed a whole new way of making art and he's clearly in a league of his own. It would be like making comparisons with Warhol,” Tracey Emin once said of fellow member of the Young British Artists, Damien Hirst. Born July 3, 1963, Emin brings a very, very personal feminist perspective to that group in works such as Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (above, from 1997), a blue tent in which she has placed the name of every person she has slept with in any sense—from boyfriend and fellow artist Billy Childish to her grandmother to two unnamed (but numbered) fetuses she presumably aborted. Emin’s sexual history took physical form under the prompting of curator Carl Freedman, with whom Emin was having a sexual relationship at the time. Charles Saatchi purchased the tent and placed it in his Momart warehouse, where a fire destroyed it and many other Young British Artists’ works in 2004. The British public showed little sympathy for the lost works, especially Emin’s sex tent—the ultimate case of “too much information.”
Emin stuck with the sex theme in her next major work, My Bed (above, from 1997). Like Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 work, Bed, it is an actual bed owned by the artist set up as a work of art. Unlike Rauschenberg, however, Emin stained the bed sheets with her own bodily fluids and scattered condoms, panties stained with blood, and even a pair of slippers around the bed itself, just to drive the coital theme home. I’ve always seen the Young British Artists movement as a poor echo of the punk music movement in 1970s led by the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten surely would have gleefully sneered at Emin’s work, but there’s such a commercialized feel to Emin’s work (although not nearly on the scale of the master, Hirst) that it seems more market-targeted posing than anti-establishment punk. Saatchi purchased Emin’s Bed for £150,000, a nice rate of return on the initial investment by Emin. Billy Childish, “star” of Emin’s sexual history tent, offered to sell another of Emin’s old beds for the more reasonable price of £20,000.
For all her excesses, Emin does have another side to her, and I don’t just mean the side shown in The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here II (above, from 2000), a photographic self-portrait of Emin in a tiny beachside hut she owned in 1992, before fame and riches called. Along with Childish and other artists, Emin pushed the new art movement of Stuckism, which called for a new appreciation of the figure in contemporary art. “When I think about sex it makes me realize how alone I feel,” Emin once said, and this photograph, reminiscent of the self-portraits of Egon Schiele, one of Emin’s major influences, shows the private side of sexuality that public statements such as her tent and bed broadcast publicly. I find this aspect of Emin’s art much more intriguing than the bombast of the sensationalist conceptional art. Unfortunately, the headline-making, infamy-earning works attract wealthy patrons, Turner Prize nominations, Venice Biennale slots, and membership in the Royal Academy of Arts. Emin offsets all that glamour with great charity work, especially for HIV and AIDS charities. Perhaps if the contemporary art world valued that more compassionate, more thoughtful work, Emin’s secret identity wouldn’t be stuck in the corner.