William Feaver

Ego trip with excess baggage

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Tracey Emin

Sceptre, pp. 288, £

Readers may sympathise with Tracey Emin. Her big mouth and huge appetite for self- advertisement make her a ready target; she’s so shameless and yet, by her own account, so abused. (‘And then they started: “SLAG, SLAG, SLAG.” A gang of blokes, most of whom I’d had sex with at some time or other…’) Life has dealt her a raw yet currently rewarding deal. And now that she’s a proper celebrity, as real as Cindy Sherman — the photographer of a thousand guises — and much more in-your-face, she owes it to her public to keep delivering, living her dreams, spicing resolutions with relapses.

Margate’s most famous daughter grew up in what were, by her account, intermittently abject circumstances. A mostly absent Turkish Cypriot father, a mother resourceful enough to help herself to lead from roofs when broke, a fitful formal education, a feral sex education and catastrophic front teeth: she had it all up to here, that’s to say up to the point where she had to either sink or swim. Buoyant, she finds herself, at the age of 42, issuing an autobiography that wrings out the memories with a self-indulgence bordering on infatuation. ‘I thought with my body,’ she claims. Leading with her chin, she has filled these pages using lots of old material, pieces reprinted from ID magazine (‘The Proper Steps for Dealing with an Unwanted Pregnancy’), GQ (‘The Mummy Screams’) and other such outlets.

These writings are a mixture of heartfelt missives and slurp resembling homework long overdue. They read like extended versions of her insecurity blankets, the ones with attractively misspelt words appliquéd all over, though here, for once, Spellcheck has been employed.

‘Trying to make sense of everything’, as she says, is a fitful task. Grand-dad Emin had four wives; great-great-great-grand- father was a slave ‘in the Ottoman empire’. As for the great-great-great-grand-daughter herself, she inhabits an empire of the imagination broken down for editorial convenience into Traceyland, Motherland, Fatherland, Strangeland and Dreamland. In these parts she’s the focus of attention, of course, and never more so than when she came a close second to Paul, her twin brother. ‘When I was born, they thought I was dead.’

Between babyhood and adulthood came the setbacks that are taking the artist a lifetime to savour, with self-help manuals providing supportive vocabulary. ‘Like a wounded bird I began to rebuild myself, using the experience of failure as my foundation,’ she trills. Valentine’s Day 1988: the post arrives. ‘Nothing there for me — no love. No one loved me, I started to cry.’

This is the type of emotional fix that provokes Emin’s best work, her scratchy drawings of splayed legs and wishbone bodies, terse and sharp. Words fail her more. She keeps trying to be Andy Warhol the diarist but lacks his laconic tone. On holiday in Cyprus with her dad she has trouble with a fisherman and insects. ‘The flies were in love with me,’ she boasts, ‘They loved me like I was a piece of donkey shit. One night I counted over 60 bites.’ It’s the counting that’s significant; the figure is either made up or (sad to say) she actually did bother to tot them up.

Ego is all. In Norway, visiting the site of Munch’s ‘Scream’, she feels herself enwombed somehow. ‘I wanted to jump inside the picture and cradle the Scream in my arms. Another lost soul.’ Steady on, old girl, is the obvious response, but we must remember that this, like so much else related here, was a performance assignment. A cameraman and sound recordist were on hand taping her rendezvous with destiny.

Such base details are omitted, as are the routines of a busy professional life. We are not to know that at the Royal College she painted earnestly. Better, she assumes, for us to hear about that memorable night when she ripped off her microphone during a Turner Prize-related Channel Four live transmission and staggered away (‘pissed out of my brains … complete fucking horror’) bawling for her mum and leaving David Sylvester, Norman Rosenthal, and other worthies astounded at her upstaging of their ‘debate’. This exit propelled her immediately from D list to B list. ‘My gallery is inundated with requests for me to appear on chat-shows,’ she noted a day or two later. ‘My art’s selling like hot cakes.’

Emin reality dissolves all too readily into Emin dreams. When the anecdotes become too repetitive even for her she nods off and tells us about it:

Dreams don’t have time. Neither does sleep, nor death. That’s why it’s sometimes good to wear a watch. I always took my watch off when making love. Even if I kept all my clothes on. Even if it was outside in winter, I would always take my watch off.

Among her fantasy figures is the Director of the Tate. ‘Nick Serota comes on the line to wish me a happy birthday anyway.’ Dream on, Trace. We all remember with varying degrees of shame ending school exercises in creative writing with ‘Then I woke up’.

‘Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless beautiful woman. I never dreamed it would be like this.’

A Tracey Emin strength is the knack of producing work that looks unpremeditated. It protects her through would-be aphorism (‘One cannot live on vodka alone’) and gulps of affirmation (‘Deep in my soul I know the soul can endure’). But — another chapter, another pregnancy scare — she does overdo the artlessness. ‘I am relieved, relieved to know that at 37 years of age I am just a woman with a fucking good imagination.’ This imagination of hers is an asset worth coaxing into new prospects. She writes, using capital letters for extra loud emphasis, ‘DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE THE PAST HEAD ON.’ Fair enough, but why not go easy on all that baggage? Can’t the personality be given a rest? I guess not.