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In your face and on your nerves
Peter Aspden

          At the, opening of artist Tracey Emin's most recent show at London's White Cube gallery, she arrived on a bicycle to find the ausual gaggle of journalists awaiting her. She apologised, rather charmingly, for being a little late.
A small group of us took her aside and asked gently probing questions about the show, provocatively entitled When I Think About Sex.
Our tentativeness was unnecessary, as Emin swung straight into confessional mode. "I haven't had full penetrative sex for two years," she confided with improbable assertiveness.
"It does come in my direction, but I have been pushing it away, I am romantic. That's why I'm not interested in sex any more. I want to be romanced first. I was shagging since the age of 13, 1 know what that's all about."
This was archetypal Emin: that disarming and entirely unnecessary detail (did we need to know her abstention was limited to "penetrative" sex?); the confident swagger of a woman who is used to being desired; the tone of voice heavy with experience, yet laden with an almost drippy, and possibly ironic, desire to be conventionally courted.
Emin has the rare ability to come across as both arrogant and vulnerable at the same time. Her art is uncompromising, yet fragile.
She gets in your face, on your nerves, and away with murder. She has utterly mastered tough-and-tender, and she is frighteningly knowing.
Strangeland, a slim, autobiographical triptych, is the first full-length collection of Emin's writing, and much of it is strikingly good.
Those expecting, to find the essence of her personality are bound to be disappointed, and must satisfy themselves instead with the various carps and contradictions that pepper her fascinating life story.
The first section, "Motherland", speaks of her childhood in the seaside town of Margate. In sparse, occasionally lyrical prose, Emin recounts difficult, yet clearly loving relationships with her mother and father ("this wild roaming Turk, who had hit the London property scene and swept her off her feet").
She is abused as a 10-year-old by her mother's lover, and loses her virginity when she is raped in an alley at the age of 13: "My childhood was over, I had become conscious of my physicality, aware of my presence and open to the ugly truths of the world." She becomes anorexic.
There is little self-pity or sentimentality in these accounts; in compensation, an almost joyful streak of vindictiveness marks some of her early relationships: at school, she smashes a girl's face into a "sobbing blubbery mess" because her cousin had called her mum "old". She steals money and cigarettes from a lover ("That will teach him to be shit in bed").
Early adolescent sexual encounters are given a veneer of trashy romanticism -- "she sips her pernod and blackcurrant, he can't take his eyes off her breasts" -- that is nevertheless affecting. There are succinct and moving accounts of violent deaths and unlikely friendships.
In "Fatherland", the section covering her visit(s?) to Turkey with her father, Emin's tone becomes fable-like.
When he tells her, at the age of 73, that he is about to marry a 16-year-old, she recalls that "he handed me five fresh almonds. My eyes felt like puffballs, swollen and sore. And not mine. It felt like I was seeing the world though someone else's eyes."
By far the weakest part of the book is "Traceyland", a collection of thoughts and observations that are mostly trite. When flying, she finds herself "crying my eyes out to My Best Friends Wedding". Really? Where did that toughened sensibility go?
She advocates fish-finger sandwiches because they are "easy to eat in the bath, full of vitamins, keep you going for hours . . . and there's plenty left in the packet for that drunken late-night snack". That apercu would be conspicuously banal in a teenage girl's magazine.
There is a harrowing account of an abortion, with a short post-scripted poem -- "Five years later -- it still hurts. But I know I did / The right thing." Her views on giving birth are contradictory and provocative, and give the impression that the issue is anything but resolved in her psyche.
Her biggest fear, in a passage written as she enters her late 30s, "is that I will be waking up alone". That simple yearning for love, again.
Yet, she admits that, asked to choose between "self-preservation, grace and self-respect; or a drunken, decadent orgy of creative lust, pushing myself to the wildest extremes", she does not know which path to take.
But then that is part of Tracey's tease: just when we think she has acquired wisdom, she pulls the rug from under our feet and reverts to a gleeful, teenage vulgarity that could be designed to repel her critics.
At the end of our encounter at White Cube she complained that she was still not taken seriously as an artist. "They [the public] just see me drinking at parties. The pressure is immense." Yet would she have it any other way? Flitting between worthiness of artistic intent, selfdestruction, romantic longing, media manipulation and occasional obscenity: could there be a better template for the 21st-century artist?
FT Syndication Service


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In your face and on your nerves
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