10 things you should know about Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin is one of the most prominent British artists in the contemporary art world. Much of her work is autobiographical and represents her childhood trauma and the obstacles she had to overcome. Often accused of egocentrism, her provocative work and sultry personality have been much talked about since her first appearance in the art world during the 1980s as a protégé of collector Charles Saatchi.

1. She is a member of the Young British Artists

Tracey Emin is one of the artists discovered and launched by the famous collector Charles Saatchi in the Young British Artists movement, alongside Damien Hirst, Jake and Dino Chapman, Jenny Savilleris o and Chris Ofili. It was this fortunate encounter that would later propel her into the spotlight.

Tracey Emin Damien Hirst
Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst

2. She has a twin brother, Paul

Although Tracey Emin’s life is highly publicized, a rarely discussed part of her private life is her twin brother, Paul. Paul Emin is a carpenter who was diagnosed with epilepsy a few years ago, and the twins live far apart. Paul’s relationship with Tracey fluctuates, although they were very close as children.

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Tracey and her twin brother Paul © ian mcilgorm

3. She had a difficult childhood

Tracey Emin’s work explores the twists and turns of her personal life, beginning with her childhood. While this openness may be uncomfortable to many, Tracey takes refuge in art to deal with these traumas. The discovery of her father’s double life when she was a child, her rape at 13, and an abortion at 18 are among many things she explores. This context also helps to understand better the tortured nature of her turbulent art.

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Tracey Emin, Grand Hotel I, 2016 – Available on Artsper

4. Everyone I Ever Slept With, her launch work

Tracey Emin’s first piece was her installation entitled Everyone I Ever Slept With. It was presented at the first Young British Artists exhibition and immediately brought her great publicity. It is a canvas tent with the names of all the people the artist has “slept with” sewn onto the walls. Tracey Emin played on the ambivalence of the verb “to sleep” and had also included in the list her family members and her foetuses.

The work was owned by Charles Saatchi until it was destroyed in 2004 in a fire at the collector’s warehouse.   

racey Emin, Everyone I ever slept with, 1995

5. My Bed, her second provocative work

Tracey Emin’s second landmark work is her installation My Bed, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999. The work consisted of an unmade bed, littered with objects showing the artist’s struggle with depression after a difficult breakup as well as her lifestyle during that time: used condoms, empty bottles, slippers, and bodily fluids on the sheets.

Although Tracey Emin is known for using intimate objects in her work, this installation is a carefully constructed work and not the artist’s actual bed as some may have thought. As a result, My Bed sold for over 2 million pounds at Christie’s.

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Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998

6. In 2007, she represented England at the Venice Biennale

In 2007, Tracey Emin was chosen to represent England at the 52nd Venice Biennale. While many feared a scandal on her part, Tracey Emin presented a pavilion entitled Borrowed Light, composed of emotional artworks made for the occasion from various mediums: embroidery, photography, videos, drawings, paintings, sculptures and neon.

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Tracey Emin at the British Pavilion in Venice. Photograph: David Levene

7. She faces many risks in making her life the subject of her art

A few years ago, one of Tracey Emin’s ex-boyfriends when she was 14 years old offered the artist’s love letters for auction. Tracey was outraged. Yet she was the first to use her own life in her work and to expose it to the public: the name of the boy in question appeared in her work Everyone I ever slept with. One would have thought that this would not bother her, but it was quite the opposite. Although she reveals much of her life in her work, Tracey wishes to keep some moments of her youth private.

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Beginning of a love letter by Tracey Emin sold at auction

8. She draws for the 2012 Olympic Games

After years of being England’s enfant terrible, Tracey Emin has now officially entered the pantheon of “almost respectable” artists, as evidenced by the fact that she was asked to draw a limited edition for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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Drawing of Tracey Emin for the London Paralympics, 2012

9. She is inspired by many artists such as Edvard Munch

Like all artists, Tracey Emin has a list of great names in art that have infused her vision and to whom her works pay more or less direct homage. In particular, she has often declared her debt to Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, but she also claims Jean-Michel Basquiat as her inspiration. Furthermore, her use of light installations and neon lights is in line with artists such as Don Flavin and Bruce Nauman. Finally, her work My Bed is reminiscent of Rauschenberg.

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Tracey Emin, The Sex Series, 2013 – Available on Artsper

10. She faces a final scandal

In 2015, Tracey Emin once again made headlines and stirred up controversy when she announced plans to demolish a listed building in the East London neighborhood of Spitafield. She wanted to transform the 17th century building into a modern studio house designed by architect David Chipperfield.

When she bought the building in 2008, she spoke at length about the historical importance of the area and her desire to preserve this heritage: a change of heart that unleashed the ire of local residents!

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Tracey Emin, Sixteen, 2013 – Available on Artsper