Two years before the end of Thatcherism in 1990, an epic art event occurred in London - the first exhibition of the group called the Young British Artists, or YBAs. These emerging artists, graduates of the Goldsmiths BA Fine Arts degree course in the classes of 1987–90, were supported by the wealthy advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, and some of them became so famous that they reached the limits of stardom.
The most prolific female figure from the YBAs and one of the two women ever accepted as professors by London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Tracey Emin came to prominence as a rebellious and highly controversial artist who explored her sexuality, gender, and addiction through various media. Throughout the years, she constructed an authentic confessional approach that also had, depending from one project to another, certain social implication. The important element of Emin’s practice is performativity that is inseparable from the artist’s eccentric persona, and the way she perceives the public space.
Before she produced the critically acclaimed installation My Bed that launched her career, in 1995 Emin made the piece Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 better known as The Tent. Looking from the contemporary stance, it seems that this particular piece bounded her previously described approach and enabled the artist to plunge deeper into the analyzes of the self by implementing a much required feminist intervention.
Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 or The Tent was an actual tent embroidered with one hundred and two names of the people Tracey Emin had ever slept with until the time of its production in 1995. It is often literally interpreted as a work indicating the number of her sexual partners, but it actually goes beyond that - it also includes the names of the people with whom she just slept. And so, The Tent includes family, friends, drinking partners, lovers and even two numbered fetuses. The most dominating name is perhaps Billy Childish, with whom Emin was emotionally involved for some time.
The tent was a blue square reminiscent of the passageway shell grotto in Margate that fascinated Emin during her childhood. The floor of the tent was covered with the text "With myself, always myself, never forgetting."
While working on this piece, Emin was in a relationship with Carl Freedman, a friend, and collaborator of Damien Hirst, who showed The Tent for the first time within the exhibition titled Minky Manky at the South London Gallery. At that time, Emin was not that famous outside the art circles and had a chance to show her works alongside the established artists such as Gilbert and George, as well as her peers Sarah Lucas and Hirst, who had already gained media attention. The artist briefly described her position before the exhibition opening:
At that time Sarah (Lucas) was quite famous, but I wasn't at all. Carl said to me that I should make some big work as he thought the small-scale stuff I was doing at the time wouldn't stand up well. I was furious. Making that work was my way at getting back at him. One review was really funny, the journalist had written something like 'She's slept with everyone – even the curator'!
After the mentioned exhibition, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 gained a cult status. Charles Saatchi wanted to buy the work, but Emin refused to sell due to the patron’s advertising work for Thatcher administration. Saatchi bought The Tent anyway on the secondary market from dealer Eric Franck, for a sum of £40,000, although the artist sold it initially for £12,000. By 1999, Emin became more famous and she reconciled with the patron, while the art world gossip claimed that in 2001 Saatchi offered £300,000 for The Tent.
A significant number of artworks by the Chapman brothers, Damien Hirst, Patrick Heron and others belonging to the Saatchi collection were stored at the East London Momart warehouse which was destroyed in a fire in 2004. The public reaction was rooted in mockery that targeted the YBAs, especially Emin’s tent; the artist was furious due to the public reaction, so she stated:
The news comes between Iraqi weddings being bombed and people dying in the Dominican Republic in flash floods, so we have to get it into perspective. The majority of the British public have no regard or no respect to what me and my peers do, to the point that they laugh at a disaster like a fire. It is just not fair and it's not funny and it's not polite and it's bad manners. I would never laugh at a disaster like that – I just have some empathy and sympathy with people's loss.
In 2008 during her Edinburgh retrospective show, Emin claimed that she was offered £1 million by the Saatchi Gallery to rebuilt The Tent, but that she cannot do it since it was very personally despite the fact she recreated few smaller pieces for that show. A year later, Chapman brothers claimed they remade The Tent, however, the public was skeptical thinking it was a stunt.
The artists Stuart Semple and Uri Geller collected remains from the Momart fire site, packed them in eight plastic boxes covered with slogans in pink lettering, and titled the whole action Burn Baby Burn. Semple claimed that among the collected debris included the fragments of Emin's tent. Burn Baby Burn boxes were offered to, but rejected by the Tate.
Although Emin does not stand out as a feminist artist, she once stated she is a feminist, but not a feminist artist. Nevertheless, throughout her work, she dealt with subjects that are to be interpreted from the feminist perspective; here it is also important to acknowledge the fact that the UK society struggles with centuries-old combat with sexism.
Therefore, regardless of the mentioned controversy which has more or less continually escorted the artist, the piece Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 stands out as a valuable example of rebellious work made by a women in the post Thactherist era which gained deserved critical attention and can be articulated in the context of the third wave of feminism.
Editors’ Tip: Strangeland
The intimate memoirs of one of the most acclaimed and controversial artists of her generation. "Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamt it would be like this." Tracey Emin's Strangeland is her own space, lying between the Margate of her childhood, the Turkey of her forefathers and her own, private-public life in present-day London. Her writings, a combination of memoirs and confessions, are deeply intimate, yet powerfully engaging. Tracey retains a profoundly romantic world view, paired with an uncompromising honesty. Her capacity both to create controversies and to strike chords is unequalled in British life. A remarkable book - and an original, beautiful mind.
Featured image: Tracey Emin Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Image via Wikimedia Commons.