Emin Something's Wrong

© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2023.


Tracey Emin (1963 – )


200 X 154 CM
Accession number


Tracey Emin’s Terribly wrong (1997, Tate Collection) is a monoprint, created by drawing on a piece of glass and pressing it against paper to give a mirrored image. In that work, a scribbled, indistinct liquid mass discharges from between a pair of legs open in the same posture that we see in Something’s Wrong(2002). Given the stories of sex, sexual abuse and sexual disease that frame Emin’s art, it could be almost anything. In both works, the figure’s head is arched back in a similar pose – whether it expresses ecstasy or agony is also ambiguous – leaving the focus on the legs and vagina. They define the figure, and, here, comprise her only identity.

I’ve got it all(2000, Saatchi Collection), an inkjet-printed Polaroid photograph, shows Emin in the same pose, her face clearly visible as she leans forward, dressed in an expensive Vivienne Westwood dress, and sweeps a pile of money into her crotch; but for the crotch it would in the manner of a gambler who has won big. The crotch, however, is exactly why she has won big.

Terribly wrong’s backwards letters draw attention to the idea of Emin drawing herself in a mirror, and through monoprinting, being able to see herself as others see her. Emin’s femininity is the aspect of a highly successful career that is focussed on both by her and by her critics, in a way that would be unimaginable to a male artist such as Antony Gormley, despite his similar persistence in using his own body as a life model.

To the philosopher Peter Osborne [1] this is a self-aware artistic strategy, and the journalist Rachel Campbell-Johnson argues that “Emin is a substantial artist in so far as she holds a mirror to her culture.”

“[…]the cult of personality, the unabashed self-promotion, the blatant commerce […] make something that shows us with a mix of repulsive brashness and unbearable poignancy how sad and superficial and self-serving it is. […] If you hate her for that, then she’s probably doing something right.”[2]

Osborne thinks the art critic Julian Stallabrass can’t see this; Stallabrass thinks that he can, and that this amounts to a cunning but empty cop-out that allows artists of Emin’s generation to appear radical whilst enjoying the benefits of staying essentially conservative and capitalist. [3] Either way, it is this apparently unsolvable, cyclical debate that has ensured Emin’s place in the public eye.

Looking at this piece – an embroidered blanket – this eye sees through the lens of the complex 1970s Feminist reclamation[4] of this sort of “woman’s work”. I’ve got it all’s cashflow is reversed. It emerges, rather than returns to the vagina, as in Terribly wrong, which has its faux-naif print-reversed lettering reproduced here again here in thread, tied up on the back of the blanket, reinforcing its deliberateness.

In asterisks, the same material fixes a deluge of coins in place on the rough, patched, brown institutional blanket. There are Pfennigs and Centimes from her present travels, but it is the Turkish Lira and British Pennies that represent Emin’s past; her mother and her father. Whatever this liquid is, it has Emin’s DNA in it.

Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] Peter Osborne, ‘Greedy Kunst’, in Mandy Merck & Chris Townsend, eds., The Art of Tracey Emin (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), pp.40-59.
[2]Rachel Campbell-Johnson, ‘A compelling look at two decades of detritus and despair’, The Times, 2nd August 2008.
[3] Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite (1999, Second Ed.; London: Verso, 2006).
[4] Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (New York: Berg & V&A, 2007), pp.149-158.