Tracey Emin shot to fame when My Bed (1998) was shown at London’s Tate Gallery in 1999 as one of the shortlisted works for the Turner Prize. The sheets marked with bodily secretions, the used condoms, and the menstrual-stained underwear sent critics into an uproar, and a media furor ensued. While some describe this work as a “readymade,” Emin has always considered it one of her first sculptures. In fact, early in her career, she created a number of large-scale sculptures, typically conceived with specific exhibitions and venues in mind. The Perfect Place to Grow (2001), reminiscent of a garden shed or beach hut with plants and a birdhouse, brought to mind Emin’s tumultuous childhood and teenage years in Margate, a seaside town on the southeast coast of England. The rickety wooden rollercoaster, It’s Not the Way I Want to Die (2005), similarly recollected the rides at Dreamland, Margate’s dilapidated theme park.
While these early sculptures featured “poor” materials—fragments of wood, found objects, sheets, old clothes cut up and stitched back together—Emin has since “graduated” to bronze, the material of an “adult artist.” Although she first used this new medium for private and intimate exploration, it has recently taken flight into larger scale works, including two monumental new public commissions. The Mother, a nine-meter-tall, kneeling female figure, will be installed later this year on the edge of the Museum Island in Oslo, Norway, adjacent to the new Munch Museum. I Lay Here For You, a more vulnerable and sexualized reclining female figure, has been placed deep in the woodland at Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh, Scotland—a permanent work recently unveiled in advance of Emin’s postponed solo exhibition, which is now scheduled for the 2022 summer season (this year’s season closes on October 31, 2021). Both of these works, which premiered in smaller form in Emin’s 2019 exhibition, “A Fortnight of Tears,” at White Cube Bermondsey, in London, were scaled up from hand-size clay figurines and still bear the imprint of her touch in what have now become troughs and peaks resembling furrowed land.
Emin’s first foray into bronze was at a foundry in New York some years ago, where she saw reliefs by another artist and decided to try and make her own. Speaking of the experience, she recalled, “It’s actually really difficult to do. I was kind of scared to make them in relief and that’s why they are more like drawings in a strange way, they are drawings in bronze.”1 Emin spent three years working with the Modern Art Foundry in New York, learning the traditional lost-wax method of bronze casting.
Starting out small, Emin created her first public artwork, Roman Standard (2005), ahead of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Her tiny bird perched high on a pole pays subtle tribute to the symbolic protector of the city, the mythical Liver Bird. She describes the sculpture as a point of contemplation: “Most public sculptures are a symbol of power, which I find oppressive and dark. I wanted something that had a magic and an alchemy, something which would appear and disappear and not dominate.”2 A couple of years later, a patinated bronze baby sock appeared on the steps of the British pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. This was a precursor to Emin’s Baby Things project (2008) in which she scattered a series of “lost baby items” around the town of Folkestone (a little along the coast from Margate). As she explains, “They [were] meant to be overlooked, ignored by some, discovered by others. A wry inversion of Duchamp’s objet trouvé, they appear[ed] as things peeled from a private life, lost in a public space.”3
Despite this success—and a growing experience with bronze—as late as 2013, Emin maintained, “My sculptures are wholly unsuccessful and uncommercial. No one is even the remotest bit interested in them. So, it’s almost like my hobby.”4 Nevertheless, she remained enthusiastic about the medium because “I’m good at it.”5 Speaking of her small bronze figures, set in dialogue with animal figurines on bronze plinths, she said: “I’ve never seen anything like these bronzes before—and when I make something, and I’ve never seen anything like it before, I usually know that I’m on to something.”6
At the same time, Emin also said that, much as she would like to make big figures, “I just can’t do it, my hands don’t do it.”7 By 2016, however, she was able to make digitally printed enlargements of her small clay figures, and since then—after finding the appropriate forms—she has been experimenting radically with scale. Speaking of how Louise Bourgeois could go from small to giant, Emin noted, “You can’t just make anything big—it was about finding the right form.”8
When Emin revealed her large-scale bronzes in “A Fortnight of Tears,” she expressed her satisfaction with how they translated the immediacy of her process: “It was painstaking, but worth it.”9 Her involvement in the process was borne out by Jerry Hughes, her collaborator and the manager of AB Fine Art Foundry in East London, who described her capacity for “hard graft” throughout the casting process, particularly with the full-size polystyrene models of the sculptures, which were specially covered in plaster and jesmonite in order to allow her to imprint more of her touch. “It’s hard, mucky work,” said Hughes, “but it creates the mark-making that you get on the finished work.”10
Claire Feeley, Head of Exhibitions and Learning Programs at Jupiter Artland, also emphasizes Emin’s hands-on approach at the foundry, explaining to me: “She has really slimmed down her studio since the early 2000s and is involved in absolutely every aspect of the making. She’s had a relationship with the foundry for a long time, but I Lay Here For You is really the first time she’s worked at such scale, so the process of casting is a whole different kettle of fish. The craftsmanship is absolutely remarkable.” Feeley goes on to describe Emin’s process as “an emotion that’s in her body that she works through while making the work.” Feeley also notes how Emin has taken the traditional and robust material of bronze and used it to make incredibly vulnerable sculptures: “You see photos of I Lay Here For You, and it looks like a figure, but there’s something deeply uncanny when you encounter it physically because it’s three times life-size—particularly as you approach it through the peaceful woodland, where she’s sited it; you catch a glimpse of it, and it looks quite abstract. It’s just lying on the ground, exaggerating the human body. If it were life-size, it wouldn’t work.”
Currently, I Lay Here For You is the only bronze planned for inclusion in Emin’s Jupiter Artland exhibition. Feeley wonders whether Emin might choose to include some maquettes and smaller vitrine works, but thinks that “since the bronze figure is the only full human form, and the central encounter, a solitary form in the forest, she might well keep it as the sole bronze.”
In Oslo, The Mother will also stand alone. Emin won the commission in an international competition, up against such acclaimed Scandinavian artists as Olafur Eliasson and Ragnar Kjartansson. Emin submitted a small box containing a little maquette and some watercolors of the figure on the island: “Apparently when they opened up the box and took it out, they fell in love with it.”11 Emin created the figure as a kind of surrogate mother for Edvard Munch (her greatest artistic inspiration), whose mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old. “I’m sure this made him a bit psychologically unhinged, especially in terms of women,” she told me. “His desire to be unconditionally loved must have been incredible. My mother will be looking out to sea as if she’s protecting Munch’s works in the new museum, and at the same time, she’ll be welcoming people.” The figure is based on Emin’s own mother, who died in 2016: “It’s not a beautiful young woman, it’s my mum. It’s a figure of a woman of about 80. But it doesn’t matter about the age, it’s a metaphor for the universal mother that looks after us all, wherever she is. Haven’t you ever loved someone who is old?”
Assessing Emin’s submission, the jury commented: “With its immediate and visceral artistic approach, it appears both intimate and majestic, vulnerable and grandiose.” Though specifically describing The Mother, these words make a fitting epithet for Emin’s entire bronze oeuvre.
1 “Interview with Karol Winiarczyk,” in Tracey Emin | Egon Schiele: Where I Want To Go (Vienna, 2015), p. 18.
2 Quoted on the Pallant House Gallery website, <www.pallant.org.uk/whats-on/ tracey-emin-roman-stan-dard>.
3 Jennifer Doyle, “Lost and Found,” in Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want (Hayward Publishing, 2011), p. 33.
4 Coline Milliard, “A Q&A with Tracey Emin,” Modern Painters, May 2013, p. 84.
5 Jonathan Jones, Tracey Emin: Works 2007–2017 (Rizzoli, 2017): p. 29.
6 Milliard, op. cit.
7 Milliard, op. cit.
8 Jonathan Jones, “How Tracey Emin is giving Munch the mother he never had,” the Guardian, January 2, 2020.
9 Louisa Buck, “Tracey Emin makes her mark with marvelously monumental bronzes at White Cube,” The Art Newspaper, February 7, 2019.
11 Jones, the Guardian, op. cit.
A Moment Without You, a new public sculpture by Tracey Emin for The Line in London, is now on view; The Mother will be unveiled on the Museum Island in Oslo later this year. “I Lay Here For You,” Tracey Emin’s solo exhibition at Jupiter Artland, opens in 2022.