Friday, October 06, 2006

Tracey Emin subjected to our gaze

Last night the Medical Humanities Society/Purple Coat Club took a look at the work of Tracey Emin. Beth, who is interested in art and psychoanalysis, gave us an introduction to Emin by way of Jacques Lacan's concept of 'the gaze'. Beth showed us how Emin's work positions the viewer, particularly in the work 'The Last Thing I Said to You Was Don't Leave Me Here', where the gaze is returned, not only visually, but also by invoking other senses such as smell, taste and touch. The picture can be viewed in a double frame of reference, as a vulnerable girl who has been the victim of abuse, but also with the connotations of Tracey Emin, the provocative artist, whose work seems somehow 'stuck' in her adolescent experiences. Using very traditional iconography in a self-reflexive fashion, Emin denies any voyeuristic look by invoking the other senses. The vulnerable child, for example, returns the smell of fear, and denies any caress however tender. The articulate artist, however, screams out loud and the sweet smell of freedom to voice her position fills the air.

We watched Emin's film, 'Top Spot'. It is an intriguing work which combines a variety of representational approaches. It features a group schoolgirls, first shown being interrogated (by Emin, off-camera) about sexual experiences. Although the girls look 'innocent', many have traumatic or shocking stories to tell. There are no male characters -- these are alluded to rather than realised -- although phallic symbolism abounds. Bleak scenes of the Margate beachfront are interpolated with scenes of Egypt where one of the girls apparently goes to try and track down her lover (although it is never clear whether this is a fantasy or not). The film has an unsettling climax which, like some of the preceding scenes, is shrouded in ambiguity.

The discussion after the film involved a lively discussion on role of autobiography in art, and what came across as convincing or contrived in the narrative. The sexualisation of the girls, portrayed as normative, was perhaps the most striking theme. Although the film was undoubtedly shocking, there was a sense of detachment because the viewer is never really drawn in sufficiently to identify with any of the characters. The camera technique never adopts any of the girls' point of view so the viewer is permanently in the uncomfortable role of voyeur.

Views on Emin's work in general were divided: some expressed grudging admiration for her ability to be so successful in spite of what might be perceived as a dearth of conventional artistic talent, others were infuriated by her inability to 'move on' from evoking her teenage experiences in her art. Is she brave to expose her life to public gaze -- the details of which many people find distasteful?

Emin's work does offer an insight into a particular slice of British life that is depressingly accepting of exploitation as unexceptional. The medical system doesn't even begin to engage with teenagers who seem to consider it unthinkable to submit to any kind of supervision. As Anna pointed out, the film and the issues it raises could help doctors not be complacent about the backgrounds of some adolescents. Ellen highlighted the awkward position of the teenager in the medical system: suitable neither for the adult ward nor the paediatric setting.

Thanks very much to Beth for giving us a theoretical framework with which to think about the positioning of the gaze in art in general and Emin's work in particular.

1 comment:

Giskin said...

There is a sympathetic review of Tracey Emin's book 'Strangeland' in this weekend's Guardian.