Tracey Emin’s Tent
In her artistic oeuvre, the British artist Tracey Emin explores existential issues, such as female sexuality and the sexually coded body, as well as the use of handicraft techniques such as sewing and weaving. Sewing, or more accurately appliquéing pieces of fabric onto an existing object, namely a tent, is the focus of Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995). The work is considered a turning-point in the Young British Artist’s career. The piece, also known as “The Tent” or “My Tent”, later entered the Charles Saatchi collection, but was destroyed in a warehouse fire in 2004.
Emin sewed the names of everyone she had shared her bed with over the first thirty-two years of her life in capital letters on fabric squares on the yellow inner canopy of a two-person tent made of blue nylon. She likewise sewed the title of the work, including the two dates, on the outside of the tent, again in the form of appliqué letters. The inside of the tent was illuminated by a light bulb and furnished with a mattress on the floor, carrying the motto “With myself, always myself, never forgetting”. Visitors were supposed to go right inside the tent in order to experience the installation as a whole.
Emin’s tent functions as a private sphere, a place of refuge, a bedroom and a temporary dwelling. At the same time, the tent represents a place exposed to danger – as an ephemeral architectural structure it is less protective than solid walls. This protection starts to evaporate inside the tent, where autobiographical details of the most intimate kind are revealed: the names of all those with whom the artist has shared her bed and the intimate moment of sleep between 1963 and 1995, whereby the formulation “slept with” in the title was a conscious play upon the sexual connotations it carries. She included not only the names of her lovers, but also family members such as her grandmother, friends, and also mentions two unborn foetuses from two abortions. These names sewn onto the inner walls – which viewers who crawled inside the original tent were able to read, and which are still legible in documentary photographs – lend the work a narrative level in which biography and artistic concept are interwoven. The representation of herself in and through her art is one of Tracey Emin’s enduring concerns.
A fragile textile barrier
In the case of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, the tent is the place in which this exploration of her own biography is conducted and made accessible to the viewer. The translucent fabric walls of the tent seem paradigmatic of this process: the barrier they establish is more fragile than stable, and permits the outside world to filter through into the interior, and the private to leak out into the public sphere. Vilém Flusser said tents “assemble experiences” – and so does the tent in Emin’s work. This body of experience is protected by the material of the fabric and incorporated into the textile, soft walls in the form of a pattern of letters. At the same time the letters offer private insights and prompt speculation.
The coding of the tent as primitive hut, private shelter, nomadic living, sleeping space and not altogether safe dwelling, is furthermore overlaid with yet another level of meaning. The tent, as Tracey Emin has used it, is first and foremost an everyday object and an item of practical use. She used an object that already existed: a conventional two-person tent of a type familiar to us all, and which we would normally expect to encounter not in the realm of art, but on a campground, in the garden, under a bridge or folded up and put away in a cellar. The tent that Emin uses here, in other words, is primarily an everyday, practical piece of equipment that is classically used when travelling and is intended to temporarily replace our real domicile. When a mundane object of this kind is integrated into an artwork, it not only undergoes an aesthetic modification, but it also changes its context – from practical usage to exhibited art.
This change of context is one typically undergone by all ready-mades, but Emincarries her tent one step further: she intervenes in the material of the everyday object, reconfigures its content, sews letters on top of it like patches so that the protecting ‘skin’ of the tent is destroyed, and supplements it with autobiographical references. The letters are all different in terms of shape, colour, size, position and arrangement. Most of them were cut out of plain fabric and sewn onto another piece of plain or patterned fabric, which was then appliquéd onto the tent with a needle and thread. Despite the deliberate irregularity with which they are positioned, the names spelled out in cloth patches nevertheless call to mind the handicraft technique of quilting. Sewing, spinning, weaving etc. are age-old manual activities and essential cultural techniques that, in the past, were practised both in daily life and in the context of handicraft. In relation to gender connotations and their historical development, the private sphere and the domestic activities performed there have become merged over time with principles of femininity.
By processing the tent in a way that is by no means straightforward in terms of the manual skill and labour involved, Emin puts these topics on record, on the one hand as a biographical reminder of the moment spent asleep together and on the other hand as a creative way of questioning a far-reaching system of differentiations that has become firmly established over the centuries, which includes the hierarchisation of high and low and that between applied and fine art as well as the historical and gender conditionality of this hierarchical relationship. The act of sewing by hand is thus a necessary component of Tracey Emin’s tent. The result is a double dislocation: just as the tent as an ordinary object has been transferred to a museum context, a work like Everyone I Have Ever Slept Withcarries the technique of sewing, originally located in the sphere of handicraft and female domestic life, into the realm of art.