The feminine occurs only within models and laws devised by male subjects. Which implies that there are not really two sexes, but only one. A single practice and representation of the sexual. With its history, its requirements, reverses, lacks, negative(s)…of which the female sex is the mainstay- Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One, 1975
This profound observation by the French feminist Luce Irigaray is, I believe, essential to any discussion of the work of female artists particularly those cultural producers like the British artist Tracey Emin who represent the female body. In this post, I will be examining 2 recent 2009 works by Emin entitled Just Like Nothing and Why Be Afraid which are now on display in her solo show, Only God Knows I’m Good, at the Lehmann Maupin gallery at 201 Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side of New York City until December 19, 2009. (This link will take you to the Lehmann Maupin site where you can see all the varied works in the exhibition. You will need to look for the 2 pieces I am specifically discussing in this post as there is no direct link to them.) This work like some of her other pieces depict Emin’s own naked body and are an attempt to chronicle and examine her own sex life through the continuing themes of love, sex and lust.
But how does a (female) artist like Emin in her representation of the naked female body depict her own desire and sexuality in the context of Irigaray’s observation. Irigaray’s comments signal the position of women as having been for centuries objects of male theorizing, male desires, male fears, male looks in both the realm of art and later psychoanalysis. How then can women reconstitute themselves as subjects if they have historically been denied this position? How can women represent and what does it mean for a women to create, to speak when as Irigaray states, all “models and laws (are) devised by male subjects”? In other words, how are women represented by women? How do women represent their own desire, a desire outside of male hegemony? And how is that representation different than representations produced by men?
With these questions in mind I want to first discuss a work by Emin entitled Just Like Nothing. At first glance the work appears to be a rapid charcoal or ink sketch of a female nude body who boldly displays her genitals to the viewer. The legs of the figure are widely spread and the right arm is behind the figure’s head further exposing the body. The left arm of the figure is at the side of the body. The face of the model is blacked out. Underneath the figure a caption reads: “You make me feel like nothing”
The line of the figure is jagged, rough and accentuated. It is not a smooth or fluid line, but one with interruptions, off shoots and seeming mistakes. When one looks closer at the work, the line which produces the body is in actuality black thread, not ink or charcoal. The figure has been embroidered onto an actual blanket. There exists a duality between the rapid look of the piece as a sketch and the labored and time consuming embroidery which purposefully created it.
This duality, I believe, produces a disjuncture between form and content which does not allow the figure to be apprehended and possessed by the (male) viewer like a traditional female nude in the history of Western art such as in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus. In these paradigmatic examples, the female nude is positioned and presented for the gaze and delectation of the (male) spectator. She invites his look and accepts her position readily and easily as a desirable and compliant object for male visual consumption.
In contrast, the embroidery of the Just Like Nothing produces a disconnect, a moment of interruption, in the viewing subject which does not allow the figure to become a male fantasy as in the Giorgione and Cabanel. The female nude in Emin’s work becomes in a sense a real and actual woman, visceral and physical, who confronts the spectator with her own desire and sexuality, her own subjecthood.
This resistance to objectness is carried out by the extreme and vigorous stitched line which makes the female nude in Just Like Nothing. It interrupts visually (male) possession. Emin’s embroidered line stands in contrast to the smooth, accessible and passive contours of the traditional female nude which allows an ease of visual apprehension for the (male) viewer, what in the nineteenth century was called “the licked surface”. Emin’s line is active, jagged, interrupted, full of (painful?) emotion; it is not easily followed and controlled by the (male) spectator. It is a line of denial and an expression of (female) subjecthood.
Moreover, in reclaiming the traditional female needlework practice of embroidery and elevating its original use to create (high) art, Emin is producing a work of female centered desire in both form and content. Form (the embroidery) serves to transform the content (female nude) of the work and differentiate it from the paradigmatic female nude of Western Art.
There is a rawness to the (female) subjecthood in Just Like Nothing which is not only the result of the form, but also the content. For example, the blacked out face of the figure stands in contrast to the accessible face of a traditional nude which is either asleep, unseen or demure and inviting. The (male) viewer cannot effortlessly ignore or seize the face of the female figure as in the Cabanel or Giorgione. The blackened face commands attention and implicates the (male) viewer in the traditional ideology of the dominant female nude.
Also, the fully and defiantly displayed vagina is visceral in its expression of sexuality and desire, a realness which would never be seen in the traditional nude where often the genitals are elided and hidden. The combination of the displayed vagina and blacked out face serve to resist and deny the (male) gaze. It signals a level of actuality (not the idealization in the traditional female nude) in which the female body fully wields her own sexuality and desire. The vagina of the figure is like a great female eye defiantly staring out at the (male) viewer, strongly returning his look and not allowing possession by that viewer.
There is, however, an element of shame evoked by the crossed out face. But this shame is imposed by the outside, by culture in which a sexually active female body must be denigrated and denied for its actions. Indeed, the caption of the work states: “You make me feel like nothing.” It is an acknowledgement of how the dominant culture seeks to subsume female desire to male needs and is also a challenge to the (male) viewer. Emin’s piece displays female sexuality and desire and simultaneously realizes the shame often imposed on women for that display within male culture, how it must be “nothing”.
Yet, it challenges this shame, this nothingness by not allowing the (male) viewer to seize the figure in the manner of a traditional nude. The female nude in Just Like Nothing controls and to a degree celebrates her own female sexuality and desire just as it deploys and elevates the traditional feminine practice of embroidery.
In her work Why Be Afraid Emin again creates the female nude through embroidery on an actual blanket to produce an interruption between form and content which forestalls the figure being objectified like a traditional nude. Why Be Afraid depicts a female figure riding what appears to be dog as it bounds up a stairway. Above the scene of the riding nude, a caption reads: “Why be afraid”. Below the scene a caption reads: “When I will be the one who carry’s you to heaven”.
The imagery of Why Be Afraid, I believe, is a further comment on the paradigm of the Western female nude, specifically the representation of the rape of Europa from Greek mythology. This subject has been depicted in various forms and mediums since ancient times. Here are 2 examples:
Europa was the daughter of Agenor, the King of Tyre. She was abducted by Zeus who assumed the form of a white bull. As a bull, Zeus swam with her to Crete where he seduced her. Within Western art the motif of Europa (exemplified here by a work by Titian and Moreau) was an opportunity to depict the female nude, a figure who was an object of not only male desire but also male control in the figure of the bull.
In Why Be Afraid, the bull becomes a dog and the reference to heaven (stairway to heaven) suggests the position of Zeus as a god. But instead of being carried away by the dog, the female nude in Emin’s embroidery controls the animal. She tightly grips the dog with her legs around its abdomen and her arms are firmly around its neck. She is riding the dog; he is not carrying her away as Zeus in the form of a bull took Europa. Perhaps Emin is saying that all men are dogs.
And indeed, there is an air falsity to the work suggested by the caption: “When I will be the one who carry’s you to heaven”. The grammatical error of “carry’s” perhaps implies that the female nude can never really get to heaven especially on the back of a dog. Like Just Like Nothing, there is an evocation of emotional pain in this embroidery. A hope to go to heaven, but a feeling that it will never really happen. Still, the work expresses a female desire and sexuality that denies the controlling (male) gaze. In both Just Like Nothing and Why Be Afraid a female voice is allowed to speak its existence and truth.
Having discussed these 2 works by Emin on the level of paradigm, I want to briefly talk about them in relation to actual lived experience. Speaking of her work, Emin states, “Through my embroideries, the line I draw is accentuated and extreme, which complements the way I think. I’m on a constant search for clarity. The title of the show ‘Only God Knows I Am Good’ references David Bowie lyrics ‘God knows I’m good, God knows I’m good, surely God will look the other way today’, Life is complicated sometimes.”
Emin’s work is in part an emotional and gritty chronicle of her own life of sex, love and lust. Her work is a testament to the fact that we all fail ourselves and others, we make mistakes, we have sex with the wrong people sometimes, we love the wrong people sometimes, we desire the wrong people sometimes, we fail to live up to our potential sometimes, but in the end we continue, we endure, we hope and we should believe that “God knows I’m good, surely God will look the other way today…”