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English Rose was made at the instigation of Carl Freedman, an independent curator and writer, and a central member to the group of artists who came to be known as the 'yBas' (young British artists) in the early 1990s. The three female artists all work in a variety of media, including video, and this is their first and only collaborative project to date. The video satirises the glamour and media publicity surrounding the yBa phenomenon (which arose because of the rapid and highly-acclaimed success of this group of artists) and is a light-hearted parody of the artists' individual personalities and artistic activities. It comprises three parts: in the first Tracey Emin acts as Georgina Starr; in the second Gillian Wearing appears as Tracey Emin; in the third Georgina Starr is Gillian Wearing. In each section, personal characteristics of the artist being played are comically exaggerated, with the addition of some highly fictional material which blurs and confuses the individuality of each artist. This results in three interchangeable personalities who together make up the 'English Rose'.
In the first part of the video Emin as Starr sits in Hoxton Square, East London (an area where many of the artists of the yBa group congregated at the time) talking on her mobile phone to international galleries. Her assumed 'posh' accent has no foundation in reality, and highlights the irony of an artist whose work is concerned with self-obsession and self-publicity (Emin) pretending to be someone else. A further layer of irony has been added retrospectively: today Emin's international reputation is as great as the one she fantasised about, as Starr, in 1996. Her stated intention to spend an afternoon making work, which will then go out to be shown in major museums all over the world, satirises the notion of casual art production from an artist whose persona and status guarantee high public acclaim, whatever the quality of the art.
In her role as Emin, Wearing is interrupted in bed with Freedman (Emin's boyfriend at the time) by a call from a film crew who want to film her in her museum. The camera follows her to the Tracey Emin Museum in south London where she explains her work and dances alone in front of a photo of Emin in America. Her version of the artist is neurotic, overly-precious about her work (she shouts at a cameraman for touching it) and childishly sentimental. Freedman, here appearing as himself, proves an unsupportive and self-interested character, who unsympathetically demands his girlfriend's return to bed.
Starr, in her Wearing persona, waking up in bed, complains that she has been focusing too much on other people in her art-making and not enough on herself. At the time Wearing was known for work in which she used people she had approached on street corners or whom she had contacted through personal advertisements. She claims that her hair-style has been taken up and imitated by the fashion world, reinforcing the theme of the ego-inflated artist-star played by Emin ('I'm a "starr", get it?') in the first part of the video. Further retrospective irony has been created through Wearing's real-life law suits against advertising companies for using her ideas in advertisements shortly after the making of this piece. Freedman here acts 'Lancy the photographer' who adores everything she does (Freedman as himself is usually extremely sarcastic), and the video ends with her posing melodramatically for the camera to the sounds of the Rolling Stones.
In its entirety the video is self-ridiculing at the same time as being self-glamourising, and relies to a large degree on the viewer's knowledge of the artists and the context of their social scene for appreciation of the finer points of humour. However as a portrait of the female young British artist, the comedy of the video may be enjoyed without knowledge of individual characteristics. The traditional 'English Rose' is a national icon of romanticised and idealised femininity. English Rose offers a ridiculous contemporary alternative. Stills from the video together with excerpts from the text later appeared as a project in the form of a double-page spread in Frieze magazine (no.31, Nov.-Dec. 1996, pp.56-7).
Frieze, no.31, Nov.-Dec. 1996, pp.56-7
Brooke Adams, Sensation: young British artists from the Saatchi collection, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1997
Sarah Kent, Shark Infested Waters: the Saatchi Collection of British art in the 90s, London 1994