This work pays homage to the artist’s Turkish Cypriot father who, she says, is a fantastic gardener but a terrible carpenter. It consists of a wooden birdhouse-like structure on wooden stilts. The little wooden chamber has a sloping corrugated iron roof and an old wooden stepladder attached to the side which the viewer is invited to ascend in order to look through a small peephole. Inside the birdhouse a short video loop plays (originally shot on super-8 but transferred to DVD). It features Emin’s father walking back and forth through vegetation in a bright, hot sun. Wearing a pair of blue bathing trunks and a cloth sun-hat, he pushes through the fronds of tall, swaying, reed-like plants. He approaches the camera carrying a pink dahlia in one hand, which he extends towards the viewer. After smiling and blowing a kiss, he turns and walks away, his brown back disappearing into the foliage. The same footage repeats with a red flower held in the other hand. The sound of cicadas chirruping loudly in the heat accompanies the visual drama. On the floor beside the hut on stilts is a single wooden trestle, constructed by Emin’s father, surrounded by flowering plants in pots such as geraniums, clematis and lilies and a green plastic watering can. The artist has stipulated that this should be full of water because she likes the idea that she could come into the gallery and water the plants herself.
Much of Emin’s work features members of her family as well as death and depression. The words ‘the perfect place to grow’ originally appeared on Emin’s first quilt, Hotel International 1993 (private collection), appliquéd below the name of the Margate hotel once owned by Emin’s father, Hotel International. In her text work, Exploration of the Soul 1994 (Tate T11887), Emin describes the idyllic early years she and her twin brother Paul spent at ‘the giant hotel’ before bankruptcy forced her father to sell it and return to Cyprus. The separation of her parents was the impetus for a series of disappointments followed by intense disillusionment with life as a result of being raped at the age of thirteen. The Perfect Place to Grow may therefore be read as harking back to a kind of ideal beginning before the shattering exodus from childhood paradise and the severance of paternal relations. An earlier work, Emin & Emin. Cyprus 1996 1996 (the artist and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London), is a video featuring the artist and her father emerging from the sea on the Turkish Cypriot coast, providing a romantic testimony to reconnection between the artist and her father. The Perfect Place to Grow reaffirms this connection with greater power. Envar Emin not only participates as an actor; he has constructed part of the installation. His presentation of flowers represents a type of old fashioned chivalry and perhaps, in Freudian terms, a daughter’s fantasy for her father as her knight. Like Emin & Emin. Cyprus 1996, the work alludes nostalgically to the Cypriot Mediterranean climate as well as an idealisation of the father-daughter relationship.
Structurally, The Perfect Place to Grow recalls a work by French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) comprising a wooden door set in an arch of brick. Two small holes at eye level in the wooden door invite the viewer to look onto a landscape in which a female figure lies prone, legs spread and head hidden behind the wall of brick. Duchamp’s work, Etant Donnés: 1º la chute d’eau / 2º le gaz d’éclairage (1944-66, Philadelphia Museum of Art), is sinister and deathly. By contrast, Emin’s installation is life-affirming and positive. Although he is enclosed in the bird house, her father is a source of loving and giving, healing the artist’s wound of childhood separation and inverting traditionally gendered roles of spectator and object of desire.
Tracey Emin, Exploration of the Soul, London 2003
‘Tracey Emin’, Parkett, no.63, 2001, pp.22-63, p.45
Ten Years: Tracey Emin, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2002, reproduced pp.20-1 in colour