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Emin uses her emotional life as the source and subject matter of her art. This takes the form of narrative or documentation of traumatic events such as the death of a family member or close friend, her rape and her abortions, coupled with the direct expression of such feelings as love, hate, anger, fear and desire. Autobiographical and diaristic texts appear on her monoprints, her quilt-like wall hangings and in small publications such as Explorations of the Soul 1994 (an edition of 200); or they are narrated aloud, as in this video. Her artistic production could be seen as an attempt to find a therapeutic resolution to her damaged past and the continuing difficulties and frustrations of the present. This creative attitude is encapsulated in words appliquéed on a chair she inherited from her grandmother: 'It's not what you inherit. It's what you do with your inheritance.' By sharing thoughts and feelings of the type for which people are generally made to feel ashamed, Emin taps into collective experience in an affirmative way.
Why I Never Became a Dancer was made in an edition of ten. It invokes the artist's early teenage years spent kicking against the boredom of the seaside town, Margate, where she grew up, and experimenting with sex from an early age until she became disillusioned with men and turned instead to dancing. Beginning with the title words written large on a wall, the camera pans around views of Margate significant to Emin's past, including the school she attended, the sea front, shopping arcades and a dramatic clock tower. This sequence is overlaid with the voice of the artist narrating her story. The video climaxes with her attempt to win the finals of the local disco-dancing competition and escape to London to compete for the British Disco Dance Championship 1978.
And as I started to dance
people started to clap
I was going to win
and then I was out of here
Nothing could stop me
And then they started
SLAG SLAG SLAG
(Words from the video narrated by the artist, quoted in Brown, p.29.)
Humiliated by a group of local boys, most of whom she'd slept with, Emin discovered the hypocrisy of small-town attitudes towards liberated female sexuality. The video concludes with the artist twirling around in a large empty room to a song by Sylvester called You Make Me Feel, accompanied by her voiceover: 'Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard … this one's for you' as she spins joyfully out of their orbit. The video work is simultaneously a means for the artist to exorcise her humiliation and, literally, to transform an abusive event, albeit long gone, into something positive. The explicitly personal nature of Emin's art has pushed at the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in art in Britain. Her challenge to conventions has made visible areas of sexual and emotional experience not exposed in this country, in a fine art context, since the 1970s.
It is not known who shot the film, or whether it was scripted.
Sex and the British, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Salzburg 2000, pp.3-4
Neal Brown, Sarah Kent, Matthew Collings, Tracey Emin: I Need Art Like I Need God, exhibition catalogue, Jay Jopling, London 1998, pp.6, 28-9 and 32
Art from the UK, exhibition catalogue, Sammlung Goetz, Munich 1997, pp.63-71