Tracey Emin

Exploration of the Soul


Not on display

Tracey Emin born 1963
Ink, graphite on 32 papers and 2 photographs, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper
Support (Text Pages): 295 × 210 mm
support (Photo): 300 × 210 mm
frame: 377 × 287 × 20 mm
Purchased 2004


This work comprises framed sheets of blue A4 notepaper on which Emin has written a poetic text recounting significant moments in her life up until the age of thirteen. It begins with a celebration of the endless cycle of life represented by nature (the sea, the stars, the sun, the earth’s rotation) and human love-making, as an introduction to the passionate encounter in which the artist imagines her and her twin brother Paul’s conception. The following page describes birth, laying the ground for future depression: ‘The moment of my birth into/ this world I somehow felt a mistake/ had been made – I couldn’t scream or/ cry or even argue my case – I/ just lay there motionless just wishing/ I could just go back – Back to where/ I had came [sic]’. The tension arising from the coupling of beauty and pleasure with pain continues throughout the text as Emin describes the twins’ uncanny closeness and their frustration at being too special and too spoilt. She recounts their adventures growing up at the ‘giant’ Hotel International, where they had moved at the age of six as a result of her parents’ unorthodox relationship: a love affair between an English woman and a Turkish Cypriot property-developer, both married to other people. The pregnancy resulting in Emin and her brother was an accident and was nearly aborted. In Emin’s text, the end of the Hotel International idyll and her parents’ relationship leads to sexual experimentation between the children and disturbing attentions from her mother’s new lover, heralding the beginnings of anxiety and despair. As they grow up, the twins gradually grow apart, the separation an inevitable source of pain. Ridicule and rejection from other children, sexual exploitation by a ‘big brown hairy man’ and the loss of her front teeth after being head butted by Paul precede the traumatic culminating event of the text. The artist’s rape at the age of thirteen had a devastating emotional effect: ‘for me my childhood was over – I had/ become conscious of my own physicality – Aware/ of my single presence – I had become open/ to the ugly truths of this world –/ And at the age of thirteen I realized there was a/ danger in beauty and innocents [sic] – I could not/ have both –/ This would be something I would/ battle with for the rest of/ my life.’

Emin wrote this thirty-two page text over an intensive ten-day period. She published it in an edition of 200 and traveled around America doing public readings from it (see Outside Myself (Monument Valley, reading ‘Exploration of the Soul’) 1995, Tate T11888). Having trained as a painter and printmaker at Maidstone College of Art (1983-6) and The Royal College of Art, London (1987-9), Emin destroyed all her work in 1990 after an unusually complicated abortion caused her temporarily to abandon making art. Thinking that she could perhaps become a writer, in 1992 she embarked on her first public writing endeavour, inviting people to invest in her creative potential. In return for the sum of £10, the investor would receive three letters from the artist. The gallerist Jay Jopling was so impressed by her potential that he hosted the artist’s career-launching, solo exhibition My Major Retrospective at his London gallery, White Cube in autumn 1993. Here Emin exhibited over a hundred objects she had collected over the years, including teenage diaries, souvenirs, toys, paintings, drawings, tiny photographs of destroyed work, unsent letters to boyfriends and relatives and assemblages of family memorabilia. Since this time, writing has been central to Emin’s practice, appearing in such text works as Tracey Emin CV 1995 (Tate T07632), in her drawings and monoprints, accompanying framed souvenirs and appliquéd onto quilts and other objects. Emin has consistently based her art on the story of her life. Family members, dead and alive, are frequently the subject of the work. The pain of separation from her twin brother is recounted in a work, Me and Paul 1963-93 (private collection) and on fabric appliquéd onto a chair titled There’s a Lot of Money in Chairs 1994 (White Cube, London). The first page of Exploration of the Soul also appears on this chair. Enlarged prints from childhood photographs of the artist and her brother are displayed as part of the original version of Exploration of the Soul, in the centre of the installation. The book was republished in 2003 by Counter Gallery, London in an edition of 1000. Copies of the photographs appear in both publications.

Further reading:
Tracey Emin, Exploration of the Soul, London 2003
Neal Brown, Matthew Collings, Sarah Kent, Tracey Emin, exhibition catalogue, South London Gallery 1997, p.37
The Turner Prize 1999, exhibition brochure, Tate Gallery, London 1999, [pp.4-5]

Elizabeth Manchester
November 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.


  • Tate Etc

    MicroTate 2

    Jennifer Wiseman , Neal Brown , Lisa Appignanesi and Paul Noble

    Contemporary reflections on a work in the Tate collection

You might like

In the shop