Anyone Could Do That: The Performance of Art in the Work of Tracey Emin

Public responses to Tracey Emin’s installation ‘My Bed’ [1] include a newspaper vox pop headlined ‘Would you show your bed to the public?’ [2]

The answers that the newspaper printed revealed a surprisingly literal take on that question, perhaps because two of those asked worked for interior-decorating magazines. Thus, a designer for Better Homes declared that her ‘worst nightmare would be putting my bed on display […] I’ve moved house recently and I’ve no storage space yet in my bedroom so all my clothes are piled up on two chairs’ […].
(Merck 2002, p.121)

This ‘surprisingly literal take’ has in fact typified a negative strand of public response to Emin’s artistic output in which the ‘collapsing of the identity of the artist and her work’ (Betterton 2002, p.33) is the dominant mode. In this essay I argue that rather than being dismissed out of hand, this kind of public response needs to be integrated into the critical analysis of Emin’s output. I argue that this response to Emin’s work is co-opted into an ontological exploration of art’s boundaries associated with earlier practices of readymade, conceptual and lifelike art. Furthermore I argue that an incorporation of this strand of public reception not just into the body of critique surrounding the work but into the operation of the work itself accounts for a significant interplay between art and life in Emin’s work: an interplay that manages to evade the paradox articulated in ontological practices that precede it. I would characterize the latter as practices of conceptual and performance art of the twentieth century that take their originary form from the things and events of everyday life, and enunciate a desire to restore these inscribed artifacts back to their uninscribed state: a ‘desire to disappear as art object, whether into idea, design or everyday life’ (Newman 1999, p.206). I argue that this particular public reception of Emin’s art places it in a liminal position that eludes the institutional paradox generally at stake in these works: the paradox that ‘the very institution and discourse that permitted the enunciation of that desire [to disappear as art object] prevented it from being fulfilled’ (Newman 1999, p.206). I hope to demonstrate that by the very means of this public response, Emin’s artwork is equipped to sidestep the conditions for this paradox.

Let us first consider this institutional paradox as it presents itself through the linguistic model of inscription often used to describe readymade art (see, for instance, De Duve 1994). According to this model, the transformation of an everyday thing into an art object is brought about by the thing’s literal or notional inscription as art by the artist, its consequent display within the gallery space, and its ultimate reception as art by a public (De Duve 1994, p.70). Although materially identical, the art object is distinct from the everyday thing that preceded it. In this sense the inscription of art status is analogous to the act of naming, when at the moment of inscription the thing in itself [3] retreats, evading language altogether, and a new element intervenes to receive the name. What is named in its stead is the trace of the absent thing: the object, which comes into existence as the thing retreats. Thus in language, the act of inscription has the paradoxical effect of introducing a separation between two entities — thing and object — so as to pull them back together into a word that consequently contains this tension of separation. As Pinheiro Machado puts it:

Language can be conceived only as mediation. It can be conceived as nothing but a bridge that in trying to connect two entities that were never really separated ends up working as a hindrance to their communion.
(Pinheiro Machado 2008, p.256)

Just like a word in language, a readymade in art embodies the linguistic tension between thing and object because both entities are physically coextensive in the body of the readymade. The tension is palpable: the material body of ‘Bottle Rack’ (Duchamp, 1914) and its cultural significance as a work of art coexist uneasily in the gallery. The original thing — tarnished, used, showing signs of its function and clearly recognizable for the part it used to play in everyday life — still betrays its one-time membership of the everyday world from which it was taken, only the part it used to play has retreated out of reach: it is not to be touched, its exchange value is augmented, its familiar household function is lost. Here art, like language, is ‘a world in itself separated from human reality’ (Pinheiro Machado 2008, p.246). The particular gesture of the readymade is to acknowledge the retreat of the thing at the jolt of its transformation into art, and hence to define the art object by its resistance to restoration into the everyday world.

The claim for continuity between art and life in Lucas Samaras’ ‘Room #1’ (1964) dramatizes the desire that the originary thing might disappear as art object despite its inscription as art. The work is a piece-by-piece translocation of the artist’s studio-bedroom into a gallery space; a gesture which, crucially, the artist describes as ‘the most personal thing any artist could do’ (Samaras 1964, cited in O’Doherty 2007, p.4). To call the gesture personal despite the dislocation of the room into the inscriptive space of the white cube marks both a desire to seamlessly restore the separation of art from life — object from thing — and the impossibility of such a restoration. His claim proposes that the transformative space of the gallery might be ruptured if a sufficiently complete and convincing excerpt of real life were brought into it. But like the readymade, the moment it is notionally selected for display and hence inscribed with the label ‘art’, the original, functional studio-bedroom begins to recede from participation in the everyday world. Its transformation from thing to object is reinforced by the physical upheaval of material artifacts and their lifelike repositioning in the still space of the gallery. On display, the replication of casual disorder acquires the dead weight of deliberateness: the creased blanket on the bed, for instance, is so formally convincing that one imagines a technician insinuating each fold into the fabric and checking it against a photograph of the original room. So contrary to the artist’s ostensive claim, the installation refers back not to the real event of the room, but to the fictional nonevent of the objectified ‘room’ that came into being even before its translocation into the gallery, at the point of its notional inscription as art in the artist’s mind. We can take Samaras’ claim as a ‘dandy’s gesture:’ the image of real life offered to the public as art in a marked acknowledgement of the white cube’s power to ‘artify’ objects ‘even as massive as this studio transfer’ (O’Doherty 2007, p.5).

Allan Kaprow’s incremental abandonment of the gallery as a site for his art responds to the threat posed by the transformative space of the white cube for the restoration of art into life. He writes:

I’m put off by museums in general; they reek of a holy death which offends my sense of reality. […] Moreover […] most advanced art of the last half-dozen years is, in my view, inappropriate for Museum display. […] Museums do more than isolate such work from life, they subtly sanctify it and thus kill it.
(Kaprow 1967, cited in Meyer-Hermann et al. 2008, p.70)

If the translocation of everyday life into the gallery space fractures its continuity with the everyday world, then taking art outside the gallery and into the street presents a countermovement: a move to sidestep the mark of inscription so that everyday life might be extracted from and then restored back into the everyday world without the jolt of separation. To this end, Kaprow worked to remove not only the gallery space from art but (as with the readymade) any traditional quality that might make art ‘arty’ (Kaprow 2008, track 1). ‘Since you’re in the world now and not in art, play the game by real rules’, he announced in his 1966 lecture How to Make a Happening:

Forget all the standard art forms. Don’t paint pictures, don’t make poetry, don’t build architecture, don’t arrange dances, don’t write plays, don’t compose music, don’t make movies […]. Arrange all your events in the happening in the same practical way. Not in an arty way; avoid sonnet form, cubist multiple viewpoints, dynamic symmetry, the golden section […] and so forth. If a chicken cackles, roosts, pecks and lays eggs, take it for granted there’s plenty of form there already.
(Kaprow 2008, track 1)

But although these ‘lifelike’ events were strategically sited outside of gallery spaces and took their forms from real-life structures of time, place, practicality and chance, the events systematically returned to the gallery for display — often at Kaprow’s own hand — through anticipatory or retrospective documents, accounts and statements published in the art press and shown in art galleries, ‘even if this meant throwing into question [Kaprow’s] commitment to the living immediacy of the passing moment’ (Meyer-Hermann et al. 2008, p.27). Indeed even outside this physical return to the gallery, such a return was implicit in the artist’s notional inscription of the happenings as participants in art discourse, albeit art stripped of ‘standard art forms’. Because of their notional location in the linguistic space of the art institution (in this case the discourse and history of art), as in Samaras and Duchamp the happenings emerge denatured, ‘isolate[d]’ and ‘subtly sanctif[ied]’.

Kaprow’s later works articulate more sharply still a frustrated desire to disappear as art object. These works are much less visible, are no longer extensively documented or even documented at all, and tend to take place either privately without spectators, or privately between pairs of people. Yet these activities too become integrated into the discourse of art by strategies of documentation that retrospectively take hold of these once-intimate acts and isolate them from everyday life. In 1983 Kaprow wrote a detailed analysis of a ‘self-transforming and private’ activity that ‘was unmarked at the time as art of any kind’. (Kaprow 1983, cited in Kaprow 2003, p.212). He describes a week of daily walks undertaken by a woman who ‘chooses to be nameless’. The walks had no spectators, nor did any visible cumulative effect result. Kaprow wrote that the effect of the week’s activity ‘was manifest in her self-image, and possibly in her subsequent behaviour, not in an objective artwork’ (Kaprow 1983, cited in Kaprow 2003, p.215). His claim here is for an art that is wholly restored into life with no jolt of transformation at all, existing as art but existing altogether outside the institution of art: the woman remains unnamed, the time and place of the activity remain undisclosed, and the effect remains private and personal. But once again, it is at the point of inscription into the context and discourse — the institution — of art that the desire to disappear into everyday life is frustrated. Though she remains anonymous and did not mark the activity as art at the time, in Kaprow’s essay the woman is called ‘the artist’ and the activity is called ‘art’. His writing does not diminish the force and intimacy of the original event, but it necessarily excludes that force and intimacy from what he describes. As with Kaprow’s earlier happenings, the real life of the event is the very aspect that recedes from restoration into the everyday world.

This brief survey serves to indicate the limitations of the linguistic model of artistic inscription in fulfilling the desire these artworks enunciate to disappear as art object. The same institutional paradox is variously re-articulated in each of these artworks because in each case art emerges as a binary feature category by which a given thing either is or is not part of the set. Naturally, each strategy of inscription tested against this infinitely malleable category is integrated and incorporated into the category, hence the paradox that ‘the very institution and discourse that permit[s] the enunciation of that desire prevent[s] it from being fulfilled’ (Newman 1999, p.206).

These strategies share a general tendency away from recognizable art materials, art processes and art spaces, paring away all else until only the artist’s inscription remains as a marker of membership to the discourse of art. In contrast, although I see Emin’s work informing the same institutional paradox, her work adopts an altogether different strategy. With rare exceptions, exhibitions of Emin’s artwork make traditional — even conservative — use of gallery walls, floor space and screening rooms, and her work does not generally problematize the use of recognizable art materials and art processes.

One such rare exception is ‘Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made’ (1996): [4] a useful exception to examine because it indicates how Emin’s ordinarily traditional use of the gallery space affords her work its particular brand of reintegration into the everyday world. She spent the exhibition period naked and confined to a room-sized wooden structure within the gallery space, working on a new body of paintings. She remained in these confines twenty-four hours a day, and during gallery opening hours was on view to the visiting public who were free to observe the artist by peeping through eyeholes cut into the otherwise opaque walls. Asked whether she felt she had to perform, conscious of the people watching her, she said:

I was just me, Tracey. I had to do the work. […] [T]hinking it through now I didn’t want people I knew looking through the holes, because I would have been performing then, wouldn’t I?
(Interview with Jean Wainwright 2002, p.198.)

Emin’s own assessment of the work is important here. She asserts that rather than performing, she is ‘doing’ work. The work she refers to is not a live performance of painting, but rather the work of getting the paintings ‘done’. Indeed, she disparages a decision to title the documentary photographs ‘The Life Model Goes Mad’, as it implies a performance rather than a painting project (Wainwright 2002, p.198). She is not a performer, she says: she is ‘just me, Tracey’. She goes on to explain that aspects of the work were designed with personal catharsis in mind:

I was naked during the day so I had to get over my hang-ups about my body […] I had to get over my hang-ups about being in the dark and being alone, and my hang-ups about painting and my hang-ups about having this termination […] and if I could make one good painting then I would have forgiven myself for the termination […]. So that’s the most important thing with this room. It’s about my experience, the transformation for me at the time.
(Interview with William Furlong 1997)

This flat denial of the project’s performative nature cannot be taken at face value, given the gallery setting; the peepholes looking onto a theatrical setup of a studio and living space; the possible references to durational gallery-based interventions including Vito Acconci’s ‘Seedbed’ (1972) and Tehching Hsieh’s ‘One Year Performance 1978-1979 (Cage Piece)’ (1978-79); and perhaps also given Emin’s assessment of the exhibition as ‘a very clever set-up [for which she] never got proper credit’. (Wainwright 2002, p.198.) Clearly a gallery-based performative element is present in this work, and its presence is clearly contested, or deflected, by the artist herself.

‘Exorcism’ is unusual among Emin’s works because it sites within the gallery space, and within a single work, the two essential elements of her corpus that are normally held apart: her practice, and what we might call her ‘metapractice’. We can characterize her practice (in ‘Exorcism’ denoted by the series of paintings produced) as the videos, objects, paintings, drawings, sculptures and, in this case, performances sited in the gallery space. Her metapractice (in ‘Exorcism’ denoted by the live presence of the artist) consists of Emin’s public profile as a person and as an artist. The live element internal to ‘Exorcism’  — along with the performative tension, denial or deflection outlined above — has since migrated outside the frame of art, and this external positioning is crucial to the way her work navigates the boundary between art and life to sidestep the paradox articulated by earlier ontological practices.

As we will see, Emin’s work co-opts this external position in a way that puts pressure on the binary distinction set up by the linguistic model of artistic inscription: that a given thing either is art or it is not. Because of this, it becomes useful to supplement the linguistic framework of thing and object with the anthropological framework of indicative and subjunctive modes of restoration. This latter framework permits a discussion of the relation between art and life unrestricted by a categorical division between language and non-language, art and non-art. In the context of anthropological discourse, Schechner (1985) sculpts interlaced axes of indicative and subjunctive modes of behaviour that navigate in a nuanced way the distinction between everyday life and its restoration through theatre, ritual and art. These axes allow us to plot along diverse continuums the operation of Emin’s art, its reception, and the forms of behaviour within which its reception takes place.

The video piece ‘Why I Never Became a Dancer’ (1995) is exemplary of the way Emin’s works operate between indicative and subjunctive modes to support a ‘collapsing of the identity of the artist and her work’ (Betterton 2002, p.33): a conflation that becomes an important structural handle for the popular reception of Emin’s work. The video shows her in an unfurnished room, alone apart from an unseen camera operator, dancing and spinning exuberantly to the disco song ‘You Make Me Feel’. This amateurish footage is supplemented with images of her home town and a voiceover by Emin describing a public and humiliating episode from her teenage life that saw her jeered off the stage during a dance competition. The work suggests another exorcism, this time of a past experience: a grown-up reenactment of the dance competition in conditions so changed as to scratch out what came before in a cathartic and personally transformative manner. In a final pronouncement of triumph, defiance and perhaps erasure, she concludes the video by listing the names of men who humiliated her: ‘Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard … this one’s for you’. The original event that the work draws upon — the real moment in the indicative past — is not restored and never can be, but the event is nevertheless brought forward into the present time. To borrow from anthropology, the original past event has been ‘broken down and […] “inscribed” upon’ (Schechner 1985, p.99), creating a new version of the past event situated not in the indicative past but the subjunctive past: a virtual, mythical or fictional version of that event, a ‘past that never was’ (Schechner 1985, p.38).

It is this subjunctive nonevent that is restored in the performance: not the original thing but the object it becomes, and moreover an object sufficiently distinct as to fold back against the original and co-opt it for the purposes of the present. The force of the pronouncement ‘this one’s for you’ hinges in large part on the present success of the artist. It implies a conspiratorial wink at the gallery audience: a gesture that consolidates the power of the artwork to simultaneously connect and hold apart two versions of an event that, in Pinheiro Machado’s words, ‘were never really separated’. In this way ‘Why I Never Became a Dancer’ structurally typifies Emin’s gallery-based output, which draws upon and inscribes events from the indicative past and restores them into the present as altered subjunctive versions of the past. This structure is significant because of the way it precipitates the conflation of the identity of the artist and her work, and because it does this in a way that co-opts a dominant mode of experience in the contemporary culture of which it is part.

The conflated identity of the artist and the work is repetitively — even systematically — reinforced in Emin’s practice as it exhibits a range of tensions between indicative and subjunctive pasts and indicative and subjunctive presents. As we have seen, the relationships of representation and restoration between Emin’s life and her art are ambiguous. Moreover, what we know of Emin’s life surfaces not just through her gallery-based artworks, artist publications, and the press coverage that surrounds them, but through diverse media channels including news reports, interviews, gossip columns, Emin’s own newspaper column and several newspaper lifestyle features. [5] Consequently there is no clear distinction between what we know through Emin’s prolific gallery-based practice and what we know through her equally prolific metapractice, and it becomes impossible to distinguish the subject ‘Tracey’ from the artist ‘Emin’. Attempting to distinguish between them is critically unrewarding; the important fact is that they are indistinct. This conflation of the artist, the subject and the work shifts the whole operation — the practice, the metapractice, the ‘Tracey’ and the ‘Emin’ — into the subjunctive mode of restored behaviour. This is not to describe Emin as a performance artist, which she is not. When asked whether ‘Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made’ ‘could be revisited in a different way’, Emin replies:

I would just do paintings now; I’ve done that bit now, haven’t I?
(Betterton, 2002, p.199)

The distinction this remark implies between the performative aspect of the work (‘that bit’ she has now ‘done’) and just doing paintings (which she would do ‘now’) is further evidence that performance has migrated outside the frame of Emin’s artistic practice since ‘Exorcism’. [6] With the subjunctive frame settling outside of — and hence containing — the frame of her artistic practice, we can understand Emin’s particular position as this: Emin is performing the role of artist. As an artist, the work she makes is not performance, but as a person, what she does is perform being an artist.

Here we return to the ‘surprisingly literal take’ adopted in the newspaper discussion of ‘My Bed’. I would argue that the dominant strand of popular criticism levelled at Emin’s work — that ‘anyone could do that’ [7] — is, on the face of it, exactly spot on. The performative circumstance in which the work operates is precisely the premise that it is work that ‘anyone could do’. [8] The exceptionally visible and intimate public profile of the artist means she appears first and foremost as a person in the world, and it is from this position that she produces her gallery-based work. In this way, the things and events Emin puts into galleries successfully effect a restoration or disappearance back into the everyday life from whence they came. The conditions for the institutional paradox are eluded because the tension has been squarely shifted from the interplay between thing and object to the interplay between the viewer’s conflicting indicative and subjunctive experiences of the work. Finally, here lies the catch: the public domain into which the artworks are restored becomes host to the paradox sidestepped by the work itself.

The effect of this shift is to task the viewer with the management of the paradox: a task that is alienating because it asks the viewer to stake their own membership of the indicative world in order to accommodate the conflation of indicative and subjunctive modes of restoration embodied in the person of Emin: a figure that is also ostensibly part of the indicative world. The site of performance in Emin’s work is particularly provocative because it co-opts a mode of experience already ‘on the increase’ (Schechner 1985, p.94) in the contemporary culture it participates in: a way of experiencing everyday life that is more subjunctive than indicative.

It often feels as if we can no longer experience anything if we don’t first alienate it. In fact, alienation may now be a necessary preface to experience. […] Much of our experience can only be brought home through mediation. The vernacular example is the snapshot. You can only see what a good time you had from the summer snapshots. Experience can then be adjusted to certain norms of ‘having a good time’. These Kodachrome icons are used to convince friends you did have a good time – if they believe it, you believe it.
(O’Doherty 1976, p.52)

This retrospective adjustment of experience ‘to certain norms’ is its inscription into objecthood, at which point the subjunctive ‘good time’ comes into being. The transformation of the self into objecthood has swollen in the decades since O’Doherty’s 1976 analysis of the summer snapshot. The ubiquity of digital imaging technology puts the means for image-making continuously at hand, and the ubiquity of channels for online distribution and exchange brings with it the knowledge that everyday life can be alienated and inscribed through photography, video and status or location updates (often written of oneself in the third person) and then restored in continuous online streaming that spans indefinite time and space. This narrative becomes conflated with the immediacy of everyday life as the frame between them becomes indistinct. When a reviewer skeptical of Emin’s Hayward retrospective ‘Love Is What You Want’ concedes that ‘All you can do is see each individual painting, film or object as a fragment of a multimedia biography-in-progress’ (Dorment 2011), a comment following the online article supplies an appropriate parallel:

Multimedia biography in the making?  […] Facebook is full of multimedia biographies in the making.
(Ana Veler, 2011)

Veler’s exact alignment of Emin’s output with the vernacular output of a Facebook account is exemplary of the denial of art status levelled at Emin’s work (and implicit in the newspaper vox pop cited above). This rejection of the work as art is simultaneously an affirmation of the work’s uninscribed participation in the everyday world: an affirmation that completes the performative curve initiated in the conflation of artist and work, and supported in the parallel conflation of indicative and subjunctive modes in the experience of everyday life. The ontological strand of Emin’s work borrows not from the structure of conceptual or lifelike art but from the structure of the celebrity brand, the holiday snapshot or the Facebook ‘biography’. Rather than problematizing the jolt between the indicative and subjunctive modes, the operation of her work conceals the jolting altogether: both the jolt between practice and metapractice, and the jolt between metapractice and everyday life. While Emin’s work is by no means entirely or even primarily ontological in scope, the ontological ground it covers in exploring the boundary between art and life is precisely dependent upon and responsive to this negative strand of popular critique. Emin’s performance as an artist remains effective as long as the artist, in her own words, ‘never [gets] proper credit’.


About this essay

‘Anyone Could Do That: The Performance of Art in the Work of Tracey Emin’ develops my 2011 article entitled ‘The Inscription of Art and Everyday Life: How Being Slips into Performance’, published in activate, 1(1) (Spring 2011).

activate is a peer-reviewed electronic journal in the field of performance and creative research based in the Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance at Roehampton University, London.




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[1] Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain), London, The Turner Prize Exhibition, 1999-2000.

[2] The Independent on Sunday, 24.10.99.

[3] The ‘thing-in-itself’ — as distinct from the object or trace-object that results from the human act of representing the thing-in-itself — reformulates the Heideggerian ‘Ding an sich’, the unknowable thing-being of an unobserved and unrepresented being. (See Heidegger 2001, p.117.)

[4] Galleri Andreas Brändström, Stockholm, Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, 1999.

[5] To indicate the range of press and media coverage featuring or endorsed by Emin: a much-publicized disruptive television appearance (The Death of Painting, 1997.); a six-item list for an In My Handbag series, including ‘Zovirax, £5.99’ and ‘Vivienne Westwood insect brooch: I use them if my T-shirt is ripped – much more elegant than a safety pin!’ (The Guardian, 2002.); a long-running newspaper column My Life in a Column (The Independent, 2005-2010.); a dedicated episode of a television documentary series tracking celebrity family trees (Who Do You Think You Are?, 2011.).

[6] In light of this discussion it is notable that the work was shown two years later as a static installation (Scottish National Gallery for Modern Art, Edinburgh, 20 Years, 1998.).

[7] This phrase is recurrent in non-specialist online discussion forums, of which I list a sample: ‘Anyone could do that. Why would anyone want to buy something that they could draw better themselves?’ (Coxy 2011.); ‘Anyone could do that. If I create a pile of posters that say “good morning” in black capital letters, will I get them displayed in an art gallery as an important work of art?’ (EchidnaZ 2005.); ‘With Tracey Emin’s unmade bed literally anyone could do that.’ (Wolfgang 2009.).

[8] It is important to note that the claim that ‘anyone could do that’ overlooks the technical accomplishment evident in much of Emin’s gallery work: an oversight facilitated by the deskilled aesthetic of the work.