When her cat went missing in 2002 Tracey Emin displayed in her neighbourhood several photocopies of a handwritten Missing Cat poster. Many of these posters were taken down by members of the public and were subsequently valued at around £500 each. We can guess that they appeal as tantalizing bits of ephemera from the life of a celebrated artist; an appeal amplified by the resemblance they bear to Emin’s artworks in form and content, and moreover by the established ambiguity between Emin’s life and her work.
Emin’s gallery White Cube responded to the disappearance of the posters by announcing that they “are not works of art, simply a notice of her missing cat to alert neighbours. It’s not a conceptual piece of work and has nothing to do with her art.” Whatever the gallery’s motivations (personal, economic, conceptual) this announcement is in itself tantalizing, and difficult to take at face value.
The nature of this difficulty is elucidated in Ulrich Lehmann’s 2002 essay “The Trademark Tracey Emin”. He borrows Baudeliare’s term ‘poncif’ (‘trademark’) to describe the repeated pattern created through the course of Emin’s artistic practice which allows one to instantly determine her artworks as being hers, enabling one to “adjust one’s aesthetic experience accordingly and forsake any imperative in one’s possible interpretation in favour of simply arranging the work as part of [her] oeuvre” (p. 61). He goes on: “Once the poncif-pattern is repeated a certain number of times and becomes exposed in the media, an interpretive framework is established into which any subsequent artwork can neatly slip” (p. 76).
The Missing Cat posters are problematic because the moment they reach a public they are coopted by the poncif already set up by the artist, and as such they become arranged “as part of [her] oeuvre”. They are readily coopted because Emin’s particular trademark is “near-absolute identification of the artist with her work” (p. 77): work that is characterized by confessional and subjective autobiographical content that the posters also supply. We might say that Emin has created a convincing, life-sized tableau of her life, and it is difficult to exclude from this tableau anything she does or produces.
- What are the limits of the tableau? That is:
- How do Emin or those who represent her describe other public outputs that contribute to her trademark but do not appear in exhibitions? (i.e. do other public outputs provoke similar announcements from White Cube?)
- What about the items for sale in the Emin International shop? Can we distinguish here between artworks and merchandise? What can we make of the unusual move to open bricks-and-mortar and online shops in the first place? (online menu opposite)
- Who has control or all this? Lehman writes: “This framing [by the poncif-pattern] is a significant strategy for contemporary art because it permits a controlled reception of the work, in contrast to the exhaustive need for manifestoes […] as was the case with the modernist avant-garde” (p.76, emphasis mine); and writes specifically of Emin: “In the present cultural climate, redolent with unfettered artistic enthusiasm for brand names and logos, the artist can only share the success of her poncif if it appears as calculated, if the commodification of the self is knowingly tongue-in-cheek” (p. 75, emphasis mine).