Strangeland, by Tracey Emin

The artist as victim, pinned to the page
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The Independent Culture

Tracey was a neglected and needy child, who hated school so much she stopped going at 13. Studying art at Maidstone and then the RCA changed her life. Emin's art is marked by literalism, masochism and demotic energy. Her work is sometimes kitsch, like her neon sign "You Forgot to Kiss my Soul", and often vulgar. "Fuck school. Why go somewhere to be told your late everyday", (sic) one drawing muses.

Emin has made all her "weaknesses" both the conduit and the content of her art. Her installations have a raw insistence, a forlorn forensic poetry. Her exhibitions often include fragments of text - spidery, fiercely misspelled missives, in an uncertain hand that calls to mind the desperate scribblings of an illiterate, an alcoholic, or a suicide.

As an "autobiography", Strangeland fails abysmally. Emin writes, in the conventional sense, very badly. Her grammar and sentence construction are shoddy; she works with a limited palette in terms of vocabulary and technique, and is self-obsessed and unperceptive. Fascinating stories are briefly glimpsed - particularly around her parents' mercurial affair and her mother's subsequent elopement- but Tracey has little to tell us about anyone but herself. This is a collection of recycled fragments and many extracts are familiar from her films and installations. Robbed of their multimedia context, these writings lose their qualities.

But to dismiss the book on these grounds would be to misunderstand the nature of Emin's literary intervention. Her writing wants to be art rather than literature. Readability and complexity are not Emin's goals. She's after an unmediated immediacy. Emin's writing privileges authenticity over craft, choosing a clumsy and sensationalist exploration of victimhood.

Perhaps the most poignant and least familiar aspect of Strangeland is Emin's exploration of her Turkish Cypriot heritage. This section is a disquieting palimpsest of alienation and ignorance, woven out of interviews with her father, her dream and travel diary, and recollections of her affair with a Turkish fisherman "old enough to be her father".

Her father's reminiscences are bizarrely eroticised and it's hard to tell to what extent there is irony in either the paternal delivery, or her reception of these orientalist fantasies. Mr Emin's interpretation of history is similarly lurid. Apparently the Ottomans gave Cyprus to Queen Victoria because "she spent one night in Istanbul at the Sultan's palace". The linguistic skills he passes to Tracey are equally limited: "Get away. Fuck off. Conveniently the only words of Turkish that my dad had taught me." Only he hadn't. "Defel. Gitorer" don't mean get away and fuck off. They mean nothing at all.

Tracey's patrimony is a collection of incomprehensible phrases, flimsy fantasies, paternal estrangement and clichéd romance. She boasts that she reads widely but never gets to the end of a book - and she runs out of steam with her writing, too. Although she stands before us in all her vulnerability, offering us her warmest, darkest weaknesses - her abortions, her conflicted feelings about her body and motherhood - the book becomes rather dreary and fizzles out in recollections of holidays, of food poisoning on a cruise up the Nile, and a trip to see Munch's Scream.

Emin's writing, without images to accompany it, has little of the soiled rawness of her art. Rather, it can sit neatly on the shelves beside Dave Pelzer's ghoulish memoir A Child Called 'It': in the victim-lit aisle, right next to self-help.

Alev Adil's 'Venus Infers' is published by NE Publications

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