Worthy winner

Tracey Emin is the ninth winner of Whitechapel Gallery’s Art Icon award
By Ella Joyce | Art | 11 January 2022

‘My Bed’ by Tracey Emin, 1998

Established in 2014, Whitechapel Gallery’s prestigious Art Icon award honours those whose contribution to their craft simply can’t go unnoticed. In its ninth year, the board have announced Tracey Emin as this year’s recipient, joining the likes of previous beneficiaries including Peter Doig, Yinka Shonibare and Richard Long. Emin will receive the award at the gallery’s annual gala in March, coinciding with an online auction conducted by Phillips of works donated by leading contemporary artists.

‘This Was The Beginning’ by Tracey Emin, 2020

With an artistic style spanning a myriad of disciplines and subject matter, be it drawing, painting, sculpture, film or photography the one thing that remains a constant in Emin’s work is its universal relevance. Drawing from the depths of personal experience and the intensity of emotion, Emin describes the central focus of her practice as being about “rites of passage, of time and age, and the simple realisation that we are always alone.”

It is these principles that formed the foundation of what remains perhaps her most famous work My Bed, made in her London flat in 1998. After a turbulent period of depression following the breakdown of a relationship she exhibited an uncensored self-portrait into the psyche of a woman in turmoil; used tissues, cigarette butts, alcohol and dirty underwear lay strewn across an unmade bed. Emin’s photographic series from the same period, Naked Photos – Life Model Goes Mad (1996) in which she took on the role of artist and model will feature in Whitechapel Gallery’s A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020, opening in February alongside works from 80 artists from the past century.

Although the majority of her work remains self-reflective, Emin’s ongoing series of neon signs that began in the 1990s has an ambiguous sense of relatability. In her largest to date, a giant pink 20-metre sentence that reads ‘I Want My Time With You’ sits below the clock in London’s St. Pancras station to greet commuters and according to Emin, send a political message to the rest of Europe post-Brexit.

‘You Touch My Soul’ by Tracey Emin, 2008

After moving back to her hometown of Margate, the Turner Prize winner is also set to establish an art school and museum, providing a sculpture park, artist residencies, lectures and, a life-drawing club for local children. Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick sites these community contributions as well as her role as a professor at the Royal Academy and her efforts with the Tracey Emin Library in Uganda as just a few of the many reasons that contributed to appointing her as the prestigious recipient of this year’s award. Blazwick said, “Our nominating committee was unanimous in wishing to pay tribute to Tracey Emin. Over the past four decades, her work across painting, sculpture, installation, film and photography has both challenged and transformed conceptions of art, gender, health and autonomy; now as one of the most renowned artists of our time, Emin’s impact can be seen globally.”

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