Both Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin are well known for putting their lives into their work, and such is the celebrity status of both of the Turner Prize-winning transvestite potter and the self-dubbed “Mad Tracey from Margate” that many of their autobiographical details are already in the public domain. Nonetheless both Emin and Perry have recently been prompted to publish books that revisit and elaborate their problematic pasts.
There is no doubt that each has a powerful and poignant story to tell, but when both artists are such able communicators in other media, one must ask if these books add anything to our understanding of these artists and their art, and to what extent these books succeed as literary endeavours.
Grayson Perry: portrait of the artist as a young girl covers Perry’s first 22 years, from his earliest memory of peering at the boy next door through the fence on his Essex lawn, to 1983 when he made his first ceramic plate, Kinky sex, which Perry regards as the moment of his birth as an artist. Although the book’s “author” is Wendy Jones, it has the intimate immediacy of direct speech as it has been compiled from extensive and revealing interviews with the artist.
We learn that when Perry was four his father left home upon learning that his mother was pregnant by the Co-op milkman, an amateur wrestler who looked like “Elvis meets Tom Jones” and owned a powder blue E-type Jaguar. This watershed event marked the beginning of the “emotionally numb” young Perry’s retreat into a fantasy world in the face of an emotionally and culturally arid environment—for Perry, semi-rural Essex in the 1960s and 70s was a place of “tinny modernity” punctuated by casual cruelty. “My stepfather was soon showing his true colours,” he remarks. “My first and only nosebleed was from being whacked around the back of the head by him when I was six.”
At the onset of puberty Perry increasingly found solace in wearing women’s clothes, describing his cross-dressing as “the heraldry of my subconscious…a physical manifestation, an outwardly worn symbol of what is happening within”. With a light touch and a keen sense of the absurd, Perry’s accounts of his turbulent teens puncture many of the prevailing myths about transvestism. At the same time as he was using public lavatories for surreptitious costume changes, he was also a sporty, hockey-playing heterosexual and a keen member of the army cadet corps, who—until a perceptive teacher sowed the seed of art school in his mind—had his sights set on Sandhurst. In his life and increasingly in his art, Perry thrived on paradox: in his final year at art school in Portsmouth, he combined an enthusiasm for Celtic archaeology, motorbikes and LSD, and when he settled in the squatland of 1980s Camden, his anomalous activities continued: “pottery and nightclubs aren’t easy bedfellows”.
Perry describes this book as being “about the engine that drives me as an artist” which he would like “to hum in the background” when people are looking at his work; and certainly this funny, shocking, sad and sometimes savage account provides an eloquent and powerful subtext to the tragi-comic parade of sexual perversions, blighted landscapes and wickedly observed cultural stereotypes that parade across his pots.
Perry is knowing and self-aware, but never cynical or ironic, yet Portrait of the artist as a young girl does more than root his iconography in personal experience. It provides an acute and important insight into the complex interconnectedness of Perry’s transvestism, his artistic sensibilities and how they evolved in tandem as urgent, psychologically necessary activities.
Although Perry’s autobiography underpins his work, his work refers to more than his personal experience. On the other hand, Tracey Emin’s self and life are her art: her feelings and her experiences are her sole source and subject matter, and Strangeland is another facet of her self-obsession. Described as “part memoir, part confessional [sic]”, this book brings together a selection of Emin’s writings produced over the past two decades. Blunt, strident and uncompromising, Strangeland propels the reader through the maelstrom of Emin’s emotionally charged reminiscences and her impassioned and often ambivalent feelings on subjects ranging from sex, pregnancy and motherhood to the nutritional and alcohol-absorbing benefits of a fish finger sandwich.
The book is divided into three, “Motherland”, “Father-land” and “Traceyland” which deal with, respectively, her early years growing up in the seedy South coast seaside resort of Margate; then, her intense relationship and travels with her Turkish Cypriot father; and her more recent experiences and musings from the perspective of a successful, but no less troubled, Tracey—she describes herself as “a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless beautiful woman. I never dreamed it would be like this”.
Strangeland provides a torrent of painfully intimate information, most notably the many accounts of sexual encounters from all stages of Emin’s life—including her rape in a Margate side street at the age of 13—as well as frequent forays into the lurid world of her dreams. But somewhere in these abundant and, in the case of her dreams, excessive, outpourings, one senses that—behind the fucking, the crying, the anger and the shouting—there is something missing, something being withheld or something that eludes the artist. How, for example, did the troubled teenage drifter who left school at 13, having “discovered men, sex and nightclubs”, become the 28-year-old with a first-class fine art degree from Maidstone College of Art and an MA from the Royal College? What prompted her to commit what she describes as “emotional suicide”, and then, shortly afterwards, to re-launch herself on the artworld by writing to 80 people, asking them to invest £10 each “in my creative potential”?
From the key moment in 1992, when she repaid her 40 “investors” to her current outpouring of quilts, framed notebook pages, video and film pieces, the written word has always been a crucial element in Emin’s work. Highly effective when presented within a work of art, let loose on the page Emin’s words lose much of their power and ability to engage the reader. It is, therefore, interesting that the most compelling writing in Strangeland is the opening chapter, “Like a hook from the sky” which was originally Exploration of the souls, (1994), a text–cum–performance piece which Emin toured across the US, painting a lyrical, bittersweet portrait of Margate, evoked in all its tacky splendour as “the nub of the Isle of Thanet, thrusting like a bent forefinger from the crazed knuckle of England”.
Tracey Emin prefaces the title page of Strangeland with a quotation from the 11th-century poet Ahmad Ibu-al-Qaf: “I poured out my worries to a friend/Hoping it would make me feel better/But what I told him became an open secret/Fireflies in the dark”. Despite her book’s flashes of brilliance, the reader still feels left in the dark as to who Emin really is. She once famously declared “I need art like I need God”, but Strangeland leaves neither you—nor it seems her—any the wiser as to why this should be the case.