The Influence and Treatment of Autobiography in Confessional Art: Observations on Tracey Emin's Feature Film Top Spot

Article excerpt

Tracey Emin is no stranger to speaking the unspeakable and extending the boundaries of traditional representation. Her inspiration comes from undisguised autobiographical experience, and as she recreates the intimacies of her own life in her work, she is known for producing confrontational, shocking, and provocative pieces. Emin's disclosures focus on subjects such as sex, drunkenness, abortion, promiscuity, self-neglect, and rape. Devotees admire her frankness and disarming honesty; critics dispute her motivation and accuse her of narcissism, self-absorption, or cynical exploitation of the public's predilection for voyeurism. (1) However, each must acknowledge that her work resonates with a wide audience both within and outside the art world, and that it has substantially promoted the concept of confessional art and contributed to an ongoing redefinition of the concept of autobiography.

Much of Emin's work is linked by the common themes of disclosure and personal exploration. This paper will touch briefly on some of her more celebrated creations before focusing on her first feature film, Top Spot, which was transmitted in the UK in December 2004 by the BBC, and in which she evokes the ambiguities of adolescence through confessional film. It will look at Emin's specific portrayal of adolescence, and consider the film's autobiographical premise and influences in the context of the contemporary vogue for first-person media narrative. In the light of work by Susanna Egan, it will consider questions about the role of the addressee, and the notion that dialogism between confessor and spectator is central to contemporary autobiographies. Finally, drawing primarily on observations made by Michel Foucault and Anthony Giddens, it will comment on the inherent appeal of confessional art, and question why it appears to be especially relevant within today's society.


Emin has collected and preserved souvenirs such as photographs, letters, artwork, and other memorabilia throughout her life. This was evident in her first solo exhibition, My Major Retrospective, at White Cube, London, in 1993, which revealed a vast array of mementoes from her childhood and life to date, painstakingly framed and organized. Individual sections focused on capturing and displaying the essence of her relationship with specific people, such as "Me and Paul" (her twin brother), and the centerpiece of the exhibition was a patchwork quilt displaying biographical details in felt lettering. These included the date of their birth, together with significant words and phrases including "Hotel International" and "Cyprus." (Emin's father, a Turkish Cypriot, ran the Hotel International in Margate with her mother, but circumstances changed dramatically when Emin was seven years old, as the business folded and her parents separated.)

It was Emin's contribution to the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition in 1995 that first brought her to the attention of the general public. Her famous tent, Everyone I have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995, was embroidered on the inside with the names of literally everyone with whom she had slept, including not just lovers, but also her brother, parents, and friends, and the foetuses of her unborn twins. Her notoriety increased as a result of her drunken appearance live on a Channel 4 television debate about the Turner Prize in 1997. She later said that she hadn't realized that she was being recorded, and had thought that she was at a boring dinner party. She freely admits that for some years alcohol abuse was a serious problem, and encapsulated this in Self Portrait Reclining Drunk (2000).

However, of all her work, it is My Bed which made her a household name. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, it charts the aftermath of a relationship break-up, with rumpled sheets, dirty knickers, vodka bottles, cigarette packs, condoms, and contraceptives. Emin lost the prize to Steve McQueen, but it is her bed that the public remembers, and the confessional and disarming qualities of the piece that command attention. …