How is Personal Experience Depicted in Art?
Over time, the subject and contents of works of art has changed dramatically. In Ancient Greece, 600BC, they based their sculptures on the idealistic form with perfect proportions, both in figure and architecture. Much of the art was modelled on Greek Gods, so a lot of the content was mythological, based on belief rather than any direct experience. It was the work, not the artist, that was important, and most artists weren’t even acknowledged for their work.
2000 years later with the advent of Renaissance, all this changed. Suddenly the artist became important. As well as religious artefacts, paintings and sculptures began to depict real people, and the most skilful artists were revered and sought after, so the first celebrity artists were born. Today, successful contemporary artists enjoy considerable notoriety and have a great deal of autonomy in what they produce, many proving self-indulgent, strongly-autobiographical work with very little social responsibility.
Tracey Emin is one of those artists. She says that her work ‘is my way of trying to explore and understand life’ , and many of her artworks reflect and delve into the emotions that are personal to her, but which are also relevant to modern day society.
Almost anybody can relate to lust, love, anger and loss, which she regularly depicts in her work. Some of this addresses events in her life that some may find disturbing or frightening, such as rape and abortion; these taboo subjects are not often portrayed in works of arts, but the strong visual imagery and the text that accompanies much of her work give background and intense personal involvement to the situations portrayed. As a result, the very inner core of her emotions are on display, encouraging the viewer to engage, understand and related to the story.
Cliff Lauson, author of the essay Love Is What You Want says, ‘while much of her artwork insists upon a continuous encounter with the most intimate details of her life, the themes, stories and situations therein also relate to more generalised and everyday experiences’ . Many of the public won’t have had the same highly charged emotional experiences that Tracey Emin has had in her life. I think that it’s because of this that she depicts events as much more ‘everyday than one would expect, helping her audience to relate to the work but recognise its deeper significance.
In my work I would like to experiment with using my own life experiences as the basis for my creations. Although dissimilar to Emin’s encounters, mine will hopefully resonate with the viewers who will probably have had similar experiences to which they could relate, and may feel the love that I do, or otherwise, for similar objects or people in their own lives.
One piece of Tracey Emin’s work that illustrates her deeply personal subject matter is ‘How it Feels’, 1996, a film exploring her failed abortion in graphic detail. Watching this at her exhibition, Love Is What You Want, I was surprised at how easy it was to put aside the moral and social issues that accompany abortion, and instead focus entirely on Emin and how she dealt with it. The close ups of her awkward, writhing hands suggested the deeply emotional upheaval she was feeling and prompted me, the viewer, to feel a greater empathy for her. Although most of us in the room may have never, and would never have to go through what she had, she was giving us the opportunity to share in her experience and consider wider social implications outside of our own comfort zone. Almost all conscious, pre-conceived prejudices were left behind for at least the duration of the film, and on leaving I felt as though I knew the real Tracey Emin better for the experience, which I believe is what she’s trying to achieve.
However, not only does Emin dis-alienate the viewer from more harrowing events in her life, she also gives meaning to some that may appear more trivial. One area of the exhibition entitled Memorabilia pays homage to ‘everyday’ items of life. In this installation she uses seemingly everyday objects of no great significance to anyone by herself; China and plastic ornaments that were presents to her mother that she disregarded as such, an upholstered chair of her grandmother’s that she (Emin) travelled the world with, and tubes that were taken from the hospital after one of her abortions. The significance of these objects were only achieved after reading the accompanying text, all of which was hand-written, sometimes pages long. I think that by including text, Emin was able to ensure that the viewer couldn’t misinterpret her intention, and encouraged me to again share her experiences in order to fully understand her reasons for placing these artefacts in front of us. Although must of the text was descriptive, only touching occasionally on how she felt, being hand-written I felt a more intimate connection with her and her work, appreciating that some comment were viciously-scrawled whilst others were gentler, more subdued and understated.
This can also be seen in her appliques, particularly ‘Hotel International’, 1993, where scrawled anecdotes about her parents meeting each other and reminiscences of her home above the ‘KFC’ in Margate are sewn, graffiti-like onto the fabric. In this way, Tracey Emin could be described as a text-based artist. Another element of her appliquéd work that interested me was her use of traditional crafts, especially in her appliques. For me, the inclusion of a medium that’s relatively ‘homely’ portrays the events that she describes in a softer, more innocent light, creating juxtaposition between the subject matter and the media used.
Melanie McGrath says of Tracey Emin that ‘She challenges us to think of writing as a visual art, and visual art as a kind of text’ It’s this concept alongside her personal approach that I wish to explore in my own work. I have taken and gathered my own photographs on subjects that are personal to my own life, including memories and anecdotes. Some of these I have recorded inside my sketchbook which I intend to use as an accompaniment to image-based compositions.
Another such artist is Robert Rauschenberg, although he portrays the events in his life less explicitly than Emin. ‘His art always seeks to communicate directly with the audience’ , and his juxtaposition of text against images results in his presentation of work to the public in a visually interesting way. One example of this is the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Alongside word, dates have also been included in his artwork, shown in some more personal pieces of work like Roci Malaysia, which includes the date of the event, signifying that some of the understanding of the piece comes with knowing when it happened.
Many of Rauschenberg’s pieces from his ‘Posters’ series are collage-style, and printed, which has enabled him to use many different media to create the final outcome, including the use of offset and photomechanical printing. Image and objects are titled, mirrored and overlain on top of one another to produce complex compositions, which, similarly to Emin’s work, encourages the viewer to analyse his artworks from all angles to draw their own conclusion. In my work I would like to achieve a similar effect, possibly through the use of painted images with text and photographs.
In addition, I’ll adopt the ‘personal experience’ pathways that both Emin and Rauschenberg have communicated in their artwork, and incorporating the traditional-crafts medium that Tracey Emin has included in much of her work.
Following my decision to base the project on my own experiences and after photographing subject matters personal to my own life, I’m looking at ways to present my research photos using varying mediums. These include drawings, machine embroidery, oil and acrylic painted pieces and painted overlays.
One of my main areas of interest is creating a composition with depth owing to a collection of layered images, similarly to Rauschenberg, so using a medium that would allow for the image beneath to still be seen clearly was an area of consideration. As a result of this I’m experimenting further with machine embroidery, which I’ll be able to ‘draw’ over the top of other painted images with. This would also fulfil my plans of using multiple media, in particular traditional crafts, within my artwork, so this technique seems ideal for inclusion within the project.
I’m currently following two main pathway subjects, one being my dad and the other being my dog, Madeline. These have become front-runners as they’re both family members, although in differing ways, and have therefore had a very strong impact on my life. My research regarding my dad was based at his clock shop, where he runs his own business of selling and repairing antique and reproduction clocks. My decision to base it here was drawn from that being the place where he spends much of his time, doing something that he has a passion for, and where I often see him myself. The clock shop, for me, has a very homely feel and is a place where I often see other family members as well as his colleagues, which I believe is quite rare in our society, where many work in large corporations with their children hardly knowing what their parents do at work. For this reason, and that I look up to him for his hard-working and resilient attitude, I wanted to show my dad in this setting, but have also included other aspects, like his MG classic car and his motorbike incorporate his leisure time, giving a more rounded view of him.
My dog’s inclusion in this project was due to her being an integral part of the family albeit an ageing one, and I want to capture her comfort-bringing nature within the family at her age. Initial research photographs were taken from a country walk with her as well as around the house, which give an overall impression of her. Initially I was planning to drop this pathway to focus on just my dad, but following the death of my dog during the project I wanted to include her jointly within the project as means of remembering her, and her death was another experience that impacted upon the whole family, as described in. The main focus of this project will be interpreting the warmth that these two characters bring to me and my family, and the application of Rauschenberg’s often bright colour schemes within my own work will hopefully produce this effect.
To create a composition with similar depth to Rauschenberg’s I’m incorporating images within my work that has relevance to the subjects being portrayed. I’ve taken photos of interesting features of clocks and their faces, which gave me the inspiration to use these types of images in a machine embroidery layer as there’s quite a lot of ‘white space’ within many of the clock faces which could be left blank for the image beneath to be able to be seen, and like Rauschenberg’s use of white space I could use this to highlight and link areas of my final composition.
My final composition draws inspiration from both Emin and Rauschenberg and combines subject matter from both my dad and Maddy. My dad situated as the background shows him as the backbone to the piece, as he is in our family, and painting his face in a tighter style than the other background areas emphasises his presence within the piece. Madeline in the bottom corner, but in a heavier, more expressive painting style isn’t situated in this position solely due to composition practicalities, but also implies her social standing; although she’s doesn’t give a rigid structure as such to the family, she’s always been dependable and holding her own among us.
Painting the background and foreground in different styles with different media also helps to separate the images and give them their own standing within the composition, helping to prevent the two from blending together. The use of strong vertical and horizontal lines from the left edge of the painted foreground, the clock in the background and the machine embroidered clock help to create a stronger composition too, breaking up the piece into geometrical shapes, ultimately leaving space for my dad in the background.
I’ve also included written text within the final piece, a phrase that’s related to my dad working at a clock shop – ‘My dad owns an antique clock shop, which means our house is filled with them. Hardly any of them tell the correct time.’ I’ve tried to form a phrase that would be reminiscent of Tracey Emin, so I’ve written it ‘short and sharp’ like much of the text on her appliqués, but trying to keep the handwriting soft and free-flowing to retain a warm feeling overall. This is also machine embroidered onto the piece along with the clock face, which draws influence from her use of traditional crafts within her work.
In my opinion this final piece does depict my personal experience, albeit in a fairly subdued style. It includes characters whose initial link won’t seem apparent, but the written text at the top of the page helps to hint to the links the piece with my own life, as is often the case with both Emin and Rauschenberg’s work.