In 1990, Tracy Emin underwent a “botched” abortion of twins. It is this traumatic event that provides the centre of artistic gravity at the current Hayward Gallery retrospective of her work. She approaches the subject of this abortion with a range of different media: video, sculpture, letters, scratchy monoprints, appliqued blankets, watercolours and scraps of ephemera. These different expressions conjure up acute and oblique associations with the termination. Together, they provide an artistic time capsule cementing her memory of the abortion to the physical and psychological cost of having it.
There are objects of great tenderness and emotional power: an unfinished baby shawl, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl (1998-2004), and vitrines with neat displays of baby clothes and tiny shoes lovingly created for the human life she terminated. Such objects are vehicles through which Emin can grieve her action, capturing not only the loss of innocent life but, also, the loss of the experience of motherhood.
Emin is not emotionally neutral to the abortion, far from it. There is no sense that she views abortion as just one medical procedure among others or that she is promoting an ideological stance. Emin openly recognises the reality of her actions - that she has ended a human life – and the devastating consequences of doing so. One consequence was that Emin destroyed all her work and did nothing creative for over two years. The abortion creatively paralysed her. In this sense, Emin’s experience is not uncommon to that of many women who have undergone abortions. The raw details in Emin’s work eloquently express how her intentional destruction of an unborn human life inflicted deep psychic wounds on her soul.
And it is this notion of “the soul” that Emin returns to again and again. In Emin’s artistic vocabulary, “the soul” becomes a recurring leitmotif. The 2001 neon sculpture, You forgot to kiss my soul, speaks of desires that go beyond mere eroticism. Her 1994 journey across the United States, from San Francisco to New York, was famously punctuated with readings from her book “Explorations of the Soul”. Of course, it is impossible to establish what “the soul” means for Emin. Severed from any specific religious meaning, the idea drifts and collects secular accretions. Yet, it is clear that for Emin “the soul” is not a completely meaningless concept. It is an attempt, an albeit clumsy attempt, to articulate an interior reality that is unique to Man. An invisible core and unity within us that gives our lives a distinctive dimension.
In the well-known soap opera of Tracy Emin’s life (from Margate "slag" to establishment figure of the contemporary art scene), it is the work around the 1990 abortion that truly resonates. It is a sobering reminder that most women do not have abortions lightly. They do understand the destructive meaning of this action and they often struggle to deal with the consequences of it for many years to come.
Yet, what is absent from Emin’s work (as with much of the “popular” discussion surrounding abortion) is any attempt to provide a moral context. In her twenty minute video, How It Feels, Emin candidly describes her abortion but this is done as an almost entirely subjective, feeling based description. Valuable though that perspective may be, the idea that abortion may also be considered rationally from an ethical standpoint is ignored. Instead, Emin takes the default position: “Abortion has been sanctioned. It is a given” and this is enough to give it some form of moral credibility. There is no discussion of whether this act is morally wrong. Thus Emin concludes, “I would have been so much happier had I not had the abortions, but I truly believe that I would have been so much unhappier if I had had the children." And there the moral debate appears to end in her mind. Yet this hedonistic utilitarian response means she is forced to live with an uneasy tension. And such a tension inevitably leads to a perverse rationalisation of her actions:
When I first started becoming successful, I believed I was in a Faustian pact, and in return for my children's souls, I had been given my success. I am not a Catholic, but I have a profound belief in the soul. It's only now, now that I know that it will never bas filled with strange guilt and misunderstanding of myself. I felt that my abortions had somehow been possible for me to have children, that the guilt has finally lifted. I give a lot out into the world, and I care and love for all that I create. It's a really big endeavour that extends much further than just the ego of myself.
Such muddled, relativising thinking is not uncommon. Emin uses the prevalent consequentialist language of our age where “the ends justify the means”. And yet such language looks suspect before the stark challenge of tiny shoes carefully arranged in a simple, single line.