‘Emin’s blankets are voice-works. It’s as though they were hung out and caught language as it passed through them, from tiny detail to huge declaration’ (A. Smith, ‘Emin’s Emendations’, in Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 2011, p. 27).
‘Craftwork presents a simplicity and security not often associated with sensation. Through the action of “sewing” out her stories, Emin adds an extra personal touch to her work, making it more believable and genuine. She is literally spinning the yarn of her life: ancient diary entries, love letters, childhood memories, conversations she’s never forgotten. It’s storytelling in the tradition of folk art, patching security blankets for healing and nurture’ (P. Ellis, quoted in C. Saatchi, P. Ellis, 100: The Work that Changed British Art, London 2003, p. 209).
Meticulously hand-stitched in a subtle palette of dusky rose and cream, It Always Hurts is an outstanding example of Tracey Emin’s renowned textile works which engages in the deeply personal vernacular that the artist is most celebrated for. Exhibited in the artist’s critically acclaimed retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 2011, the work combines Emin’s signature intimate confessions with florid declarations in block capital letters and elegant handwritten missives. At the centre of the composition, an embroidered figure bends over, surrounded by urgent statements picked out in bold letters. ‘Be with whoever’, reads one message; ‘you stop me from feeling anything but myself’, states another. Part of Emin’s seminal series of appliquéd blankets that, since 1993, have played an integral and definitive role in her groundbreaking practice, It Always Hurts operates within the same arena of candid self-expression. Simultaneously sensual and angry, bitter and emancipated, Emin’s visual rhetoric is presented in contradictory layers, fusing art and autobiography. Executed in 2005, the work was exhibited in the same year at Emin’s solo exhibition, What I Think About Sex at White Cube, London, which marked a turning point in the direction of Emin’s oeuvre, replacing the bold, bright palette that had characterised her earlier blanket works for delicate, pale shades and creamy hues of white and pink. ‘I wanted to do something I could live with in my own home’, claimed Emin (T. Emin, quoted in C. Higgins, ‘Tracey Emin takes a new look at herself’, in The Guardian, 27 May 2005).
Within a hugely diversified output it was Emin’s textile-based works that first catapulted her to international acclaim, and which continue to play an integral role in her practice. Coming to prominence in the early 1990s with the hand-made items sold in the Bethnal Green shop she shared with Sarah Lucas, in 1995 Emin created her notorious fabric tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995, shown by Charles Saatchi in his seminal 1997 exhibition, Sensation, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Poetic and profane, Emin’s blanket works continue the rich legacy of her diaristic oeuvre, positioning the viewer as both voyeur and confidante of the artist’s emotionally charged monologue. Each blanket starts off working with what Emin knows, ‘It’s about very, very simple things that can be really hard. People do get really lonely, people do get really frightened, people do fall in love, people do die, people do fuck. These things happen and everyone knows it but not much of it is expressed. Everything’s covered with some kind of politeness, continually, and especially in art’ (T. Emin, quoted in S. Morgan, ‘The story of I’, in Frieze, no. 34, 1997, p. 60). Rendered in the same blanched palette as the blanket’s background, in It Always Hurts the usually declamatory emphasis of Emin’s outpouring becomes an almost pleading whisper that, nevertheless, retains all the power of her intimate confessions. Slogans of declaration and accusation, both imperative and imploring, feature alongside fragments of Emin’s own familiar italicised script, transforming the work into a polyphonic mood-board of deeply personal revelation. In its contrapuntal articulation of diverse emotional registers, It Always Hurts showcases Emin’s celebrated use of the blanket as a unique vehicle for her own contemporary storytelling. Like a page from a diary – what looks, at first, like a stain from a coffee mug, on closer inspection is revealed to be an embroidered circle of sperm – Emin’s patchwork quilt, with its image of a woman exposed from behind, lays bare the artist’s profound strength and vulnerability.
In their innovative use of textile media, the blanket works reinvent the tradition of handicraft that fuelled the feminist art of the 1960s and 1970s. Resonating with the autobiographical work of Louise Bourgeois, an artist whom Emin greatly admired, the appliquéd blankets subvert the traditionally held view of sewing as a feminine craft. Often created using recycled fabric from Emin’s past – sofa coverings, hotel sheets, fragments of clothing – they merge personal introspection with the punchy one-liner aesthetic of advertising billboards and protest banners, navigating seamlessly between the public and the private. In this capacity, they continue to represent one of the most iconic strands of Emin’s practice.