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There's Money in Chairs!

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February 26, 2014 at 01:48 PM

Tracey Emin is one of England’s most well-known multi-talented artists, a celebrity in her own right, and one never afraid to expose intimate details of her personal life! Besides several other significant and path-breaking artworks by Emin, her experiments with fabric – using patchwork, embroidery and appliqué – are very interesting. Her Nan’s armchair which came to her in legacy was also decorated with fabric-work and later sold to a buyer to clear off her debts. This piece on the green armchair gives an insight in to Emin’s life and style. 

© Courtesy of sources & research

Besides being a sharp visual artist who has perhaps explored every medium under the sun – Tracey Emin is a writer, columnist and an intrepid entrepreneur of rare courage and skills. After she finished her Masters from the Royal College of Art in 1989, she conceptualized an elaborate scheme ‘inviting people to invest in her creative potential’.  People did, and with the money she collected, she put up her first solo exhibition in 1993, rather audaciously titled Tracey Emin: My Major Retrospective 1963-1993, held at White Cube Gallery, London!

It is with the same spirit of entrepreneurship that she must have first looked at a green, upholstered armchair that was given to her by her grandmother as a legacy. Emin came from a family background that was fraught with several and severe uncertainties. She and her twin brother, Paul, were illegitimate children born of a British mother and a Turkish-Cypriot father. They faced social ridicule and financial insecurities and Emin’s childhood and teenage years were wracked with emotional and physical trauma, though as a born survivor, she could elicit moments of great joy and happiness as well. These moments often came from the deep closeness she shared with her brother, mother, father, her maternal grandmother (Nan), and her friends. 

The green upholstered armchair, as an actual physical entity, was seen by Emin as an opportunity where a legacy could be encashed just as material legacies conventionally are. It is an unusual and innovative way to look at a worn piece of furniture that did have a strong emotional connect but would, over a period of time, physically deteriorate and perhaps be eventually relegated to the attic, if not junked. By then Emin had already started making the appliquéd blanket artworks using her own and her parents’ clothes and scraps of household furnishings, creating a patchwork collage of cryptic words, dates, phrases that were often autobiographical in their content. The armchair was identified for similar treatment by Emin. Its fabric-based upholstery was like a readymade canvas-blanket on which Emin stitched/pasted text. On its back, she told her own life story in handwritten patches and appliqué. 

The work was finished in 1994 and Emin titled it ‘There’s a lot of Money in chairs’, exactly what her grandmother is supposed to have said when she gave it to her. “A few years ago my Nan gave me a small green bucket-shaped arm chair. It’s not that special to look at, in fact, it’s a bit shabby. My Nan is 93 now and the chair is nearly as old as she is. When she gave me the chair she told me: ‘There’s a lot of money in chairs’. I believe she is right. I’ve decided that this chair is my inheritance – an inheritance to my future. I have decorated the chair with patchwork, embroidery and appliqué. It tells the story of my life.” Emin has appliqued “Thanks Plum” at the base of the chair since grandmother and grandchild called each other Plum and Pudding respectively. 

Emin traveled with the chair to the USA in 1994, along with Carl Freedman, her then boyfriend. They drove from New York to San Francisco in a Cadillac making stops on the route where Emin often sat in the armchair and gave readings from her autobiographical book Exploration of the Soul.  This helped finance the trip. 

Emin later sold the armchair to a buyer who continues to allow her to come in and sit on the chair and be with it as and when she feels like it. In that sense, Emin still ‘owns’ the armchair. But the proceeds from the sale took care of her numerous debts, especially related to her art education and helped her move on and ahead in her life. What more could a legacy be expected to do? 

She explains how it is important for the artist to be able to sell artwork with such significant emotional and personal capital, to the ‘right’ buyer. She had the choice to hold on to the armchair that symbolized in material terms the deeply-felt relationship she had with her grandmother. But then she would have still been entrenched in her debts, a not too happy prospect. On the other hand, if it was a buyer who would have disappeared with the armchair, maybe she would have never forgiven herself for commercializing that memory and reducing a relationship to a fistful of pounds.

Designer : Tracey Emin
Photography :Sources & Research

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