by Rochelle Roberts
"The idea of being forced to be alone rather than choosing to be. This aspect of Emin's work has resonated throughout my life"
In the corner of the hut, she sits with curved shoulders, her arms hinting at something in her lap, the skin on her back light-flooded. Around her neck, the glint of gold, a scorpion shaped tattoo on her left blade, an indistinguishable mark on her left bum cheek.
We cannot see her face, can only wonder at the things she is feeling. Are her eyes open or closed? Does she look sad or peaceful? Her posture is suggestive of silent prayer; her head bowed. It is as though the hut is a kind of sacred space to be alone. And from this, perhaps the light on her back has a holy luminescence; its source divine.
Around her are white-washed walls, white paint flaking off to reveal the wood beneath. The paint flakes are echoed in the floor beneath her feet, specks of it stand out against the dark brown. We do not know the story; it is only hinted at. All we can know is the melancholic mood, the blue hue.
The photograph The Last Thing I Said to You is Don’t Leave Me Here II (2000) by Tracey Emin, and the feeling of solitude it brings, has been a source of inspiration to me, and a photograph I keep coming back to. I too have been lonely. The title of the photograph seems to hint at abandonment, that the isolation of the figure is not voluntary. I think it is this aspect, particularly, that has resonated with me throughout my life; the idea of being forced to be alone rather than choosing to be.
In 2017, while still at university, I wrote a poem inspired by this photograph. In the poem, I reimagined the hut as some kind of forced prison and narrated a story in which the speaker had been abandoned there by a person they thought they knew and trusted. The white walls act as a barrier between the two and serves to alienate the speaker through sensory deprivation, causing them to feel as though they are going mad. I used the title of Emin’s work as a constant refrain throughout the poem, slightly modifying it each time to develop the shifting feelings the narrator has at being abandoned. It moves from questioning (“why did you leave me here”) to accusation (“but you still left me here”).
I’m stuck in this room
decaying white walls
that I scrape away at
mindlessly, as I shift
from medicated dreams
to manic insomnia.
I thought the last thing I said
to you was don’t leave me here.
My eyes bleed as I try
to remove the demons
creeping through my lashes.
The droplets stain the walls,
fingerprinting my frenzied panic
echoing the last thing I said to you.
Why did you leave me here?
The air is intoxicating,
shifting from breathlessness
I’m sure they poison me here.
And you, fiendish whisperer
have felt my fear
witnessed its brutality
its shifting manifestations
but you still left me here.
At the time, I was grappling with my own feelings of abandonment and a constant fear of being left alone. I hated my own company, there was no distraction from the obsessive thoughts. I found it easier to be around people, even if sometimes I didn’t want company. And at the same time, I was worried that my friends would desert me because I was not likeable or interesting or kind.
Recently, I have been thinking again about this photograph. Over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time inside, staring at walls that are bare and encroaching, that weep curls of off-white paint in graceful arcs. I have been staring out of windows at the world and feeling apart from it. Sometimes I have gone for walks which have made me feel good. I look out across the water by the docks and it feels wondrous. I examine flowers and trees and the petals and leaves are smoothly soft beneath my fingers. But I still hold a lot of reluctance to going out. It is ultimately safer in this room I am in, even if I feel locked away.
Tracey Emin took the photograph of herself in the beach hut she bought with Sarah Lucas in 1992. She is naked, her hair falling in front of her shoulders. This nakedness reflects the bareness of the walls. The derelict surroundings remind me of some photographs by Francesca Woodman where the artist appears in abandoned spaces, hiding behind wallpaper or creeping across the floor. But The Last Thing I Said to You is Don’t Leave Me Here II has a quieter, more contemplative feel, which is coupled with a feeling of pathos. The photograph is the second of a pair, the first version showing Emin in the same hut. She is kneeling on the floor in side-profile, her left hand bent towards her body as if it is going to touch her face, her right gripping her knee. We can see her face in this version, her eyes closed in a way that is almost like surrender. The Last Thing I Said to You is Don’t Leave Me Here I (2000) feels to me less sombre. Possibly because we can see Emin’s face; she is not hiding from us in the same way that she is in the second version.
Although I no longer have the same level of autophobia as I did when I wrote my poem in 2017, I still prefer others’ company. Spending extended amounts of time in a room, working, relaxing, sleeping, has caused a prolonged sense of being closed in. I’ve almost forgotten what it is like to spend the majority of time away from home, with friends, with colleagues. I miss not having to think about how to get from one place to another. I miss the easy way I could catch a train to see a film or look at art in a gallery. I sit hunched over in my room writing. I am alone.
Rochelle Roberts is a London-based writer. Bylines (both poetry and non-fiction) include Porridge magazine, Lucy Writers Platform, Visual Verse, Severine and Eye Flash Poetry, amongst others. She has a great love of visual art, and writes about it often. Follow her on Instagram