Tracey Emin: British Art's national-treasure-in-waiting

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Tracey Emin on Margate Beach, July 1997 Tracey Emin on Margate Beach, July 1997
Posted: Wed May 11 2011

Over a long, hot, April weekend in Margate, Tracey Emin - with the help of another Kentish luminary, Jools Holland - launched Turner Contemporary, the UK's newest public gallery, to the world. Yet the phalanx of photographers and members of the public queuing to snap Emin or get her autograph made it seem as if she were the real attraction (Emin's turn to show at the gallery comes in May 2012). Ahead of her major show, 'Love Is What You Want' Emin is so in demand that it could have been the Queen, rather than the bad girl of Britart, cutting the red tape. Even securing this interview over the course of several months has felt like requesting an audience with Her Majesty.

But there's not a shred of pomp when I meet her in the flesh. After a punishing few days of emotional, celebratory homecoming, it's a visibly drained Emin who greets me, after a power nap at her brand new studio complex in Spitalfields (she's called London home since leaving Margate at 15). However, she's no longer prone to the hedonistic benders that led to an infamous, drunken appearance on a live television debate after the 1997 Turner Prize - 'That all feels like a million years ago,' she tells me - and to her equally legendary portrait of an unhappy comedown, the dishevelled 'My Bed' of 1998. Charles Saatchi, the canny collector responsible for the starburst of Young British Artists that placed Emin as their female figurehead, owns that pile of unwashed bed linen, cigarette butts and bloody knickers, but will not be lending it to her Hayward retrospective.

'It's become a nightmare for conservators,' she says of the work. 'There's a big discussion at the moment because so many museums have wanted to buy it off Charles, but how do they retain those stains?' She doesn't mind that we won't see this iconic piece in her survey show, because 'My Bed' will instead form the centrepiece to Saatchi's own exhibition to mark London's Olympic year in 2012, and because she has become so wedded to that work and to her tent - 'Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95' (1995) - that it's a relief not to have to talk about them (she also refused to have the tent remade after it was burnt in Saatchi's storage fire of 2004, despite the Chapman Brothers' tongue-in-cheek offer to do it for her).

Emin's post-weekend mood soon brightens as we sit down to chat - although, within five minutes, talk turns to abortion, one of her most painful and persistent topics. It might seem there's nothing we don't know already about Emin - she insisted, for example, on being photographed naked in the bath in her council flat for her first ever press interview, written by Sarah Kent and published in Time Out in August 1995. Nothing is off-limits, as anyone who's read 'Strangeland', her 2005 memoirs collection, will confirm. The harrowing passages on childhood escapades and teenage scrapes that led to abuse, rape and abortions must count among the most revelatory and harrowing confessions in any sphere of public or cultural life.

Unsurprisingly, her troubled youth toughened Emin, but the intervening years of relative prosperity and success haven't dulled a reputation for speaking her mind. Indeed, after our charming sit down, she gently chides me for getting facts wrong when she appeared in a Time Out Live talk that I hosted during her last London show, in 2009. What I prefer to remember about that night was how she deftly illustrated our discussion with live drawings on an overhead projector and how each 30-second squiggle or demonstration of her uncanny ability to write upside down and in reverse (she still can't spell particularly well) was greeted by spontaneous applause from the packed house.

This is what continues to surprise me most about Emin: not that she's created some of British art's most memorable work of the last 20 years, in her heartfelt blankets and brutal neons, but that she has become such a well-loved figure in this country. She represented Britain at 2007's Venice Biennale and is doing so again at the Southbank Centre's 'Festival of Britain' (which includes a photo from 2000 of her running naked
down the street under a large Union Jack). Is the once-radical artist in danger of becoming an establishment symbol? Only one way to find out…

Are you turning into a national treasure?

'There's still enough people out there who hate my guts.'

Do you think people are more aware of what you do - they don't just talk to you about the bed or the tent?

'Yeah, definitely. And people have a much better understanding of what art is now, compared with 20 years ago.'

The rawest material of your life is a long time ago. Is there a danger of your work softening because your current situation is so different?

'No. I had a pretty fucking rough year last year - really rough: my boyfriend left me, my dad died and I fell down the stairs and smashed all my ribs. “Woe is me” was an understatement last year. So I don't think those things change very much, it's just how you deal with them. And one thing is for sure: I am still angry, even if I'm not an angry young woman any more. The anger that I had being a child or an adolescent is further away, but if it comes out then it's subconscious. Last year, I really wanted to do some abortion drawings because, if I'd have had those children, they would have been 20 years old by now, but I couldn't. Six months later, I was in Australia and I was doing a small drawing on some notepaper to say thank you to a friend, and a perfect abortion drawing came out. I was in a really good mood and I just wanted to make a nice little present, but these things can come out subconsciously.'

Do you judge yourself more by your life's failures than by your successes?

'Living without love and being alone - without children, without a husband and without all those things that so many people think are imperative to survive as a human being - means that I tend to see things on the outside looking in; almost from an existential point of view. Now I'm nearly 50, I can look back and question the loss of those things, whereas when I was 30 I wasn't aware that I'd lost them at that point.'

Is your work like therapy in that way?

'Yeah, of course: it helps - but it doesn't just help me, it helps other people too. Someone in Margate was telling me that they looked at the abortion work and realised that they had never told anyone that they had an abortion, and there they are telling me. It's quite healthy.'

That subject doesn't come up very often in pop culture, does it?

'No. Loads of people lie and say they had a miscarriage to get sympathy - because, if you have an abortion, people will say it was your choice. But no woman wants to have an abortion unless they are deranged.'

People seem to genuinely warm to you.

'In Margate I signed 700 autographs - for little kids and girls wanting to be artists - on bags, flags and paper cups. It's good for art, isn't it? It's not about my ego.'

Do the public think they know you?

'Yes. It's like when people think soap opera characters are real - they get cut off from the work on the walls and the fact that I'm an artist. The amount of people on the street that want to hug me, or maybe they want to give me a hug, I'm not sure… There's this dialogue out there, with taxi drivers who say, “Oh, you're the artist, my wife thinks you're great,” and “You're much prettier in real life, love.” '

Do you ever put on a persona or is it more honest than that?

'Honest, guv? Yes, it is honest, but that Tracey Emin character you're talking about is quite smiley and friendly and I find that exhausting, because often I just want to snap at someone.'

Did you title your first ever show at White Cube in 1993, 'My Major Retrospective (1963-93)', because you were afraid you might never have another exhibition?

'Yeah, and now this is it at the Hayward: my mid-career survey show. First I was
really excited, then I got nervous thinking that I don't need to do this great big stupid show and that I'm going to get really slagged off. I even started dreading it, though I knew I couldn't postpone or back out of it. I decided that simpler was stronger. So there's no subtlety to the show: people will be able to tell what I do immediately.'

You've also made some major new sculptural pieces - towers and plinths - that have never been seen before.

'They're part of a family of more abstract sculptures that I've been doing for a while now. But, because it was all rock 'n' roll and wild young things, people picked up on that side and ignored my other side. I dream about towers made of crystal. Just the other night, I dreamt that I was walking along a spindly jetty in the sea and this giant, 250ft tide of blue water was coming in and I was trying to get back to the mainland. I haven't had time to make that piece yet but I have a much bigger scope in what I am capable of doing now, although I still use materials in a feminine way.'

What's the story behind the piece 'Running Naked' (2000)?

'Mat [Collishaw, fellow Young British Artist] and I were in a show called “Sex and the British” so I wanted to make a new work by running down the road naked, with a Union Jack, at about six o'clock in the morning. I could never do anything like that now. It would be impossible - you'd have to close off the road. Anyway, we filmed it and I decided that it was too stupid and never used it. Then I started thinking about the “Festival of Britain” and these ideas of Britishness and the political climate and I thought: Yeah, it's Union Jack time again…'

Have you been caught up in Royal Wedding fever?

'Showing that Union Jack with my bum? Evidently I have! Not really, and I'm not going
to do Kate Moss's wedding, either - that story is not true. I'm not a wedding decorator, am I? But I do like the idea of all the street parties and old-fashioned fun. Anyone can moan
and be cynical, but we need a bit of a party at the moment.'

The arts have been dealt a heavy blow by the Coalition. Do you still support them?
(In 2010 she told New Statesman that she had voted Conservative in the election.)

'If Labour had been in power, the cuts would have been a thousand times worse, I promise you. The ICA was cut by 40 per cent, but when I talked to [new director] Gregor Muir he was delighted - he thought they were going to be closed down. There's a vibrant art scene in the UK and I think that's what the Coalition has recognised. They made a mistake with the Film Council but I spoke to a lot of people and they are much happier than they thought they were going to be. Art and culture might not be as important as the welfare state but they are the soul of a country and a soul has to be looked after. If you have a government that understands that, you're in a much better position. I went to a small dinner at 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister and he said, “The good news is we appreciate everything you've done in the last ten years. The bad news is there's no money there to show you.” '

What's your relationship like with young artists just starting out in the art world?

'Quite good, actually. I've got to choose the artist to decorate the Olympic plane for British Airways [apply at www.ba.com/greatbritons]. It's exciting and scary because I've judged a few things before and felt I'd made a real mess of it, so this time I want to get it right. I'll have to go to their studio and discuss the ideas but it should be easy - because, no matter how much you like someone's work, it's got to go on the side of a plane. The Great Britons project also goes well with everything I'm doing at the moment.'

I've noticed you giving back much more…

'I paid for a library to be built in Uganda. I sent the books over, I got the computers, the solar electricity, everything. It's got my name on it. And Louis Vuitton [her show's sponsors] are going to do an exchange project there with children from London. I think art is making
a difference to people's lives now.'

Your first neon was your name in lights, for 'The Tracey Emin Museum (1995-98)'. Now you have enough work to create that museum, what would it look like?

'You're in it. I've built this 3,000 sq ft studio with a swimming pool in the basement. This building will be like a museum when I die, with everything exactly as I leave it. Students will have access to the archives. I don't have children, so I don't want to do all of this for nothing.'

You once made your own coffin, and your series of 'Little Coffins' (2002) is included in your show…

'I want to have a funeral pyre on the edge of the sea in Margate. Archers on the cliff will shoot arrows in flames that will set me alight and the waves will take my body away.'

But your work is not as morbid as that of Damien Hirst or the Chapman Brothers.

'I'm more obsessed with life. I made “Death Mask” in 2002 and someone said, “I've never seen a death mask look so alive.” You can almost see my smirk. At the moment I feel the happiest I have in a long time because work is going well; the shows are going well. I even thought about doing a PhD in myself. You can do Tracey Emin Studies at Canterbury University, so it would be interesting to see whether I'd pass or fail.'

Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want' is at the Hayward Gallery from Wed May 18-Aug 29 2011. She is giving a talk at the Purcell Rooms at 7.30pm May 23 2011. Until June 11 2011 Time Out readers can get £5 off full or dual membership to the Southbank Centre. Call 0844 875 0071 and quote 'Time Out membership offer'

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