Tracey Emin’s art is self-obsessed, profane, attention-seeking and frequently funny. And the woman herself? Nigel Farndale meets the artist as she prepares to make an exhibition of herself in Oxford
At last the entry buzzer sounds and Tracey Emin’s face – foreshortened, pinched, small behind big sunglasses – appears on a video monitor on the wall of her 60ft-long studio, a former sweatshop in the East End of London.
As she waits for her PA to open the door she chews on her cheeks, purses her lips, looks over each shoulder in turn. It is mid-afternoon. She is sorry she is an hour and a half late. Been asleep. Jet lag. Got back from New York yesterday.
She says all this with a smile like a tenpin strike in a bowling alley. It is a disarming smile; a schoolgirl’s; a knock-jawed, snaggle-toothed schoolgirl. At 39 Tracey Emin is too fast to live, too young to die – it says so on the long black T-shirt she is wearing over jeans ripped at the knee.
Her skin is olive; colouring she gets from her father Envar, a Turkish Cypriot who says he has fathered 23 illegitimate children. Tracey, whose mother Pam, a blonde East Ender, was Envar’s mistress for ten years, reckons the real total is more likely to be 11.
A table runs almost the length of the studio, scattered with works in progress, some destined for ‘This is Another Place’, her first solo exhibition since 1997 which opens in Oxford next month; there are photographs, scraps of material, collages, spiky figure drawings.
Although Emin studied painting at the Royal College of Art – she won a place there despite leaving the secondary modern school she attended in Margate without any qualifications, having been a truant from the age of 13 – she soon became disillusioned with it. She turned instead to conceptual art, installations mostly, using a range of media including video, neon, embroidery, patchwork and the written word – her work often being based around a single punning phrase.
Her PA has said she needs to make a final selection from the photographs laid out on the table. The gallery is getting desperate. Task completed, Emin taps a couple of pills out of a bottle of Advil, pops them in her mouth, pulls the ring on a can of Red Bull and takes a swig.
She then hands a stack of letters over to her PA. One of the envelopes, she says, contains another fucking demand for payment for those fucking blood tests she had done. She has already paid the fucking bill but they keep sending reminders. Every fucking week. Some computer fucked up, probably.
Blood tests? “What happened, right,” explains Emin, “this summer I couldn’t have a holiday because of all my fucking deadlines.” She says this quickly, with dropped ‘h’s and ‘g’s, in an Essex accent undiluted by years in London.
“I was really distressed. Herpes outbreak every 20 seconds. Lesions on my face. Eating my face away. Steroid cream. I couldn’t concentrate and was pulling my hair out. So I had some tests.”
Being persecuted by a computer for unpaid blood tests sounds very Tracey Emin. Imagine if she threw the letter away and someone retrieved it from her bin – they could claim it as an artwork, I suggest. She frowns. “No, they couldn’t. Some students sent me a letter saying they were going to come and get my bins, right? And I said if they do I would fucking kill ’em.
“It wouldn’t just be a case of taking legal action, I would grab hold of them and personally slap them. It would be a real invasion of someone’s privacy to do that – unless you were Liz Hurley trying to get a sample for a paternity DNA test.”
She laughs gummily, her dark eyes creasing into a single line.
Hey, I say, maybe art dealers of the future could solve questions of attribution that way: they could run a DNA test on the stained sheets she uses in one of her exhibits, for instance. Another frown.
“You wouldn’t have to because my signature is on my artworks. It’s like when my cat went missing and I put up posters and people started collecting them. My name wasn’t signed on them. And people stole them to try and make a profit and I thought that a bit off.
“I was really upset. If I say it isn’t art, then it isn’t art. It’s like there’s loads of stuff I want to get rid of and I thought I could go down Brick Lane and have a market stall, but people will collect a pair of my shoes and an old CD box and put it all together and say they have a Tracey Emin. But it wouldn’t be because I wouldn’t have authentised it. What’s the word?”
Authenticated? “Right.” She yawns without opening her mouth and rattles her bottle of pills absent-mindedly. Does it give her pause for thought that it would be pretty hard to tell apart a Tracey Emin that she had created and a Tracey Emin that someone had cobbled together from going through her bins?
“No, you’ve got Andy Warhol time capsules, right? He got a load of things and put the date on them. And you could say they were just things he collected and they weren’t art. But they were art because Andy Warhol knew specifically what he was doing.”
She got annoyed not long ago when someone asked their friend to write to her saying they were terminally ill and could she send a photograph with her signature. “I did and wrote them a nice letter, and they framed it with the photograph and put it in an auction and sold it as art for £2,000.”
Has she ever, as an experiment, tried to get away with calling a non-art object, her coffee mug, say, art? “No, I’m not interested in that. But I challenge all the people who paint pictures of ponies in the New Forest to call what they do art. They might paint pictures but that doesn’t make them artists. You have to have integrity about what you are doing. You have to be able to justify it to yourself.”
Good point well made. But doesn’t it sometimes feel as if she is cursed with a Midas touch when all she has to do to turn an everyday household object into a valuable art object is to say that it is a valuable art object? “No, ‘course not. The bed took a bit of persuading. Still does in some quarters.”
Ah yes, the bed; the art work of which she is most proud. In one of his recent columns Craig Brown wrote, “If Tracey Emin were put on earth for anything, it was surely to make humorists redundant.
“A few years ago, I wrote a jokey piece about her, inventing a spoof exhibition called ‘I Want To Die Now, Alone and Mouldy, Hating Everyone, Always and Forever’ in which her main exhibit was called Skid Marks on Clean Linen. A month later she exhibited her unmade bed with soiled sheets for the very first time.”
If non-gallery-goers hadn’t heard of Tracey Emin before My Bed – stained sheets, old newspapers, used condoms, ashtrays, empty vodka bottles – they couldn’t help but hear of her afterwards. It was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 and bought by Charles Saatchi for a rumoured £150,000.
Some thought it risible, others said it showed Emin was attuned to her times. Is she sick of defending the bed? “Not really because I will have to carry on doing it as long as I’m alive. It’s my bed and I will defend it. Do you remember those two Chinese men who jumped up and down on it?”
Yes, very funny that. She gives me a perplexed stare. “I didn’t think it was. I should have pressed charges against them. You can’t go around destroying other people’s property. I cried. I did not think it was funny.
“Someone violating my artwork and my space for their own publicity. Fuck. You know. A lot of my income would have gone if the bed had been damaged, because people wanted to buy it. That artwork was not a joke and it wasn’t to be laughed at.”
“It depressed me because the bed was the result of a “Galileo” moment. Me thinking of the bed out of the context of my bedroom. There it was. Every time I had to install the bed I had to go back to the place where I was when the bed was like that, in my head. I was delirious. Hadn’t eaten for four days. Just been lying in the bed depressed. I was nearly dead from lack of water. Then I saw it. Boom!!”
Does she ever wake up and think the world has gone mad? “No.”
Does she ever think she has gone mad?
“I have. I think, in terms of giving up and having some sort of breakdown, yeah, that’s happened to me. Some f-ing journalist said, ‘Oh, I bet Tracey Emin will commit suicide if she doesn’t win the Turner Prize.’ What a terrible thing to say. They wouldn’t say that about a Booker Prize nominee.”
Maybe it’s because people know so much about her, things she has let them know, through the autobiographical elements in her work? And one of the things they know is that she once tried to commit suicide by throwing herself off the harbour wall at Margate, while drunk, after a botched abortion.
“Yeah, but how many other people out there have tried to commit suicide? Some people might have found it helpful that I brought that up in my art, because they would know they were not the only ones feeling suicidal. Doesn’t mean I’m a raving fucking lunatic.”
“It’s like if they see the abortion work I’ve done. So many people don’t talk about their abortions, then six months later they crack up.”
Ah yes, the abortions. A doctor told Emin she was sterile after a bad attack of gonorrhoea in her teens, but then, at the age of 26, she became pregnant and had an abortion. Not long afterwards she had a second abortion. Did holding her predicament up to public scrutiny, through her art, help her overcome her guilt about it?
“Yeah, lots. I felt so fucking guilty. The reason I did was that the doctor at the time made me feel guilty by telling me I would make a wonderful mother, refusing to sign the papers.”
Was he right, does she think, in retrospect? “No, ‘course he fucking wasn’t. He would have been right if he had signed the form as soon as I had said, ‘I cannot have this fucking baby.'”
“Then I would have had the termination after six weeks instead of waiting three and a half months, which was a million times worse. Of course I felt guilt, because I had this fucking thing growing inside me. He even showed me a photo of his child. He could have been fucking struck off. I wouldn’t have been able to look after it, you see, because I was living on 12 fucking pounds a week.”
I meant was he right about her making a good mother? She grins. “Yeah, I’d be brilliant. But not then. I am a good mum to my cat. I would be a better mother than my mum was to me.”
Would she like to have children now?
“I’m not trying. I would like to adopt. But unfortunately adoption is very difficult in Britain. I wouldn’t pass the vetting procedure, with my history. I used to reckon, when I was drinking a lot, that if I had a baby I would leave it in the pub and not realise till next morning.”
Tracey Emin’s reputation as a hard drinker was consolidated in 1997 when she took part in a Channel 4 arts programme while, as she put it later, ‘totally shit-faced’. She was so drunk she thought she was in someone’s front room, and staggered off the set with the words, “You’re all boring me. I’m off to phone my mum.”
“I’ve been drinking since I was 13. I don’t think I was ever bad enough to go to AA and that, but if I had carried on like I was, I would have been very ill. Matt [Collishaw, her boyfriend, an artist] said if I carried on drinking spirits, he was going to leave me.
“So I stopped drinking spirits in 1999. Just drink beer and wine now. I became very thin because eating is not a priority when you drink. You fill up on Guinness and have diarrhoea constantly. It wasn’t just the health, though, it was the mood thing. I was just so volatile and jealous. I got nasty.”
So when she is sober she is suppressing her nasty side?
“No, I am a nice person. How I am with you today is how I really am, nice. But I am nasty when I’m upset, or angry, or pissed off, or someone has really fucked me over.” She lights up a cigarette.
“Everything gets blown out of proportion when I’m drinking. What I think of as a conspiracy is actually just my fucked up lack of comprehension. Totally paranoid and missing the point.”
In a way, Emin’s public escapades became inseparable in the public imagination from her artistic endeavours, which were, anyway, autobiographical. In this she was indeed attuned to her times, the art world in the 1990s often appearing a triumph of publicity stunt over artistic accomplishment.
These days Emin can be seen in the society pages: posing in Vivienne Westwood, arriving at an opening, a première, a glittering party. She claims she doesn’t like having her photograph taken: is it because when she looks in the mirror she doesn’t like what she sees?
“No, not often. That’s changed because I had an eye operation a couple of years ago, and my perception of myself is better than it used to be. I was really badly short-sighted, dangerously so. Kept having bad accidents because of the vast amount of alcohol I drank. I had to go this close [she holds her hand up to her face] to a mirror to see myself so I always had a really distorted view of my face.”
Perhaps this is why she describes herself as having ‘a full moustache and a unibrow that has to be plucked regularly’. Her teeth make her feel self-conscious in public, too. They went awry due to a combination of calcium deficiency at birth and being head-butted by her twin brother Paul when she was 13. She had a plate fitted for her top ones when she was 18, but gave up on the bottom ones.
“They kept trying to put crowns in but they wouldn’t stay in so I just had these gold pegs hanging down. So horrible. So I used to cover my mouth with my hand as well as going around with really squinty eyes because I couldn’t see properly.”
Are the confessional elements in her art the equivalent of basket-weaving in a lunatic asylum, a form of therapy?
“I do feel the need to do all that but so do lots of artists. If I hadn’t found success as an artist when I did, I don’t know, maybe I would have died, that is what my mum thought. It’s a gift. I am a genuinely creative person whether it’s, like, tidying my drawers at home or doing my collaging here.”
We know the names of everyone Tracey Emin slept with up to 1995 because she sewed them on to a tent, called it Everyone I’ve Ever Slept with 1963-1995, and exhibited it as art. There were 100 names, and they included family and childhood friends as well as lovers.
We know, too, that she was raped aged 13 down an alley round the back of Burton’s in Margate because she has written about it. The autobiographical themes in her work; all true?
“How can they be? I edit constantly.” She takes a puff of her cigarette. “What is the truth when you are 20 it very different when you look back at it at 30 or 40. But the rape is true. The suicide attempt and the abortions are true.
“In my film Why I Never Became a Dancer I say that men chanted, ‘Slag, slag, slag,’ at me when I went in for a disco-dancing competition in Margate. That did happen but it also happened every day on the street. So that was actually worse than how I interpretated [sic] it in the film. I don’t lie about things. I’m an honest person.”
Emin considers the question ‘what is art?’ boring – and she may well be right – but a couple of things bother me about her art. Firstly, I’m not sure how much it has to do with aesthetic pleasure, with which, according to my conventional definition at least, art should have some connection.
Secondly, works such as My Bed aren’t particularly shockingly new: 80 years ago the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp was playing with similar ideas with Fountain (an ordinary urinal made extraordinary by being exhibited in a gallery as art), and he made it well enough for it not to have to be made again.
But perhaps neither of these things matter if Emin’s work passes the test of time; does she think it will? She draws on her cigarette, looks at me neutrally.
“We don’t know. It depends on whims. All you can do is try and make each show better than the last. And make sure more people turn up. The Tate has never had such long queues as for My Bed.”
But high attendance figures can’t be a criterion for judging whether something is art or not: large numbers of people used to go to watch the lunatics at Bedlam.
“I know, that is why the art establishment doesn’t take me very seriously.” But it does. “Oh but it doesn’t.” Surely she is surrounded by sycophantic art groupies, stroking their chins and wearing black? “No, I’m not. My friends are more than equal to me.”
Don’t they say what she wants to hear?
“No, my dealer Jay Jopling can be very critical, so can Matt.’
Her brother Paul said her work was ‘a load of old bollocks’: what did she make of this critical assessment?
“Paul just saw what I did from a distance. Now he has a different opinion and he likes what I do. Also, he didn’t like me making work about him. I said he had been in prison, which you are not allowed to talk about because people didn’t know what he was in for, and he does building and carpentry and it was affecting his work.”
What was he in for? “Fraud, I think.”
Has she ever felt like a fraud?
“Not a fake or an impostor but I know what you are saying. Sometimes I do feel, ‘Oh no, what is this in my life?’ I woke up one day and realised I had raped myself and that is the worst rape of all.”
We’re into the realm of Craig Brown parody again. Is the raping herself conclusion something she arrived at after speaking to a psychiatrist?
“Yeah, but not recently. Apart from you! Group therapy with a million Telegraph readers, eh? I did see a therapist for six months. It was to do with the fact I couldn’t cope with everything I had to do. You know, time-management. He taught me to departmentalise. Is that the word?”
Compartmentalise? “Yeah. When I stopped drinking spirits I had a massive boredom in my life. Boredom like you would not believe. If you’re pissed a lot of the time your problem is finding your keys or not falling over things. Without drink, life becomes your problem.”
“Yeah, I find that life is OK. I don’t cry easily and I laugh a lot, until I wet myself. I’ll be 40 in July. Being a women I’m aware of that clock. I look in the mirror and think, ‘I wish that girl of 20 was here now.’ I was in such a mess at that age.
“Up until then I was so naive I thought the sun went round the earth. I really did, because I was never at school.”
And this, ultimately, is why we should forgive Tracey Emin her success. Her solipsism – ‘It isn’t art unless I say it’s art’ – is understandable given that she has become famous for, as she puts it, ‘making things out of bits of me’.
Her seriousness on the subject of herself – ‘I am clever, you know,’ she tells me with a frown, at one point – can seem comical but it is also endearing, and is just one of her many contradictions. Here, after all, is a woman who insists upon her own dignity, yet is careless with it; a guileless person who lives in a bubble of self-regard; a witty artist who seems to have no sense of irony.
Emin compares herself to Warhol, for example, but he wouldn’t have cared less if someone had jumped on his bed. She lacks his nonchalance and sense of absurdity, and, unlike Warhol, she doesn’t seem to get the joke she earns a living from making.
She shows me round her studio; points out some collages on the floor with misspelled words stitched on and then, wryly, crossed out. She doesn’t misspell on purpose, she says. In fact she is learning to spell at the moment – and she shows me her dictionary to prove it.
It’s a sweet gesture and it makes me want to like Tracey Emin. As a person she is likeable – and, yes, as she herself says, she is nice. But as the most famous British artist of her generation, I can’t help feeling, she did get rather lucky.