Tracey Emin interview: Art, artist and media coverage (2002)

A Q&A with the "bad girl" of British art.

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 3 April 2011
This interview was first published in Sculpture, 21(9), November 2002, pp. 38-43, with the title "Exposed: A conversation with Tracey Emin". In 2009, the interview was listed in the selected bibliography of Tate Modern’s influential Pop Life: Art in a material world exhibition.

Tracey Emin interview: Art, artist and media coverage

Propelled by explicitly autobiographical works such as Everyone I ever slept with (1995) and My bed (1998), Brit-celebrity “bad girl” Tracey Emin has crossed the boundary from artist to a pop-culture phenomenon. In addition to making and exhibiting art, Emin appears on TV talk shows, celebrity game shows, and fashion shows, does gin advertisements, writes hotel reviews for GQ, and on and on. Further fueled by her Turner Prize nomination (1999) and the multiplying media controversy over Bed, everyone in Britain knows “that artist,” and she’s been featured and mentioned in London newspapers and tabloids to such a degree that nobody can accurately keep count.

Over the years, Tracey Emin’s work— including art subjects/revelations such as her abortions, being raped at 13, subsequent sexual consumption, and suicide attempts— has come under ever more scrutiny, with the artist accused by some as blatantly “marketing victimology.” In one way, her work pits the relatively “unknown” artist pursuing personal concerns that Emin once was against what she has become— a high-profile artist facing art-societal pressures with the added responsibilities of public representation. Her 2001 London solo show “You Forgot to Kiss My Soul,” however, was characterized by a more upbeat mood.

Tracey Emin’s current and upcoming solo exhibitions include shows at Lehmann-Maupin in New York, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (UK), and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. On the book front, Emin has not one, but two monographs, slated to appear this year: one published by Thames and Hudson, and a second by Booth-Clibborn.

R.J. Preece: How would you describe the new emphasis in your work in the White Cube solo show?

Tracey Emin: I thought well, f*** it. They’re gonna slag me off anyway. It doesn’t matter what I make, it doesn’t matter what I do. Basically it’s up to me exactly what I do. I thought, this time I’m just gonna make some things that I like. Instead of having the conviction and the moral ideas behind it, maybe I’ll just let go and make some things— and that’s what the difference was.

So it was far more about making— and it was more formal. Self-Portrait (2001) was a formal idea, a simple metaphor. I had to divide the space up, and “the wall” became a spiral. It was also about where I grew up, because helter-skelters were there. I really like Louise Bourgeois’s towers at the Tate, but I prefer my helter-skelter to look at. Mine’s more like [Tatlin’s] Constructivist tower.

R.J. Preece: What materials do you particularly like to work with?

Tracey Emin: I like poor materials. I couldn’t see myself making a bronze sculpture—it’s not me. I like neon, because it’s moving constantly and like drawing. The chemicals going through the neon turns me on really—it’s sexy.

I like fabrics, but one of the main things with objects is that I really have to love them before I can use them. I have to have the object around me a long time. The little chairs I used in my last White Cube show are ones that my dad bought for me. A sort of a psychometry with objects and things. It’s like the pieces I’ve made are my things. All the materials I use are recycled, they all come from my studio. Downstairs, there were offices made out of really cheap wood. The wood for the helter-skelter came from there.

R.J. Preece: Some recent articles quote you as saying that you don’t necessarily see your work as completely autobiographical, that it’s edited, framed.

Tracey Emin: We all know that truth is different for everyone, depending on their perspective. It’s how I see it. For example, my film Why I Never Became a Dancer, is factual, made into the story to get a narrative, but the reality of it was worse—I was being called a slag on the street. Not just in the dance hall.

R.J. Preece: You are in a unique, high-profile, art-and-media career position. In many ways, you are overly examined and questioned.

Tracey Emin: It’s called “everyone waiting to stick the knife in,” waiting for you to fall.

R.J. Preece: I was speaking to a colleague who thought that you were “re-branding” your work with “You Forgot to Kiss My Soul.” Is it that calculated?

Tracey Emin: Someone else who liked what I did might turn around and say, “She’s reworking and rethinking everything. She could just be making blankets now, and be a lot wealthier.” I’m actually making it difficult for myself.

I wouldn’t call it re-branding. If I get bored with my work, then other people will—it’s that simple. And I’m not gonna get bored with what I’m doing. I’ll struggle and fight and do new things to excite myself—and do it in my own sweet way.

R.J. Preece: What do you think about the writings on your work?

Tracey Emin: I think it’s people paying for their mortgages and paying for their mistresses by writing any old crap about me.

R.J. Preece: Do you read things that are completely factually off?

Tracey Emin: Totally. I could go to a newspaper, and I could sue them for defamation of character, for destroying, well not destroying, my career, but trying to corrupt my career or whatever. Quite easily.

R.J. Preece: Then why don’t you?

Tracey Emin: Because I’m bigger than all that. What’s in yesterday’s newspaper is today’s fish-and-chip paper. If it really affects my life so badly, so personally, then I would.

When it’s really out of order, or something possibly detrimental to my family, or I’m driven to such a level that I know that this can be picked up and repeated again, I will just write or e-mail the newspaper editor. So, in the next day’s newspaper, it might say, “Tracey Emin says this is factually incorrect.”

R.J. Preece: So that’s happening a bit, and I’m not seeing it in your press clippings.

Tracey Emin: Yes, because it might be in next week’s newspaper. But it doesn’t always hurt me. It hurt me when it was going on for four months during the Turner Prize (1999). Four months of being told that your work is shit by all different people was quite difficult, because I know my work isn’t shit. I know that I was a scapegoat. What was being said about me personally was unbearable. The stuff the press gets—I mean like ex-boyfriends selling stories to newspapers or being doorstepped by journalists leading up to the Turner Prize. My mum being telephoned all the time.

With my last show I did six interviews, but those six got diverted and split into, maybe, every single newspaper. That often happens: I haven’t done an interview or given any images, but, with paparazzi photos, the photos look recent and then they put the whole interview together. So, it looks like a new article, and it’s big—when I actually haven’t had anything to do with it.

R.J. Preece: I saw you on television after Gillian Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997, on a live post-Prize talk show. Your drunken behavior, resulting in your storming off the set, has become part of your history. What do you think about that now?

Tracey Emin: I didn’t even know I was doing it. I was so drunk, I have no memory that I was there. I thought I was around at someone’s house. But I wasn’t rude or offensive to anybody. And I didn’t have a problem—just getting out of that boring talk. I’d heard I was swearing, and I thought, Christ, how embarrassing. My friend made me watch it about six months later, and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The only fuss was that I was a woman, drunk on television, who didn’t have a problem.

R.J. Preece: Do you think fame helps or hurts your work?

Tracey Emin: On a personal level, the distracting thing is that I’m really busy. I’m busy doing other things when I should be doing my art. Where it maybe hurts is if a museum has the choice of buying a piece of work that is really boring and really liberal by a very profoundly serious artist “with integrity,” who’d never write a column for a men’s magazine for example or buying mine, the museum will go for them every fucking day. Because if a museum buys my work, they have to justify what they’re doing. The art world establishment doesn’t take me very seriously.

R.J. Preece: So, are you an “outsider” in the art world?

Tracey Emin: No, I’m not. If you’re talking politically, socially, I couldn’t be more central. Gary Hume is my studio partner. My boyfriend is Mat Collishaw. My best friends are Abigail Lane, Gillian Wearing, and Sarah Lucas. My gallerist Jay Jopling and his wife, Sam Taylor-Wood, are my friends. There aren’t many big art events that I don’t get invitations to.

R.J. Preece: Are there certain things with your fame that you didn’t expect?

Tracey Emin: I don’t think I’m famous. I think I’m notorious, I’m known for being that artist. If I’m on the street, they’ll go “Look, it’s Tracey Emin, that artist.” It’s not like I’m Britney f***in’ Spears. I don’t have a limousine driver waiting outside for me. I don’t have a bodyguard, and I don’t have staff [mimicking an upper class accent]. I don’t have four houses, and I’m not a serial killer.

The reason why I’m popular as an artist in this country is because it suits the psyche of the nation at this time. Ten years ago, my work wouldn’t have had any currency, any popularity at all. Before in this country, you had to be accepted. You had to be part of the group. Now it’s probably more trendy to have a problem.

R.J. Preece: I pulled some quotes out of your press clippings. I can show them to you if you’d like.

Tracey Emin: You could cheat and make some up to see if I remember them.

R.J. Preece: (Laughs.) Miranda Sawyer quotes you and writes: “I know people went to laugh at my bed and to jeer at it. Still,” sniffs Tracey, “at least they actually went to see it.”

Tracey Emin: Because of the amount of press attention, people went to see this dirty bed, as if it was a freak show. But when they got there, they saw something else—the bed, stuff on the walls, whatever. For the Tate, it’s the highest attendance they ever received for the Turner Prize show. There was a massive queue, and when you got into my bit, you couldn’t move.

R.J. Preece: So you think that some of the media representation framed it “to go to see a freak show.” Because My bed in New York…

Tracey Emin: The piece in New York was shit, right? I shouldn’t have shown it there. This really gives a lot away. When I set it up, I couldn’t get it to work right because the room was too small, and it made it look like a bed in a bedroom. The bed should have been the other way around. The whole idea was that My bed came out of a bedroom and into another space—that’s what made it art. In Japan, it was absolutely fantastic—in an old rice factory, in a very long room. Coming in, from a distance, it looked beautiful. With the lighting, you wanted to go to it. The bed was two-thirds up, and two neons were in the back—My cunt is wet with fear and Sobasex (both 1998)—they give you the whole idea immediately. There was a noose hanging as well. But when you got to the bed, you realized that it was disgustingly dirty—the slippers, the carpet, the sheets, the knickers— everything. It was the most theatrical show I’ve done. In the Tate, it was okay.

R.J. Preece: With My bed you have a noose hanging overhead...

Tracey Emin: It was up in Japan and New York (at Lehmann-Maupin, see review), but not in London. When I was making the bed, I was feeling so suicidal. I wanted something to represent that. I thought a noose would be good because it’s quite sculptural and a thing in itself. I had never tied a noose before, and didn’t know how. It just goes to show that if I was to commit suicide, I’d never hang myself. When I was in Japan, I had a great amount of— not fun— but almost an aesthetic kind of fun trying to make the noose. I enjoyed making it as an object, even though it’s sentimental, dramatic, and over the top.

R.J. Preece: When I saw the noose, I was thinking, “Will this artist be around in three years?” Metaphorically is the noose still there?

Tracey Emin: No, it’s definitely not there, otherwise I’d want to show it with the bed [at the Tate].

R.J. Preece: The Sawyer piece also quotes you as saying: “I don’t understand why people are nasty to me.”

Tracey Emin: I don’t know why. But that quote was picked up by the press brilliantly. You know that “quote of the week” in newspapers? That was one of them. It’s like some art critic who should know better. He writes about my work, putting me and my work down, but then he writes in this bad-cockney way, with affectations in the writing, trying to mimic how I speak.

R.J. Preece: I’ve been thinking, there’s also a British cultural context— in addition to the media context— shaping these writings on your work, and this won’t always be clear to international readers. In one clipping, I read: “Her accent isn’t from Marlborough, it’s from Margate.” I heard later that a Marlborough accent is posh and public school. It strikes me as really odd to frame it in such a way, and what exactly is a Margate accent?

Tracey Emin: In America, they have words like “white trash.” That’s what is meant. They’re saying that I’m very common. With my accent, I’m not supposed to be intelligent. There have been a lot of newspaper articles, maybe hundreds, and the majority of women writers actually take an angle on it, or they try to go into it. With a lot of the men, however, they can be complementary, flattering, or lively. They’re gushing on how much they like me. Sometimes, it’s a bit embarrassing.

Then there are these other men. It’s like this: you’ve worked hard all of your life, you went to Oxford, and you’ve done this and that, and you’re an art critic. Your job is to unravel the “secret” or whatever, and you come across an entity like me. It’s going to piss you off. Because there’s no great secret, what you see is what you get, and anyone can understand what I’m doing. So, it’s almost like I make this critic-person redundant, just by my attitude, and they resent me for that.

It’s that simple.

R.J. Preece: What do you see as your artistic influences?

Tracey Emin: Egon Schiele drawings, Edvard Munch in terms of emotion, German Expressionism, Frida Kahlo, a couple of mates, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas. I like Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci. For music, David Bowie definitely. I just started reading again, after not reading for years. Autobiographies, but they don’t really influence me. I just enjoy reading about other people’s lives.

R.J. Preece: What about artists like David Wojnarowicz, or others in America, in terms of autobiography?

Tracey Emin: No. I’d been doing that all the time. Even when I was at college and didn’t know anything, I was making work about myself. My art history stopped at about 1945. It was never about anything else.

R.J. Preece: With the tent, the piece itself is constructed with media sensation in it.

Tracey Emin: That isn’t why I made it though. But I realize it now, and I could never make it again—because I’ve done it, and I was at such a moral high ground as well. I’d think twice about the names I put in it. I spent weeks looking for the perfect tent. Didn’t even think about Mario Merz’s igloos, or Joseph Beuys— didn’t think about that stuff. I just thought, this is the perfect tent, with a perfect lining that I could sew in. I wrote out a list of names of everyone I had ever slept with—it was really difficult—almost like carving gravestones. I was having to go into the recesses of my mind, because the idea of forgetting someone would have failed the whole thing. In 1986, people couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing about AIDS, HIV, and safe sex—and then nothing for years. A couple of my close friends died of AIDS, and so I was quite aware of it. I was thinking that everyone has forgotten it and is shagging everyone. When people go inside the tent, they come out trying to remember everyone they ever slept with. And it worked—from reading the experiences in my life, they started to think about their own.

R.J. Preece: Do you see your work as exploring different focal points? I see a concentration on the choice of subjects, the societal context, in the compositions, and also in your titles.

Tracey Emin: I think about what I do—not whether it will grab attention, but whether it’s aesthetically “right.” I’m calculated, I’m editing and working things out constantly. Like with the blankets, I might draw it out. Making a blanket is like doing a painting. You cut layer and layer, take off a layer, working this, changing this. It takes a long time. When I have an exhibition, I usually arrange it so that if people want to, they can spend two hours there. That way, people who like it don’t feel cheated when they go. I want them to walk into the exhibition space and look low and at other levels and angles. The same with emotions. I want them to be emotionally manipulated, to come out feeling something. I want them to laugh, smile, feel sad. Even if they feel angry, that’s okay.

R.J. Preece: You have several solo shows coming up, and you’re writing a script for a feature film. You also want to design swimming pools. Is there anything else that [readers] should know?

Tracey Emin: The next big sculpture that I’m making is a bridge. In Cyprus, there’s a disused copper mine, and the railway track for the cargo comes down from the mine to the sea. It’s all eroded and gone. For about 200 meters, there’s this rustic and mad, demonic, chaotic, twisted bridge that goes along there. I want to make a representation of that for my show in Oxford—about 20 meters long.

R.J. Preece: You also mentioned something about a novel.

Tracey Emin: A couple of years ago, I was supposed to write a novel—a stream-of-consciousness sort of novel, and I couldn’t think of anything more depressing to do.

R.J. Preece: Why is that?

Tracey Emin: Because I’ve done it. About growing up and that kind of thing. Writing about how terrible it was when I was eight years old. This goes back to your mate who says I’m “re-branding” myself. Maybe I’ve worked so hard to become better, that I don’t have to go back there anymore.

NB. Back story: It took Preece some time to get agreement for this interview. Tracey Emin was reportedly not happy with his review of Emin’s Lehmann-Maupin show. However, after some back-and-forth with her press representative, intention was clarified and the interview was considered an opportunity to relook at things.

Tracey Emin at artdesigncafe