Tracey Emin doesn’t do anything by halves. She still parties like its 1999, enjoys all the better things in life, yet remains an immensely important, influential and, above all, prolific artist. Sixteen years after her Turner Prize nomination, Simon Kelner tracks the changes in her life and art, asks how she feels now about her iconic, signature works like ‘the bed’ and ‘the tent’, and what motivates a wealthy, household-name artist to keep producing work.
Simon Kelner – Tracey, lets start with your best-known work My Bed. It was an expression of how you felt at a very particular time of your life. When you look at it now how do you feel, what does it make you think?
Tracey Emin – First of all, exhibiting the bed was an expression of how I felt. I’m not sure how many people have had a nervous breakdown, or seen their whole life collapse around them, but the bed was like a symbol of that for me. I had been through a terrible emotional time and I didn’t get out of bed for four days. I didn’t drink any water or eat; I was unconscious most of the time, and when I actually did come round and got out of the bed I went to the kitchen because I desperately needed some water. My whole flat was disgusting and terrible. When I came back into the bedroom, and looked at the bed and everything around it, it looked so disgusting. I remember just holding myself up against the wall and thinking, ‘My God, I slept in there, how filthy, how disgusting.’ Then I thought, no, this bed has actually kept me alive; this bed has kept me safe and protected me from the outside world. The bed suddenly became elevated and I saw it in a kind of almost heavenly, white, beautiful space, and I realised it was a gallery. It was at that moment that I thought, ‘This is fantastic, this is beautiful’; the way I saw the bed was almost like making a drawing and understanding it for the first time. I thought, ‘I have to see it in this white space that I imagined it’.
SK – Did you have to make many practical changes to the bed when you first showed it in the gallery?
TE – When it first went on show in Japan, in 1998, a lot of people didn’t think it was real, they thought I’d ‘invented’ it; they thought it was shock value, but it wasn’t. I’d taken all of the objects that make up My Bed from my bedroom and put them together; obviously there were a lot of things that I left out. I couldn’t include everything; it would have just looked like a pile of rubbish. That is the difference between the bed as it actually was and the way it was ultimately shown in the gallery. My Bed was edited, calculated, it was considered like any work of art would be.
SK – My Bed recently sold for two and-a-half million pounds, what do you think about that?
TE – I was at Christie’s for the auction, and I sat amongst friends that were there. I thought I had to be there to protect it and validate it and see what happens to it. When the auction started, it got stuck on 1.2 million pounds and it seemed like it was over. Then, about 15 seconds later, which seemed like 15 hours later, the bidding started again. When the hammer eventually went down everyone was looking at me. It was amazing; the whole room stood up and clapped, and gave a standing ovation. I felt so proud of that little bed that I made, in my little council flat in Waterloo.
SK – Do you think it’s still at all reflective of you of a person or as an artist? Or do you look at it in the same way as Frank Sinatra when he kept being asked to sing ‘My Way’? Although it’s very important in your career, are you slightly tired of it? Are you over it?
TE – No. The bed to me is my salvation; you never bite the hand that feeds you. The bed literally saved me. That bed saved my life; turned my life around. Also, Charles Saatchi bought that bed for £150,000. I went off and bought a house. Do you see what I mean? I thought, ‘This is my moment. Make the most of it’.
SK – When did you work out that your best form of self-expression would be through art?
TE – When I was at school I was really good at art, but I left school when I was15.
SK – Would that be what we would call traditional art, such as painting, drawing?
TE – Yeah, school art, exam art. I wanted to go to art school but I didn’t have any O or A levels. I spent a couple of years in London, just doing all kinds of weird things, then, when I went back to Margate, I had to live in a DHS bed & breakfast. I was 16 and homeless, had nothing going for me. I took a job in Butlins, washing up. I turned up and I stood there and they gave me an apron and I just looked at the sink, took the apron off and thought, ‘I’m not doing this’. I went to the call box, called up the art schools, found out how to apply, what to do. I got on to a fashion-tailoring course, believe it or not. So, at best, I could have ended up working maybe at Jaeger, being a secondary pattern cutter or something. But it seemed so much better than the other options were. I learnt tailoring and sewing, and I did that for a year and half and then there was a train strike that meant I couldn’t get into college. During the train strike, I just stayed at home and painted and drew. And that was it: I just knew that I didn’t want to work in a factory being a pattern cutter, or a seamstress or a finisher. I wanted to be painting and drawing. Then, shortly after this, I heard Paul Simonon [artist and former bassist with The Clash] on the radio, talking about Sir John Cass School of Art, and how if you were poor you could go there for a pound a year and do a foundation course. Plus, you didn’t need qualifications. So I went to John Cass for an interview, got in and that was it. From there I got into Maidstone College of Art, and I never missed a day. I was so hungry to learn and I loved art so much, it was just like being fed something wonderful. After that, I went to the Royal College of Art and did an MA.
SK – Tell me about your working process. You obviously have to be very disciplined to produce the amount and quality that you do. What is your typical day when you are working?
TE – I wake up about six in the morning and I answer all the emails from White Cube. Then I turn the TV on, watch the news and get the lowdown on everything. Then I watch Everybody Loves Raymond, cuddle my cat and check to see if I’ve got any more emails. Then I think, ‘I’m definitely gonna get to the studio early today; gonna get there for eight o’clock.’ By ten o’clock, I’ve watched my second episode of Frasier. Then I will text the studio saying, ‘Yeah, OK, just half an hour and I’ll be there’. I’ll have breakfast, check the emails again, say goodbye to Docket (my cat) and get to the studio for about 11. Then, if I haven’t got any meetings or anything important to do, I go swimming. I’ve got a pool in my studio. Then I’ll come upstairs and moan at somebody, someone will make me tea or coffee. Then I will sulk a bit, and then actually, don't ask me why, but I will do nothing until about four o'clock and I’ll suddenly think, ‘Oh, is it four o’clock? Oh Christ, I’m going out at six. I’ve got to do something!’
SK – I love the idea that you can schedule in a couple of hours of sulking during the day. I’m sure we would all like to do a bit of that.
TE – Yeah.
SK- The first thing that really got the Tracey Emin buzz going was ‘the tent’ – Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With 1963-1995 – which, sure enough, featured the names of everyone you had ever slept with between those dates. Do you ever worry about making the private public? Are there times when you have done something and thought, ‘You know what, I’ve gone a bit too far there’?
TE – My boyfriend at the time, Carl Freedman, was curating a show at the South London Gallery called Minky Manky. Sarah Lucas was in it [as were] Damien Hirst, Steven Pippin and Gary Hume. Carl, even though he was my boyfriend, said that I couldn't be in the show because I made really tiny work. He thought it would be too patronising for him to put his girlfriend in the show, and no one would get my work or understand it. I went ballistic. So he said, ‘Alright, you can be in the show if you make a really good, physically big work.’ So, I made Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With 1963 -1995. Over the tent flap is Carl’s name, and I remember being at the South London Gallery and someone coming out saying, “God, she's even slept with the curator.” There’s always cartoons of it saying, ‘Andy, Paul, John, Dave’. But the tent was about people I had slept with, some people I had had sex with, but the majority of people I hadn’t, they were people I had actually slept with; it was about intimacy.
SK – The tent was lost in 2004 at the fire at the Momart warehouse [where much of the Saatchi collection was stored]. What do you feel about that, given that a lot of your art is an expression of how you felt at the time?
TE – Simon, you were the Editor of the Independent at the time. The warehouse fire was during the night and the next day on the front page of the Independent… I can’t remember how many Afghani children had just been killed, bombed… The tent had been lost in a fire, but actually there were atrocities happening around the world.
SK – I understand how might feel that at the time, but now?
TE – I think now I would probably sue Momart because, now, when the tent is written about, it’s often in a really derogatory way – as if it’s just all about sex. There were names stitched to the inside of the tent, but there were also stories, about how I had met people, or why I slept with people – from having sex with strangers or sleeping with someone because I actually had nowhere to stay that night, to memories, like holding my grandmother’s hand and laying in the bed with her, listening to the radio. There are stories of real love, intimacy and people protecting me.
SK – Do you grieve for the loss of the tent?
TE – Well, a few months ago, I was going through the archive and I found a bag that the tent came in. Inside the bag was a notebook with the names of everybody from the tent, and other little bits – like some spare guide ropes – so I feel like I have my own little memento. Things happen, don’t they?
SK – They do. Traditionally, an artist is seen as an anti-establishment figure. The role of an artist is to stand outside the establishment. You’re a Royal Academician and a CBE, so you, in fact, are a part of the establishment, whether you like it or not.
TE – I am, yeah, definitely.
SK – Do you think that compromises your art?
TE – No. I am not compromised by anything. The more security you have in your life, the freer you are. I am protected by the society that respects me – that can only do me good. It’s like people saying, ‘Oh you’re wealthy now, you earn money; don't you think that stops your creativity?’ And I say, ‘No’. It means that I can do what I want to do, when I want to do it.
SK – It’s not just about security though, Tracey, it’s about the fact that you are a part of an establishment which makes it harder for you to, one would assume, be totally yourself, because you might offend the people with whom you have nice dinners at the Royal Academy.
TE – OK, would you like to have dinner with Jackson Pollock? Yes you would, but he’s not going be the perfect dinner guest. It would be the same with Turner, with Francis Bacon, with many artists. You know, I’m not a diplomat. I didn’t join the diplomatic corps; I’m an artist. It’s a completely different thing.
SK – You were always with the others, hobnobbing around Number 10 when Blair was in power?
TE – No I wasn’t. I never got invited to Number 10.
SK – But you supported New Labour…
TE – Yes I did; in 1997 I supported New Labour, definitely. I was a Labour voter all my life.
SK – Then, in 2009, you switched sides and announced on the front page of the Daily Telegraph that you were supporting the Conservatives.
TE – It was actually in every newspaper, I think.
SK – Where do you stand now? Who did you vote for on May 7th?
TE – David Cameron.
SK – Why?
TE – First of all, I think David Cameron is a kind Prime Minister. Secondly, I think if there had been money he would have been probably one of the best Prime Ministers this country has ever had. I think he would have actually sorted out a lot of the welfare problems, and I do understand the austerity. If you don’t have the money, you can’t spend it. It’s that simple. There isn’t any money there. Also, the Tories cut the arts by 19%; Labour cut the arts by 21% when there was more money and their remit was to spend. They penalised the arts.
SK – Well those are issue-based reasons; I mean what do you feel in your heart? Are you a Conservative or are you a socialist?
TE – Why do you have to be one or the other? Why can’t I just be kind to society?
SK – You could be that as well.
TE – I was really unhappy about the Mansion Tax. I worked hard all my life, bought a house in the East End, paid for it in full, worked really hard, paid all my taxes. And now I’m going to be penalised for living in the East End, in a kind of enclave of an area. And I just found that so wrong. Why should my house pay for the National Health Service? Why don’t they ask me to give money to the National Health?
SK – Well, that’s sort of what they are doing.
TE – No they are not. They are asking me to be penalised for my house; I'm talking about Labour here; it shouldn't be like that. I think there should be legacy, legacies within politics. So Labour and Tory, or whichever party gets into power… education and health should be priorities, regardless, and there should be a thread that runs through those things to make it better continuously. Not give, take away, give, take away or argue. It’s pointless, we all need our health and we all need education and they should be the priorities. Without education, we are going nowhere, absolutely. I wouldn't be sitting here and I wouldn't have paid all the bloody taxes that I’ve paid if I hadn't had an art education.
SK – However you have achieved everything you have – and we can agree that you are a success – your works command huge prices all around the world and you are famous. What is the measure of success that you crave now?
TE – A few weeks ago, I was painting in the studio and it was about two o'clock in the morning and I thought, ‘Just one more bit, one more bit…’ and I completely fucked the whole painting up. It was a disaster. I thought, ‘Damn, I should have gone home. I should have stopped where it was’. I thought, ‘Well, if I just paint that bit out white at least I can live with it and it’s all disappeared and I can just start again when I come back’. But I actually stayed up until six in the morning and did this fantastic painting, turned it all around. Finished it, everything. I walked out of the studio totally exhausted but so exhilarated. It was winter but I didn’t need a coat; I felt like a giant, I felt alive, I felt invincible. The power that I felt, that I had given myself, knowing that I had taken this painting from being quite good to absolutely destroying it, to making it into something I knew was really, really good… to go to bed in the morning and think, ‘I did something that I didn't know I was capable of doing’, that is a fantastic feeling. No one else is judging that. I am judging it. I am the only real critic of what I do.