Aug 5 2011: Stitch This! A Short Interview With Tracey Emin (Big Issue in the North, 1997)

This interview was done by phone when one of Tracey Emin’s Neon Love Poems was showing at The Workstation, Sheffield, as part of the citywide Sight & Sound festival (23 Oct – 6 Nov 1997). Sensation was still ongoing at The Royal Academy and Emin had been difficult to track down. The festival’s press people had set things up, but attempts to call at the agreed time had gone unanswered. Later in the day the phone rang and Emin apologised for the mix-up: she’d been delayed on her way home and had only just got the press office’s messages.

While the conversation ended with Emin refusing to play the game of talking about her work it may be worth noting that this was at a fairly early stage in her career. She was – with Sensation – under an intense, often hostile, media spotlight and it was fairly clear that while she was caught up in that circus, she had yet to acquire the PAs and money that might have offered some protection from its intrusions: her media exposure wasn’t matched by the income or respect that came later, so her closing outburst was probably caused by the pressures of her situation at this particular point.

After I stopped taking notes, and explained something of the purpose of the piece, Big Issue arts coverage and answered other questions she had about the relationship between the magazine’s content and its wider social purpose, the call ended amiably. It was also fairly clear that had the strategy of the interview been reversed and I’d asked questions about her life, that, too, would have resulted in objections: that I wasn’t talking about the work. Even so, while justifiably wary at this point, it’s been interesting to note how Emin has mellowed with her later success.

This transcript was made in note form during the phone conversation itself, hence its hybrid format: a version appeared in The Big Issue in the North the following week (late October, 1997).

With the Royal Academy’s Sensation show in full swing, its controversies still fresh and its queues correspondingly long, it seems the New British Artists have the world at their feet. Tracey Emin, as one of the most prominent members of the new artistic elite, riding the crest of such works as Everyone I Have Ever Slept With: 1963 – 1995, a tent stitched with the names of a hundred or so friends, lovers and family members, ought to sound less cautious than she actually does. She fears misrepresentation.

“Sometimes meanings get lost or distorted”, she says. “It’s only because it’s by phone, if we were meeting face to face I wouldn’t worry”.

The Young British Artists might be a phenomenon, but is it really a meaningful phrase?

“I’m 34”, says Emin flatly. “I left art school in 1986, so we’re hardly young. It’s just a media tag”. But she acknowledges some sense to the grouping the tag tries to cover. “We’re really good friends, there are about 30 or so people who socialise, help each other out, that sort of thing. But it’s not a movement. If it was, everyone’s work would be similar. We’d have a philosophy of art we all shared or something, which we don’t. There’s just no way you can compare my work to Rachel Whiteread’s or Keith Coventry’s or Chris Ofili’s, and you can’t compare Chris Ofili to Damien Hirst either. Everyone’s on their own  trip doing different things”.

This is certainly the impression left by the diverse and uneven gathering at the Sensation show. Has the publicity surrounding that exhibition given the artists a sense of being under seige?

Emin is certain it has. “I’ve been away for two weeks, and I really needed a couple of days to do my washing, see my mum, even find a new swimming baths because the local one I use is closing down, just the normal everyday things that have nothing to do with art or the art world. But I’ve come back and there requests for all sorts of things piled up, some that I really want to do and some that I don’t, particularly, but it can all get a bit much at times”.

As for the media treatment of the YBA story, she is mostly unfazed.

“Some of the coverage is just silly”, she says, “but that’s usually journalists’ own stupidity, it’s not my problem”. There have been exceptions, though. “Someone wrote a piece about the tent, implying that it was about my sexual partners, that it was Everyone who ever penetrated me and hinting I was being some kind of slag for making it. I nearly sued the newspaper. I mean, my grandmother’s name’s on there, and people who are just friends, it isn’t about that at all…”

She also gives short shrift, reasonably enough, to many of the criticisms aimed at her alleged exhibitionism.

“Van Gogh made art out of his own life”, she argues. “How many artists have painted the women they loved? I mean, where would Picasso have been without painting stuff from his own life? And look at Frida Kahlo, everything she did was based on her own experiences. And if you look at a piece of mine like the neon, Kiss Me Kiss Me Cover My Body In Love, that might have started as me saying something I felt, but it isn’t just about me. Everyone’s felt like that. It could be about anyone. I don’t want my work to be indulgent, I want it to be useful”.

That said, she can be defensive on the question of influences, insisting that everything comes from herself. Asked about artists who might have inspired her, she reels off a list headed by Edvard Munch and the intimate, explicit drawings of Egon Schiele.

“But there’s no real influence from contemporaries at all”, she says. “I mean, you can’t do anything in art that’s totally original, so I’d never claim I was, but I don’t go round galleries looking at things so I can go and do them myself. You might do that when you’re 19 or 20 or if you just want to make a copy of something for yourself, but influences like that die off as you get older, and things happen to you, and your work starts to come to you from the things that have happened to you in your everyday life”.

She sees herself as linked to traditions of ‘outsider’ art, aligning herself with a therapeutic approach that she seems to feel secures a certain authenticity for her work.

“The last exhibition I saw that really affected me was seeing the Prinzhorn Collection at the Hayward Gallery. It was all work made by people in mental institutions in Germany and it made me feel I really had to free myself up. I saw how repressed I was being in comparison to this stuff and it did change the way I worked a lot, I think”.

As for her celebrated friendship with Sarah Lucas, and their time running The Shop in the early 90s, Emin recalls the time fondly, but sees it as firmly in the past.

“We’ve worked together, we have things in common, but we’re very different in how we work, and we’ve both moved on – and got better. Sarah is much more formal than I am. Maybe you could say Sarah’s work comes out of thinking and mine is made out of feeling, but I still love what she does”.

Is it more difficult making work out of her own life, particularly when delving into painful areas of experience, than it might be if she used a less direct, more formal language to distance those things?

“I just don’t take these ideas and distinctions on board”, she says. “I don’t care about them. I care about the essence of where things come from”. And where do they come from? “They come from inside”, she says. “This is why people get fucked up and fucked over, why women get beaten and people hit their children, because they can’t express themselves or their emotions. There’s no spiritual relief for people. I try to express those emotions, and maybe that can help other people, even if it’s only showing that they weren’t the only ones those things happened to, or who feel those things”.

There’s a tradition of artists who’ve made it their life’s work to create just such spaces for the expression of previously repressed emotions and ideas, particularly women artists like Louise Bourgeois. Does Emin see herself as part of that tradition?

“The thing about Louise Bourgeois is that you have no idea when these things were made, they could be from any time, and she’s 92 now and still making stuff, she’s still working like a woman of my own generation despite the huge age gap. But I only heard of her two years ago, and she tends to deal with things like representing the essence of femininity then turning it on its head. I don’t do that, I just say ‘this is how it is”‘.

So she doesn’t see herself as part of any tradition?

“No. If you’d seen my drawings and films you wouldn’t even ask me that because they’re not like anyone else’s. Bruce Nauman and Mario Merz use neon, but my neons aren’t like theirs or influenced by theirs because they’re mine. People don’t make these comparisons with paintings, they don’t say ‘oh, you’re using oil paint it must be like Matisse’, do they?”.

Actually, they do, all the time, but maybe that’s the problem? Is this one reason why she’s drawn to the kinds of unusual materials she uses?

“I think it’s just that women tend to be more tenacious and inventive with things like that than men are, in life as well as art. Women tend to use a lot of materials that aren’t art materials. Men like to ‘go to work’ more, maybe…”.

Might that be because women artists in the past had to do that, since so few women would have had the opportunity to use, say, marble?

“Who the fuck would want to use a huge lump of fucking marble?”, says Emin brusquely. “I like ephemeral things, why would I use stuff I don’t actually like? I think there are far more interesting things you could be asking me about, like life and things people who read The Big Issue really care about. This is all stuff about art. Art can be such a bourgeois debutante’s day out. It’s the kind of conversation you’d have in a student canteen…”

Doesn’t that assume everyone went to art school? Some of us might not have had those talks in the student canteen. What would she have preferred to talk about?

“You’re the interviewer, you ask me questions. I’m just not interested in all this stuff about art”.

So why did she become an artist, then?

“Because it’s a paradox. I didn’t choose art, it chose me. If you’ve spent your whole life depressed and wanting to die, you want everything to have a useful purpose, and putting things on gallery walls doesn’t”.

So why does Emin make her work for the art world? Why not do something else altogether with it?

“I don’t do very much gallery art anyway”, she replies. “When I make a 25 minute film about abortion and it’s seen by people who mostly aren’t artists, I create a space in the museum where people can relax and talk about their own experiences and emotions. You can give people a voice, you can be really listening… I don’t mean the homeless should be deprived of culture”, she adds hastily, “but the people who commissioned you don’t want to hear me talking about art because that’s really not what I’m about, at all.”


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