'I'd like to be a little bird' - Tracey Emin interview

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What would Tracey Emin do if she were invisible? LEE RANDALL lobs a few curveballs at a woman whose art and life are inseparable

BECAUSE SO MUCH OF HER WORK feels like a howl of pain, I'm startled by the gossamer-softness of Tracey Emin's voice, which is as light and quiet as a child's, though when we meet over china teacups at her Spittalfields studio, it's two days shy of her 45th birthday.

Near the entrance is a deck chair transformed by painting and text. On the floor is a partially composed blanket. A table supports myriad 2"x2" squares of canvas she'll display – imprinted with pictures – on 32 shelves at this summer's retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It will be her first big museum show in Britain, she says.

Surely not, I argue, so she patiently explains the difference between being "in" a collection or having one room during a competition, and a show of this importance. Throughout the morning she's keen for me to get things right. When I fail to grasp a point she repeats it until I do.

I am struck by her self-assurance, though I'm worried some will take that assessment as fuel for the oft-spoken criticism that she's a raving egomaniac. The point, as Patrick Elliott says in the show's catalogue, is that "Emin's life and art are bound up so tightly together that they cannot be separated".

Jeanette Winterson once wrote: "The question, when looking at her work, is not how to judge it but how to feel it." For me, Emin's art – in which I include her writing – resonates because she's brave enough to explore the dark, un-pretty recesses of the female psyche and report unflinchingly on what's there. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

I'm uncomfortable about the possibility of boring Emin, who once complained, "Journalists (always] ask the same questions. No-one asks me questions like, 'What did you do today? What are your hobbies? What did you have for breakfast? They always ask me about life, and meaning and feeling."

So I'm armed with dafties I hope will reap interesting results. Most are greeted with terrifying silence. I'm poised for a hasty, ignominious retreat, until she says, "You see why these questions are good? Because I don't already know the answers." Phew.

Who's the most influential person in your life?

"It changes constantly, but today it's Julian Schnabel. He talks to me like he's slapping me on the back – encouragingly – about life and art. He's changing me into a better person. He'd hate this, because we're friends, but I look up to him a bit.

"And the people I work with, who are always bossing me around. They stand up to me, of course; they're intelligent people. It's a team thing, isn't it? I don't always know the right answer. I have people who pass on their knowledge to me. I've got my bit and I'm in charge, but then there's this part that I really don't know, so I need advice."

Do you take it?

"Yes."

If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?

"My initial idea would be to be a fly on the wall, but I know that whenever you look through someone's diary or someone's pockets, you are going to find something you don't want to know about ..."

Finally she decides it would be entertaining to go down on someone and freak them out – they'd be getting a blow job but not quite believing or understanding what was happening. "That would be so funny. But if you were invisible you wouldn't have a body so how could you give a blow job?"

Unable to answer, I move on.

There are a lot of birds in your art. What sort would you choose to be?

She cups her hands. "I'd want to be a really, really sweet little bird. Not an eagle. Something really small. Like a hummingbird." Small like a baby, I later reflect, and the one thing we know about babies is that they demand attention. That seems to fit with Emin's dual nature, equal parts vulnerability and tyranny, as well as the profound, painful question running through her work: Am I loveable?

When did you first feel rich?

"In 1997, when I was at the South London Gallery. It meant that I could stop getting my rent paid for by the council. For the first time I could pay 100 per cent for my living, my taxes. I got a TV licence. I wasn't going to be on the dole again. That was feeling rich! It isn't just about the money, it's about feeling self-sufficient."

There's a huge connection between money and self-worth.

"Yeah! And I think there'll come a time in my life when I'll never have to talk to anybody. That's when I'll feel really rich, not in money, but just not to have that thing that drives you. You know, the thing that makes you feel hungry to go out there. It irritates me sometimes. It's a bit vulgar and I wish I didn't have it."

You did famously stay in bed for several days and make a work of art out of it.

"I don't mean in for a few days. I am out, out, out and I am talking about in, in, in. There will be a time when everything calms down and I can think: there's nothing to do today."

Would you have people come to see you?

Another pause. "I would like to be quiet."

Is anything too serious to be joked about?

"It depends on the context. People tell jokes that I don't really find funny at all."

Not jokes, joke. For example when my best friend was dying we joked about it a lot.

"You have to, though. You can't be crying about it. You can't go," she cracks us both up by mock-wailing, "'Oh, you're dying, you're dying – you're gone!' You don't want to spend the last time that way. I think that's one of the most amazing things about knowing you're going to die, if you find out and have time to put things in order."

Such as?

"My will. It's almost like a f***ing project. I've been doing my will for five years. I'd tidy lots of things up, throw away lots of things I don't want. That would be one really important thing."

Why bother cleaning up? You're dying. Leave it for someone else.

"Because they might think I care about something that I don't. Everything that I've touched they might turn into some sort of iconic shrine." She adopts a sarcastic tone of pretension, "Like a relic of my uniqueness. When actually that was something I intended on throwing away."

If you could have 25-hour days while everyone else had 24, what would you do?

"Sleep! And I'd eat. But I actually want a whole extra day in the week that no-one knows about. I would spend it on the rowing machine, swimming, in the sauna. A whole day for looking after myself."

No such luck. August is Edinburgh and there's a big show scheduled for June in London. Emin spends a long time in contemplation but likes a clear run of about six months to make the work.

"I don't want to start making it until I know what I'm doing. I don't want to make the same thing, what's the f***ing point? Oh, I know, because people like these pictures and they sell. Well I'm not interested in the money.

"Someone asked, why is the actual work intrinsically worth more than just having the idea explained, or a photograph of it?

"I'll tell you why, because if I didn't make it, it doesn't exist. I can give you the idea and you might have the right to make it, but if you tried, it won't look like what the idea should. That's one reason. The other main thing is that it's alchemy – the transference of the idea by the artist. There's magic to it."

Some artists have trouble selling their work. They can't part with it.

She leans forward menacingly. "Well maybe they're lucky that they don't have to give it up. Maybe they've got different principles and feel it breaks their integrity to give it up. I, on the other hand, have a lot more confidence. I believe that once you let it go it's out there doing a much bigger job than if it's lying on the studio floor. Art is a form of communication. It has to be seen to exist, even if it's a conceptual idea, then it has to be known."

And a picture of it isn't good enough?

"The picture's not the art; it's a representation of the art. Like Edvard Munch's Scream. You stand in front of it and go, 'Oh god, it's tiny. Somehow The Scream, in our imagination, is like the size of a building. And (the colours are] very dull. You have a completely different sense of Munch as a man making this work, which is quite mournful, and that's what the reality of the art is like. Something happens on the journey. This is why as I'm getting older I'm really getting into the real touch of things, tactile stuff.

"There are themes that reoccur again and again, images of ourselves in our mind's eye and from our consciousness. I'm interested in why the crouched-up figure keeps coming back. Why the figures with the splayed legs? Why do these figures of myself keep appearing?"

Are you getting closer to an answer?

"I feel compelled to keep asking. Now I'm looking forward to a series of paintings with that mind's-eye figure and then the real person.

"The real person is a woman approaching 50, who's ... I've been talking to lots of my male friends recently, saying, 'Do you find women over 55 attractive? When you think about having sex with her, plunging in, straight into her, how does it affect you, does it excite you?' They go, 'No, it doesn't.' They're being really honest. But when (these men are] 55, women of 25 and 35 will still find them attractive. 'Why is that,' my female friends in their fifties are saying, 'Where is it going? I see it slipping, where is it going?' For some women it could be 60 and for some women it could be 40, so don't quote me on this."

No, I get it. You're talking about the ageing process.

"I'm talking about the ageing process, the outside and the inside. If you say to a man you're 44, even if you look 35, the man will treat you totally differently. I never understood why women lied about their age. I used to think, what's the point? But there's a big point in lying, because men judge your fecundity. Once you're in mummy phase they don't have to make that effort.

"You're looking at me like I'm going mad."

I'm looking at you like someone about to turn 49 whom you're making hideously depressed.

"Yeah, you don't exist anymore. This is what I want to do my next lot of work about. It's not a feminist issue, nothing like that. It's, why am I disappearing? I couldn't stand the idea of making love with someone who treats me as a hole. I want to be absorbed and loved and caressed and passionately wanted, inside, outside, everything."

To cheer me up she says, "Come on, one more question."

Do you sing in the shower?

"No. I can't. If I'm very happy I might make up silly songs to sing to the cat, but I never sing for myself."

Coming indoors we find a surprise. "Why's there a Damien Hirst in my studio?" she asks about an enormous bubble-wrapped print of a heart. "Birthday present?" I suggest. Noticing an inscription, "To Tracey with thanks," she remembers donating a work of art to his charity auction. "He probably sent them to everyone. But fancy finding a Damien Hirst in your studio!"

&#149 Tracey Emin: 20 Years is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 2 August until 9 November.

Tracey Emin: Life works

1963 Born in Croydon.

1986 Awarded MA in painting from Royal College of Art.

1989 Opens The Shop with Sarah Lucas.

1993 First solo exhibition at White Cube, London.

1994 Makes her tent artwork, Everyone I've Ever Slept With, 1963-1995 (far left).

1995 My Bed is nominated for the Turner Prize.

2007 Represents Britain at the Venice Biennale.

2008 Made a member of the Royal Academy.