'I really know what I'm talking about. I'm a brilliant f***ing artist' - Tracey Emin interview

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Her work divides the critics and confuses the public, but Tracey Emin has no doubts about the power of her talent. Now, in the run-up to a major retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, she talks about creation, destruction and how art is always there to save her

A BACK street in east London, the day so hot it feels like the flesh of the world has been burned off and we're down to dry, dusty bone. An angry kind of heat, simmering with surliness. Behind green metal doors, a small courtyard entrance to Tracey Emin's studio, where the first thing to catch your eye is a picture of the artist in leather gear, scowling; a hard, lived-in face that has experiences stitched on top of it like patches on one of her famous appliqud blankets. And on the wall above, in pink paint, like a careless scrawl of lipstick on a mirror, the words 'THE BOSS'.

Emin's work always seemed like today's heat: searing, stripped to the bone. A visual cri de coeur. The infamous 'unmade bed', rumpled, spread with dirty sheets, a debris of condoms and KY jelly and tablets round it. Or the sexually explicit drawings. Or the domed tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, that had names stitched to the walls and small texts about the people randomly displayed.

Emin produces paintings, monoprints, sculptures, embroideries and blankets, but she has always used words in her art too – often four-letter ones that scream out angrily. She is a member of the Royal Academy now, and is about to have a retrospective at the National Galleries of Scotland, which suggests establishment acceptance, but she has never shed the enfant terrible persona. With artists such as Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, Emin sparked public debate about what art is and whether a pickled shark or an unmade bed qualify.

It's almost jarring when Emin appears in the studio and you hear this tiny little voice: high, feminine. A kitten voice from a tiger. The room is cool and airy after the dusty streets: rolls of cascading fabrics, laundry baskets stuffed with remnants, a soft teddy bear face-down in the cloth, a newly arrived framed red heart from Hirst as a thank-you for charity work. We have a tray of tea with china cups, on a table with an embroidered alphabet cloth, and Emin pours, handing me one that she makes strong and puts sugar in without asking because I'm Scottish and we eat a lot of shortbread in Scotland. It makes me laugh – she's right, I take sugar – but I suspect Emin might be a bit cross if people made assumptions about her. You're part Turkish, Tracey – here's a kebab for lunch.

She talks very politely, but every so often she'll say something quite aggressive, still in the little quiet voice, so it's confusing. "I've just told you that," she snaps at one point. And when she says she needs to lose a stone in weight, I haven't said a word but she looks at my expression and says, "I don't care what you think." Why is she saying it like that? I ask curiously, and her tone softens and she says it's just that people always say she looks fine, but it's what she feels that's important. So yes, a bit volatile. She gets really embarrassed after outbursts and wishes she hadn't sworn at people and had just kept nice and quiet.

But you don't look at Emin's work and then turn up expecting the woman next door. She's different, and her difference makes her the artist she is. Interestingly, she doesn't close down the interview when things get challenging; she extends it and argues. Of course, she's known for being quite angry (she says 'passionate'), and there are two reasons why people display anger. One is just straightforward aggression and desire for power. The second is intense vulnerability. Which applies to Emin?

IF THE art is strange, the life that begets it is too. Emin grew up in Margate, the daughter of Pamela Cashin and Envar Emin, a Turkish Cypriot. Envar already had a wife and children and divided his time between his two families. He owned a hotel overlooking Margate seafront, but the hotel went bust and so did his relationship with Pamela, who was left to bring up Tracey and her twin brother Paul alone. "My dad really f***ed up not being around. It was really irresponsible. I needed my dad to protect me, and he didn't, and that's bad."

Emin wrote about her troubled childhood in her book Strangeland. Because her mother worked, she and Paul were often left alone. She was sexually abused by one of her mother's boyfriends as well as by a stranger, and at the age of 13 she was raped for the first, but not last, time.

Unusually, she does not describe any real fear when discussing these episodes. Instead, she says she was very sexually precocious as a child. "I started masturbating when I was really little. So what happened to me as I got older was that I was trying to work out, what was this? Was I the problem? Where's the level of innocence? Did I have any? Well, of course I did. But there were never any boundaries for me as a child, and things just kind of snowballed and escalated in weird ways."

Sex is such an important influence in her work that it's interesting to find out what shaped Emin's sexual attitudes. "It's a really tricky thing. I was really happy with sex when I was young, really happy with the whole thing, whereas now I am more confused about it." Why confused? "When I was 15 it was just fun. You did it where you wanted, with who you wanted and it was just fun."

You'd think she hadn't been raped. "I wish there was another word that wasn't rape. I didn't go along with it, I didn't want to do it, but I went along with it as if it was an initiation thing. That's what you were supposed to do." Is she saying her rapist didn't know she didn't want sex? Oh no, she says, he knew. Well, that's rape then, isn't it? "I don't know where you grew up," she says (a Glasgow council estate where we knew what rape was and wasn't), "but it happens all the time."

Emin's attitude is so dangerous it's infuriating. Rape is rape. "It is rape but it's not rape on the level of… I haven't had my womb punctured with a bayonet. My arse wasn't ripped to pieces." Bayonets? Punctured wombs? Is she so desensitised to normality that only such extremities penetrate her psyche?

"As upsetting and distressing as it was, and much as I didn't want it to happen, I went, 'Oh yeah, it's what happens.'" She went home, told her mother, who washed her coat, and that was it. Then there was the time someone spiked her drink with acid and drove her away in a van. "I was lain on my back while they were f***ing me, not understanding what was happening, really confused. That to me is pretty horrific. So what do I do? I know that person's name. What should I do – ring up the police and tell them?"

Why is that even a question? But Emin seems as frustrated with me as I am with her. She thinks you just get on with these things. Once, she was held down by a group of friends while someone had sex with her. "That was pretty horrific, actually, but who would you tell about it? It wasn't like it was unusual. Do you understand?"

I don't. Until suddenly what I do understand is that Emin, on some level, thinks she doesn't matter. If someone else told her they were raped at 13, what would she think? "I would think that was terrible." So this lack of shock is not about rape, but about her being raped. Why does she value herself so little? "Because I wasn't the only person it happened to. It's the way things were in Margate. People started having sex when they were really young because the seaside lent itself to it. If you were having sex with someone you wanted, it was actually quite pleasant, by the sea or the grass. It wasn't like being down an alley with shit everywhere. It was almost, like, kind of romantic."

Ironically, although Emin writes about really sordid events, you sense a deep romanticism in her, a constant searching for something beautiful in life. The part of her that says being a twin gives you an inexplicable sense of loneliness. The part that writes, "My whole body craves to be held. I am desperate to love and be loved. I want my mind to float into another's. I want to be set free from despair by the love I feel for another."

She has had a series of long-term relationships with various artists: Billy Childish, Carl Freedman, Mat Collishaw. She's now with Scottish photographer Scott McKnee but doesn't live with him. She describes herself as monogamous but says Collishaw was consistently unfaithful. "That really tormented me terribly. I saw it as abandonment." She doesn't seem to see herself as victim, but to the outsider she's a hawk one minute and a small bird bloodied by a prowling cat the next. (Birds are a recurrent theme in her work and in Self-Portrait as a Small Bird she is vulnerable and a bit bedraggled.) She loves cats, though. Her pet cat, Docket, became ill recently, and she wrote emotionally about him in her column in the Independent. What really scared her was "that the time will come when I'll have no place for my love to go".

Docket is her baby. She seems both fascinated and horrified by the idea of motherhood, partly because her own childhood was a mess she wouldn't want to be repeated. She feels sorry for her mum because her mum wanted to be a dancer and she'd have been a brilliant dancer but she had kids instead. Her mum walked out of the abortion clinic at the last minute – she'd have stayed if she'd known it was twins – and sometimes when she was unhappy as a child Tracey shouted that it would have been better if her mother had aborted her. It seems a bit sad that she knew – and maybe connected to that sense of herself not mattering – but Emin insists it didn't affect her.

Her own abortions did, though. After the first, she tore up her paintings. When she started working again, the abortions featured in her art, but Emin immediately closes down any suggestion that she struggles emotionally with what happened. "I did the right thing. Having a baby with someone who didn't want me, didn't love me…" She was drinking heavily, had no money and couldn't have coped. She always said she couldn't have a baby until she stopped drinking, had a million pounds in the bank and passed her driving test. The driving test was the hardest bit.

She doesn't regret not being a mother but regrets not meeting someone who wanted her to be. She says she never considers what her aborted children would have been like, but without thinking adds that they'd be 18 now. It made it a bit harder that she believes in the soul – or maybe easier. "My belief is that the soul might have existed a long time before and just got caught up with me… I haven't killed the soul. I killed the physical being… not killed it but terminated its existence."

When she started making art again in 1993/94, her subconscious surfaced. "I was drawing stuff that I've never even talked about. It was fantastic, like… whoa, the release. Some of the drawings – it was almost as if I had my eyes closed and I was just doing it, like an automatic thing, like someone who had been in trauma and never spoken about it and suddenly someone gave them a pencil and paper and they started drawing the trauma. I was always interested in expressionism, in emotional art – because I had all this stuff inside that had to come out."

SO LET'S talk about art. Her life wraps around it like a supportive vine, or maybe it's the other way round. Why, I ask, is my unmade bed just an unmade bed and hers is art? "Because you didn't say that yours was art and you didn't feel that it was. I saw it as art and felt that it was. I said that it was and showed that it was. I have transferred what I feel on to someone else looking at it. That's the alchemy. That's the magic. I was the person who had to have the conviction in the first place. If you think about it, is it really worth all those fights and arguments and trauma to defend something that isn't real? No, it's not."

If her bed isn't art, she argues, why has it become an iconic image of art? But perhaps it's more an iconic image of the debate about the nature of art than an icon of art itself, a debate that centres on the relevance of thought and concept as well as technique. Emin's art has often shocked. Is there a connection between art and shocking people? None. Between art and beauty? "Yeah. You are filled with emotion. Art lives in another place, in another realm – same as nature. You are filled up, emotionally filled up, by the things surrounding you. It's just paint on canvas, and yet it's not just that. It's not just materials, substances – it's something else."

Can she describe the emotional process of making any one of her most famous pieces? She chooses her tent listing the people she slept with – literally as well as sexually. (It included family and her dead foetuses.) "Some people you just write down their names, some you think about for ages. Some you get angry about, some you start crying about because they're dead. Some you really think about what they look like: their eyes, their eyelashes. Others you think about how much you dislike them. Others you think about their smell and how putrid they are. Some people you barely remember and they mean nothing to you. But as you go through this list of names, you delve into a place, your mind goes where it's never been before, a memory recall of emotion, and you think about sleep and the intimacy with other people. You are actually thinking about how you react within the world.

"That's the thinking process of it, but there's also the handmade process of it. Some of those names, it's like carving out gravestones. It's not like, 'Oh, that looks pretty in pink.' It's not like that. It was never like that."

Is she ever unconvinced by art? Yes, she says. Think it's a con? No, not a con. She gives her own example: say someone had coffee every day in a polystyrene cup, and they bit the cup each day to show their level of anger, then dated it. "Some days they'd be more angry, some less. It's a bullshitty idea but it would look quite interesting. You can see it, a load of cups on the shelves with dates and toothmarks." If she did that, someone would pay for it, wouldn't they? "But I wouldn't do it." Why not? "Because on a base level it's quite corny, studenty."

Some people might find an unmade bed studenty and corny. But Emin is absolutely adamant that "taste cannot get mixed up with what's good and what's bad". There is a definite standard. Quality control. But presumably there are great artists out there, undiscovered? "No. They'd have made it if they were any good." I wonder how she can possibly say that. It shows enormous faith in the establishment for someone supposedly so anarchic. "Why would I be anti-establishment when the establishment is so good to me?" she demands.

What does she think of someone like Jack Vettriano, then – loved by the public but not the establishment? "It's different kinds of worlds for different people. You can't go round saying Jack Vettriano is a better or worse artist than Lucian Freud – you can't even relate them or put them together. It's like different plates in the earth." She wouldn't complain too much if she was Vettriano. "I'd just carry on doing what he's doing, and if he's enjoying it I think it's great." But what does she think when she looks at his work? "Whenever I see it, I really, really look at it. And I think, 'Wow! Weird.'"

Plenty of people think the same looking at Emin's work. But if the establishment embraces you then perhaps you embrace it back because it affirms your talent. "I'm not stupid," Emin says. "I don't go around throwing up and saying, 'This is art.' I went to art school for seven years. I've got a first-class honours degree in printmaking. I've got a master of arts in painting. I really know what I'm talking about. I'm a brilliant f***ing artist. If I wasn't, I wouldn't be having the level of success that I am."

A brilliant f***ing artist. The words sound quite angry but the voice is still small. When we spoke about anger, she had asked, what does it suggest to me if someone comes out, fighting and screaming all the time? In her case, I'd said, insecurity. "Totally," she agrees.

WHEN WE meet, it's a few days before Emin's 45th birthday. It's making her think "about what it's like to be a woman going towards 50, living alone with her cat". What's left of the angst of her youth? "That I think everything comes at a cost, and I have to juggle in my head if it's worth it."

She no longer drinks heavily but there will always be a pebble in her shoe. That's just the way she is. She wishes her life was "safer, more secure". She'd be more secure if she could ditch the clutter – "The clutter that makes me who I am, my personality. I'd like to get rid of some of that, strip down to who I really am."

Stepping back out into the baking street, I pass The Boss picture again. But it's not in photographs that you glimpse what Emin is. It's art that has been the crucible of intense heat that has stripped her to the bone. It has been the one stable element of her life. If she's ever tempted to question the value of art, it rushes up and slaps her: "Like, how f***ing dare you talk about me like that or have that attitude, when I've protected you and looked after you all the time. When you've had nobody, when you've had no support, when you've been completely alone, when you've felt faith has left you, when you've thought you have no friends, who have you had left? Art. I haven't left you."

• Tracey Emin: 20 Years is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from August 2 until November 9. Entry costs 6 (4). See www.nationalgalleries.org for more details