Tracey Emin

Interview with Tracey Emin: Art, life and autobiography

Tracey Emin’s new exhibition concentrates on her work as a filmmaker in which she usually takes the starring role

For over a decade Tracey Emin has been a prolific producer of art in a range of media that extend way beyond the making (or un-making) of her notorious sculpture, “My bed” (1999).

Despite her seeming ubiquity, Emin has not had a major exhibition in London since 2001, but she has just finished a feature film which goes on general release this autumn and has made her first foray into set design, for a production of Cocteau’s Les parents terribles seen in London last month. This month, she is also opening a mini-retrospective of her film works at the restaurant/gallery, Sketch.

The Art Newspaper: Tell us about the new work you are showing at Sketch.

Tracey Emin: I did a film of my dad dancing, that will be on show at Sketch, it’s going to have sunsets and the sea. It sounds corny, but I’ve also made two big neons, and they say “Meet me in heaven” and “I’ll wait for you.”

TAN: Are these addressed to your father?

TE: And to my cat as well, definitely. But it’s also romantic isn’t it? It’s like, love didn’t work out this time; it might do again another time. My mum and mad are getting on, and it’s about this fear that one day they won’t be there. And it’s to do with being alone. I am alone, and it makes me more fearful.

TAN: But being alone need not necessarily be a negative thing.

TE: No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the idea of birth and where you come from. I’m not talking about whether you are are single or not. I’m talking about the strongest, most fundamental, sense of remembering where you come from. I don’t want to forget that.

TAN: You have worked with a range of materials, but have consistently made films since “Why I never became a dancer” in 1995. What is it that appeals about film?

TE: I enjoy the medium because I have lots of fast ideas and film is about the moving image. I find it exciting. It communicates with both images and words. I prefer it to photography, although I make the odd photo; Polaroids I really love. At the moment, I’ve got no plans to make any more films, because I’ve just made a feature film, called “Top spot”. It’s 70 minutes long and was funded by the BBC. It’s not a narrative; it’s quite weird. I don’t want to talk about it; it’s not top secret but I just want people to go and see it.

TAN: Do you regard making a feature film as part of your art or as a separate enterprise?

TE: As part of my art. Totally. Absolutely. If it wasn’t going to be shown on TV, I’d show it in a gallery. But that’s how I see everything. I’m a terrible cook, but if I could cook, I would see that as art as well, it’s how much creative energy you put into something.

TAN: You’re now very famous. Is this problematic for you as an artist?

TE: I’m not that famous! People don’t know why they recognise me. Cab drivers say, “Oh, you’re that woman from the TV”. It is a problem in that I don’t expect to be chosen to do the Venice Biennale, or asked to make something for the plinth at Trafalgar Square. I never get put forward for things like that because I’m just too obvious. “Done to death” is the expression, isn’t it?

TAN: The establishment is quite puritanical about artists with high profiles: look at the Tate’s ambivalent attitude towards Damien Hirst. It only owns two sculptures, and both of those are early ones.

TE: But the Tate has just made a major, major acquisition of my work: major! I mean block-bustingly brilliant, like two rooms’ full.

TAN: What did they buy?

TE: All the text from “Exploration of the soul”; the sculpture and film of my dad with the flower; a large photograph of me in Monument Valley; a blanket; seagulls.

I can’t remember what else, but big, big.

TAN: So that rather refutes what you were just saying; in fact, you are being acknowledged by the establishment?

TE: For the first time, suddenly something’s come up. But I’m just not considered in the same worthy category of national collections.

TAN: On a personal level, is your fame a distraction from your art? You’ve made yourself very accessible: many people think they know a lot about you.

TE: It doesn’t bother me that much; what bothers me more is the knock-on effect it has on my private life.

TAN: Your work is about intimate details of your life, albeit in an edited version. The downside of collapsing the boundaries between you, your autobiography, and your art is perhaps that people get too fixated on the life and times of Tracey Emin rather than on looking at the work itself?

TE: But when I do have an exhibition, people look at the work. I had my little show at Carl’s [Freedman’s Counter Editions Gallery in London] last year, but I haven’t had a major show here since 2001. That’s three years ago, so it is good for me to show work. When I was applying for money from the Film Council, they said that I hadn’t made any films. In fact, I’ve made loads of small films, but they weren’t even aware of them.

TAN: What are you doing now the film is finished?

TE: Something tactile. Now I need to make things with my hands. Directing and editing and all that kind of thing: it’s really difficult for my tiny brain to turn on and turn off all the time. I just want to get rid of the film stuff. I’m making some quilts at the moment, and some papier-mâché birds. I’d also like to start my own label, making things.

TAN: Fashion?

TE: No, tea cosies.

TAN: Household goods?

TE: Yes, definitely. I’ve been thinking about that more and more. Then I could be both creative, and when the whole high creative side is on holiday, I could earn my bread and butter.

TAN: You have assistants, but the physical experience of making is still crucial to you?

TE: It is really important that I am there, that what gets made is a part of me. I know that if I didn’t work like this, I’d be 10 times richer than I am now, and produce 10 times more work, but I don’t want to. I still want to keep control and keep a grip on things. It’s my pleasure, isn’t it?

TAN: You have to delegate?

TE: I’ve never sewn every blanket myself: when I didn’t have any money, I’d have friends who would come round and help me do it. It’s actually quite a nice thing to sit around sewing with your friends. In those days, I only made one blanket a year or something. But other people can’t make the blankets for me. They can do the sewing for me, but I have to tell them how to sew and what colour threads to use. I cut out all the letters and do all the placing. Making a blanket, is not at all the same process as a sweatshop where there are people sitting there sewing. It’s like doing an oil painting: you might put purple on, and then you change your mind and scrape it off and put another colour on, and it’s like that with the blankets, with the layering of all the patches and everything.

TAN: How do you feel you have grown as an artist in the last decade?

TE: If you’ve made seminal work, you never know when the next one is coming or where it’s coming from. Most artists never make a seminal piece of art in their lives, and if you’ve made two, which I have, then I’ve done all right.

TAN: And they are: “My bed” and the tent (“Everyone I’ve ever slept with, 1963-95”).

TE: Yes. Then, sorting out a lifestyle that I like is really important to me. I often think that I don’t really know anything, and then, when I think about my work, and my sewing, and about my blankets, I know what I’m doing: I can cut out a sentence in felt in five minutes; it would take most people that amount of time just to cut out one letter. I know what I’m doing with my work, and that’s really a nice feeling, that I’ve created something that wasn’t there before, that’s mine.

* Tracey Emin’s “Can’t see past my own eyes”, is at Sketch Gallery, 9 Conduit Street, London, W1 (until 10 July) T +44 (0)870 770 6515


Born: 1963, London. Lives and works in London

Education: 1986 BFA Maidstone College of Art; 1989 MA RCA.

Solo shows include: 2004: Roslyn Oxley, Sydney. 2003: Counter Gallery, London. 2002: Modern Art, Oxford; Stedelijk, Amsterdam 2001; White Cube, London. 2000: Fig.1, London. 1999: Lehmann Maupin, New York. 1995: Tracey Emin Museum, London.