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A Conversation with Tracey Emin

By Stephanie Baily


With her first exhibition in Greater China opening at Lehmann Maupin and White Cube in Hong Kong in March, I Cried Because I Love You (21 March to 21 May 2016), Ocula talks to Tracey Emin about her long career. The conversation considers how the artist has developed since her survey exhibition at Turner Contemporary in 2012, a world-class museum located in Emin’s hometown of Margate, where the artist grew up. In that show, Emin presented an entirely new body of work, marking a departure which has seen the artist explore, in more formal terms, the female figure, leading to exhibitions at White Cube in 2014 and the Leopold Museum in 2015.


In Hong Kong, Emin will present ‘a continuous exhibition of painting, embroidery and neon across two spaces that reflects the diversity of her practice.’ A central aspect to this narrative is a large stone located in an olive grove outside Emin’s studio in the South of France, on which the artist has based a series of drawings that commemorate a marriage ceremony which took place in summer 2015. The stone, for Emin, represents a metaphor for stability and enduring love—love being a concept that has defined the scope of Emin’s practice from the very beginning.


I’d like to start with your 2012 exhibition She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea (26 May to 23 September 2012) at Turner Contemporary in your hometown, Margate. With the view of the coast visible from within the gallery space, it seemed such a perfect articulation of how Margate must have so deeply influenced your work—the coastline feels at once like a potential release and a trap. I wonder if you could talk about what this exhibition meant to you as an artist coming home to where it all began? The exhibition opened less than a year after your mid-career survey at the Hayward closed, after all, and presented a new series of works that suggested a real break from the past.


With my show in Margate I really wanted to do something that was more optimistic, that had light. Everybody in Margate was aware of my past and history and that was the idea I had from the start, to show something that showed that my life had moved on but was still related to my past. The most wonderful thing about my show in Margate was that 170,000 people went to view it; that really was a feeling of being home.


The exhibition also included these remarkable erotic drawings by JMW Turner and Rodin. Turner being an artist whose work constantly invoked the British coast, and the billowing clouds that rush over the island. I wonder if you could talk about the influence Turner had on you?


When I was a student I actually did a series of oil paintings of Margate in the style of Turner. I find his work very sensual and extremely passionate. It was fascinating as a child knowing that a great artist was associated with Margate.


Another major influence on your work has been Egon Schiele. I understand you have been obsessed with him since you were 15? What led you to Schiele, and what was it about his work that spoke to you at such a young age?


David Bowie’s cover for ‘Heroes’ was influenced by Egon Schiele, and that’s how I became aware of him. I went to the local bookshop and found a book on Expressionism and there was a tiny image of Egon Schiele, a self-portrait that I could totally relate to. I think this was a defining moment for me in terms of my understanding of art.


Your 2014 White Cube show, The Last Great Adventure is You (8 October to 16 November 2014), took place at the same time as an Egon Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London. Somehow, the two exhibitions together put into perspective your prolific career, which recalls the same sense of urgency Alfred Werner observed in Schiele when he referred to him as an artist who not only relieved himself of his anxieties, but also somehow made the public participate in them. I wonder what this exhibition at White Cube meant to you, given that it preceded your exhibition at the Leopold Museum, Where I want to Go (24 April to 14 September 2015), which presented more than 80 of your works alongside Schiele's, and which referenced your debt to Modernism?


My show at White Cube was a big move forward for me. I showed bronzes and paintings, it was very important to me that the work showed the creative process with my hands. It is only now I’m in my fifties that I really feel that my mind and heart and soul and hands are actually coming together. I just wish it had happened earlier. I think it showed in my White Cube show.


In the White Cube exhibition, I particularly enjoyed a collection of deformed bronze female figures which recalled an interview you gave in 2002, in which you stated: ‘I couldn’t see myself making a bronze sculpture—it’s not me.’ And yet, after all this sustained reworking and rethinking, it became you. How do you feel about this development? And further to this, which artists have been the greatest formal influences on you and why? You have mentioned Bacon, Rodin, and Picasso ... are there others?


Yes, Louise Bourgeois, I actually had the fortune to collaborate with Louise Bourgeois before she died on a series of images called Do Not Abandon Me. I became friends with Jerry Gorovoy from the Louise Bourgeois Foundation and he introduced me to the foundry that she used and this gave me a lot of confidence in terms of learning the lost wax process and over a period of the last four or five years I have become very excited about bronze sculpture. Its something I never thought I would be able to do, like learning a language at an old age, its something now which I am pursuing and learning more and more as the days go by.


Related to the last question is how your take on the formal study of the female form is subverted, somehow, by the fact that it is your own gaze, and not a man's, which is studying and representing it?


It is my body; I know my body better than anyone else. I am my best model; it makes it really different that I am the woman because I am not viewing my body with a sexual gaze but with an understanding one.


What was interesting about that 2014 White Cube show was the positive reception you received from the British press, which reflected another aspect that has defined your career: your relationship to the public and to the media. On the critical battering you received from the UK’s critics for your 2007 Venice Biennale pavilion, you noted, 'The press was cruel, because they didn’t just dislike my work; they disliked me, personally—my voice, the way I dress, the way I look, my attitude. I’m sure they wouldn’t have carried on that way if I were a man. I’m absolutely convinced of that.' Looking back, how do you feel your changing relationship with the media reflects the way people have learned to understand your work?


I don’t think it’s so much people learning to understand me as it is also the fact that I have a much quieter diligent attitude. I haven’t been brow-beaten but I don’t really have time or energy to fight back anymore. I just have to get on with my work. I think that after 20 years of being in the public eye thankfully people are more judgmental about my work rather than the size of my breasts.


You have said you are an Expressionist. This manifested in the works that dealt directly with your past, including themes of rape, assault and the horrific side-effects of such experiences, including alcoholism and non-existent self-esteem, coupled with a deep and unbearable need to be loved while being acutely incapable of letting love in. Your later work appears to present a calmer Emin: one who understands, as expressed in one of the neons included in the 2014 White Cube show, that 'the soul will always do what it needs to do.’ I wonder if you could talk about your relationship with art in this regard—as a conduit for the soul to express itself?


All those feelings are still there, except I have just learnt to deal with them better. All I seem to do is work and think about my ideas and by doing that I tend to resolve more of my problems in life or just don’t have time for problems anymore. I am so lucky that I have art, it looks after me, it holds me, it feeds me and even though sometimes I may have a creative block, art has never left me, it is always there.


Your work recalls another description of Schiele put forward by Alfred Werner: ‘Too many have yet to see that beneath the agitation in Schiele’s drawings and paintings there is the calm of a brooding philosophy which searches out the remotest corners of the soul.’ I wonder how your exhibition in Hong Kong at Lehmann Maupin and White Cube might reflect on the corners of the soul you have reached at this point in your practice?


After May I am taking a year off which will give me sometime to do some soul searching. I desperately crave more time to think. Art should never feel like a treadmill, it should be an expression of the soul. I would be happy if I can just go away somewhere and scream even if no one hears me.