IN THE NEWS
Taking Tea with Tracey
Once the enfant terrible of British art, Tracey Emin reflects on more than 20 years disrupting the art world as she launches a new show in ‘strangely funny’ Hong Kong
Tracey Emin’s studio is on Tenter Ground in East London, in the labyrinthine streets behind Old Spitalfields Market. It’s spread across three floors: on the ground, half-finished canvasses and pencil drawings; on the middle floor, rows of books on dark bookshelves; at the top, a long kitchen table where I imagine the once-wild-child-now-established British artist hangs out with her aged cat, Docket. Of course there’s a cat.
“He’s getting on a bit” she says. “He’s just started doing these things that he used to do when he was a kitten. He’s kind of regressed.”
The 52-year-old, made famous by My Bed - her fetid sleeping place surrounded by underwear, condoms and, more routinely, her slippers- was formerly enfant terrible of hte London arts scene, now laden with several important initials (CBE, RA) after her name and about to open her first Greater China exhibition, I Cried Because I Love You, at Hong Kong’s Lehmann Maupin and White Cube galleries.
Sitting on the top floor of her studio on an unusually warm London winter’s day - a true Brit, the first thing Emin talks about is the weather - she is warm, acerbic and isn’t bothered when I say I peeked at the contents of her shopping basket years ago as I stood behind her in a supermarket check-out queue.
Eighteen years since My Bed, you’re less likely to find Emin falling out of London’s noisy bars - ‘I hand out in Mayfair sometimes and I come scuttling back. Scuttling, scuttling, scuttling’- but rather working on her new material, a departure from the Tracey of old. Her new work is going back to basics: pencil drawings, embroidery, bronze sculpture and neon.
This month is not Emin’s first trip out East. ‘When I first came to Hong Kong, I was so disappointed,’ she says. ‘But I had a really fantastic time and laughed a lot. Each time I’ve come to Hong Kong, I’ve laughed a lot. It’s a strangely funny place.’ (That’s probably because she had her fortune sticks read at a temple with local cultural impresario David Tang. It said she’d be ‘lonely and unhappy for a very long time’, at which point she was rushed to another temple to burn ‘loads of incense’ to ‘get cleansed’.)
As her Hong Kong exhibition debuts, Emin curates her five favorite pieces in Discovery’s version of Tracey Emin’s Unofficial Greatest Hits.
That’s me on the cover- I was 14. My lips are really big because the day before I’d done a backwards somersault on the trampoline and banged my lips so I had a fat lip. I thought ‘this looks good.’
Strangeland [her autobiography] is open. It’s so transparent. Some of it is like storm form, or dream form, and some of it is a stream of consciousness. Some of it is a straightforward diary. There are things in that book that should never have been written. It’s like someone reading your most intimate secrets. You don’t usually open a book and expect to read that. The written language is different to a picture. A picture is silent. A picture shows the emotions that the viewer puts onto it, but a book is the voice telling you. Strangeland is very, very visual, and it’s quite trippy as well.
A lot of it takes place in Turkey, and a lot of it comes from my memories as a child. There are parts that are totally made up, where I imagine my future. Some of it is really stupid. The parts that are most mature, that are really interesting, are when I was really young. When I’m older and established, I’m still behaving very young. It’s like I suddenly start to come alive and have fun.
MY BED, 1998
My Bed is iconic. My Bed sprung me into art history. It did exactly what I said it was doing at the time: it saved my life.
It has elevated me and my art status beyond anyone’s imagination When I think about the situation I was in with that bed in 1998, to how it was at the moment when it sold at christie’s for £2.54 million (HK$28.2 million) in 2014 with everybody applauding, it’s like a surreal dream.
Understanding that process should give people hope, from being on the verge of death to being on the verge of beyond your own life. It transformed my life.It’s an icon and it’s part of art history now. When you go see it at the Tate Britain, it looks very sweet.
The public love it. When people look at it now they don’t see it in a disgusting way. It’s a time capsule. There are bottles of vodka; I don’t drink spirits anymore. There’s The Guardian newspaper; I don’t read The Guardian that much anymore. There are all these things that have change in history for me.
EVERYONE I HAVE EVER SLEPT WITH 1963-1995, 1995
My tent was a little igloo tent and inside, appliquéd on the walls, were the names of everybody I’d ever slept with. There were 102 names and 32 of them I’d had sex with. There were all these moments of intimacy. My point was that you don’t sleep with people you don’t know.
If you’re on a plane and you’re in a middle seat in economy and you go to sleep, you won’t touch the people next to you. If you know the person, you’ll lean into each other. That’s what it’s about. Sleep is an intimate act, completely.
There were the names and then there were these corresponding little stories, but they weren’t next to the names. It wasn’t a trailblazing sex catalogue. It was about the intimate moment of sleep. You crawled into the tent and sat in there and read.
I never thought I was really going to learn something new again. To learn a lost-wax process and how to make bronzes is brilliant- I’ve gone from tiny 10-centimetre figures to two-metre figures. I’ve learnt to do that in the past four years.
It’s like my drawing. I’m using my hands, but it’s this fantastic kneading process and there’s no immediacy. When I’ve got the clay, I’m touching it and doing it. I respond to it. The bronzes are like a three-dimensional version of my drawings, so I get a real excitement from it.
With my bigger figures you can see all my thumbprints in them and all my hand marks. I love being tactile, I like touching things and I like being in control of what I do.
I’ve been making neons now for 21 years. They’re my signature piece. The different with me is that I grew up with neon. I grew up in Margate, in Kent, southeastern England, so I grew up with neon everywhere.
My handwriting is extraordinary because I left school when I was really young, and I still write in italic. I still have this script writing. I don’t write like other people. If it’s a day when my handwriting is bad, I won’t make the neon: it’s not going to be good.
See I Cried Because I Love You at Lehmann Maupin and White Cube galleries in Central from 21 March until 21 May