The New Yorker
Talk of the Town: Tracey Emin in Times Square
February 20, 2013
Tracey Emin Loves Art
By: Emma Allen
It is hard to imagine that many of the assignations that take place around midnight in the eighth-floor bar of the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square are particularly romantic. The décor is reminiscent of a rundown airport’s business-class lounge—its teal-leather chairs and scuffed rug’s swirly abstractions scream layover in Bangor; the absence of a plate of complimentary cheese cubes comes as rather a shock. Yet last week, in the final hour of Valentine’s Day Eve, Tracey Emin, the forty-nine-year-old British artist known for her blunt sexual themes and cheeky provocations, sat there sipping a vodka tonic, and talked about love.
“I think as you get older, love is a very different emotional feeling to when you were fifteen, or when you were thirty,” said Emin, who wore a gray-plaid jumper and had her blonde hair in a high ponytail. “When you’re fifty, and a woman as well, and you’re going through your menopause, you feel very differently about love and about sex and about lust. What I want now is that warmth, that coziness, affection, trust, all of those kinds of things. I start off with them first, and then work my way, eh, down.”
Emin was in midtown to view a new installation for the first time: for the three minutes before midnight, each night in February, her art is appearing on digital billboards throughout Times Square. Over the past two decades, she has produced neon signs, with short texts in her own handwriting, on subjects from the somewhat crass (“Is Anal Sex Legal” and “Is Legal Sex Anal”) to the bittersweet (“With You I Want To Live”). In Times Square, screens show digitized versions of six of Emin’s more romantic neons, including “I Promise To Love You,” “Love Is What You Want,” and “You Touch My Soul.” Unlike their physical counterparts, these works—which she created for s[edition], a Web site that sells digital limited editions by contemporary artists—are animated, so that the messages are scrawled out as you watch.
“It’s just really, really lovely and easy and effervescent and light. It’s not heavy, you know? And there’s nothing cynical about it,” Emin said, adding, with a signature lopsided smirk, “But I’ve got to stop calling them LSD screens.”
There is a seeming incongruence between the tender Valentine’s-pegged installation and Emin’s provocative early artworks—“My Bed,” for instance, for which she displayed the actual site of her post-breakup meltdown, complete with stained sheets, cigarette butts, liquor bottles, and dirty panties; or “Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995,” a tent appliquéd with relevant names. But then again, Emin’s interpretation of the romantic history that features so prominently in her work has changed over the intervening years.
“I now don’t think that I’ve ever been in love,” she said. “I’ve been loved and I think I’ve loved, but I think the times that I’ve been in love it was a desire to possess or want or own. It wasn’t just about a free admission of the feeling of love.” These days, she sends valentines to her friends. She prefers Hallmark cards with “cute little animals,” and gets the post office clerk to write out her message and the recipient’s address, so that her identity remains secret. “Everyone likes to get valentines,” she said.
She ordered another vodka tonic, then affectionately recalled an e-mail that her studio had received from newlyweds who had bought a digital neon work, priced at eighty dollars, and had projected it at their wedding. (Works purchased from s[edition] can be streamed on TVs or played through apps on your phone.) “Isn’t that romantic?” Emin asked. Since artists retain the image rights to a work even after the physical object has been sold, s[edition] can offer inexpensive digital versions of art works, which in their physical forms cost much, much more. (P. Diddy reportedly paid around $95,000 for an “I Listen To The Ocean And All I Hear Is You” neon at Art Basel Miami Beach, in 2011.)
“I love art,” Emin went on. “And art loves me more than any man has ever loved me. Art has never let me down. When I’ve been my lowest of my low, art has always come and picked me up. I can’t say that about the men I’ve had relationships with. It’s about forever and ever. The last thing I do before I die will be art, definitely. Whereas people come and people go. I wish I could have a lover like art, that loved me as passionately as art loves me, or who I could give as much back to.”
She insisted that, if you read closely, you’ll find this skepticism about the permanence of love in the work; even the sweetest of the Times Square messages has a twist. “‘I Promise To Love You,’ means like, What, you’re not going to love me? Why have you got to promise?” she explained. “‘I Listen To The Ocean And All I Hear Is You’ can be, You’re alone, and you’re walking on the beach, and it sounds really beautiful, and you think of the person who loves you. Or, on the other hand, you’re trying to listen to the ocean and this person will just not stop fucking talking.”
By 11:54 P.M., a small group of Emin fans—many of them looking like they’d been teleported from West London’s King’s Road, circa 1975, their spikes, studs, and leather intact—had gathered in front of the Marriott. People milled about, camera phones in hand, unsure of which screens would soon turn over from giant prancing underwear models and cruising SUVs to art. “I brought my Valentine with me, he’s in my bag,” one woman confided, unzipping a satchel to reveal a small brown dog named Morris. Then somebody gasped, “It’s happening!” and everybody raised their arms and began snapping photos. The ensuing appreciative silence was broken only by a distant car alarm and a man across the street yelling, “Umbrellas! Five dollars!”
Various s[edition] employees roved around, encouraging people to post their photos to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag “MidnightMoment” for a chance to win a digital limited edition. Then Emin emerged from the hotel, carrying a clear umbrella, on which was printed “I heart N.Y.” She began kissing friends. Many turned away from the billboards to photograph the artist, which led nearby tourists to follow suit, under the assumption that she must be someone famous. Even the guy who had been absorbed in taking photographs of a puddle gave up and began shooting Emin.
A girl with bleached hair and wearing military boots asked Emin to draw something on her arm, but the artist declined, claiming that she couldn’t risk the girl getting it made into tattoo. A young Scottish man with a nose ring asked Emin if she remembered meeting him at her Hayward Gallery retrospective; she did not. A heavily bearded man who wore shorts and a ski cap with a reindeer design ran up to Emin and thrust a monograph and a pen into her hands.
“Who should I make it out to?” she asked.
“Scooter,” the bearded man said, blushing.
She signed the book, “To Scooter, with love, Tracey Emin.”