... but won’t lie in it. Tracey Emin on why she’s leav­ing Lon­don for Mar­gate

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEW BY SARAH OLIVER

Tracey Emin is the woman who turned sex-stained sheets, used con­doms, snotty tis­sues and dirty knick­ers into one of the world’s most fa­mous pieces of art. She burst into the pub­lic con­scious­ness 20 years ago, drunk and sweary on a Chan­nel 4 arts pro­gramme and has been shock­ing every­one ever since – not least when she came out as a Cameron Tory. Two years ago, she mar­ried her­self to a large rock in the back gar­den of her home in France.

Go­ing to in­ter­view her, it’s best to ex­pect the un­ex­pected. And she does not dis­ap­point.

The sex­u­ally frank and hard-par­ty­ing Emin has, she says, ab­stained from sex for the last six years and doesn’t drink much at all these days, cer­tainly not spir­its. She has only been stoned three times in her whole life (def­i­nitely not this cen­tury) and man­aged to buy her first home be­cause she saved a lot of money not tak­ing co­caine.

De­spite hav­ing de­voted much of her ca­reer to ex­plor­ing the ec­stasies and des­o­la­tions of hu­man love, she has been sin­gle for al­most a decade, pre­fer­ring to live with her el­derly cat Docket, who is 17-and-a-half.

Most shock­ing of all, she thinks Lon­don is too busy and chaotic for cre­ative peo­ple these days and is head­ing to the sea­side. Tracey Emin, icon­o­clast and ag­i­ta­tor, as syn­ony­mous with the cap­i­tal’s arts scene as Andy Warhol was to New York, is mov­ing her stu­dio to Mar­gate, her child­hood home.

As she is shar­ing all this, I’m strug­gling to shift my gaze from her feet, which are en­cased in a mag­nif­i­cent pair of creamy sheep­skin slip­pers. She’ll be wear­ing them be­cause she hates the sound of boots or heels clomp­ing around arty places, but they do kind of sum things up. Even some­one of Emin’s vi­brancy and raw­ness seems to need a bit of mid-life ease.

‘I have been around the world. I am tired. I want to go home,’ she ad­mits. ‘I am 54. That’s quite old. And you know what they say, you can take the girl out of Mar­gate but you can’t take Mar­gate out of the girl.’

She is an­nounc­ing her re­turn the best way she knows how: by mak­ing, or rather re-mak­ing, My Bed, the 1998 art in­stal­la­tion cre­ated as a mon­u­ment to bleak times and a bro­ken heart, which is go­ing on show in the re­sort’s Turner gallery.

She’s for­got­ten how many times she’s in­stalled it over the years, but sounds un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally shy about un­veil­ing it in front of her old friends and neigh­bours. ‘In Mar­gate, when My Bed is show­ing, it’s re­ally funny, I’ll feel a bit, erm… not em­bar­rassed, but with the bed, when I made it, de­cided to present it as an art­work, I never thought it was go­ing to be like it is.’ She means sem­i­nal, en­dur­ing and end­lessly provoca­tive.

The next time she sees My Bed, last sold for around £2.5 mil­lion, it will be bagged up in hun­dreds of in­di­vid­ual bits and look, she says, ‘like some­thing from CSI [the Amer­i­can TV foren­sic sci­ence drama]. Lit­er­ally, there’ll be a bag marked “cig­a­rette end with lip­stick”.’

She sees it as a kind of ‘time cap­sule’ of her life. ‘There is a belt that used to go around my waist and now it only fits around my thigh. There’s all kinds of con­tra­cep­tion, a vodka bot­tle, cig­a­rettes. But I don’t smoke [she used to], I don’t have con­tra­cep­tion, I don’t have pe­ri­ods any more or wear re­ally tiny un­der­wear – these are all things from the past. It’s like a ghost.’

It doesn’t sound like one she’s scared of: to­day Tracey Emin is very well, thank you.

She’s tanned a deep, hot-sum­mer brown; she swims and has med­i­ta­tive mas­sages; she’s lost weight and got fit­ter. Emo­tion­ally, she’s sta­ble. That fa­mil­iar face, once al­most al­ways caught in a kind of half-smile, half-snarl, is still agile and expressive, though she def­i­nitely doesn’t look feral any more. As well as the slip­pers she is wear­ing a util­i­tar­ian skirt and T-shirt, her only fanci­ness a pair of long sil­ver starfish ear­rings, which seize the light in her bright white stu­dio. She wears them be­cause they re­mind her of Mar­gate.

Speak­ing of her emo­tional state she says: ‘Not be­ing in a re­la­tion­ship re­ally helps. Ev­ery time I have felt emo­tion­ally f ***** is be­cause some­one, the wrong per­son, was f ****** me, prob­a­bly. I have not been in a re­la­tion­ship now for eight or nine years. I don’t think I am celi­bate, I think I ab­stain from sex. Ab­stain­ing means I don’t want to have sex. Celi­bate means you might want to, but you don’t.

‘For the past 20 years, if I have not been in a re­la­tion­ship then usu­ally I have not had sex. It has to come with love for me. So now I am per­ma­nently sin­gle and I kind of en­joy it.’

When was the last time she made love to some­one? ‘Five or six years ago.’ Do you miss it? ‘Not so much now that I am an older woman, the menopause sorts that stuff out.’

It’s a state­ment that flies in the

I last made love five or six years ago. I don’t miss it so much now that I am an older woman, the menopause sorts that stu out I can’t drink like I used to. You have a choice, you can go out, have a few drinks and dis­ap­pear for days, or think, “I have to get up to­mor­row and get on with my work” I don’t re­gret not hav­ing chil­dren, not for a mo­ment. Though not hav­ing them makes menopause weirder be­cause you won­der where the last 40 years of your life went

face of pre­vail­ing at­ti­tudes – as does her take on later-life love and moth­er­hood: she is child-free af­ter two abor­tions, one in­volv­ing twins. Might she per­mit her­self to fall in love again? ‘I wouldn’t rule it out but I have lived on my own for 15 years, which is a long time – you get pretty stuck in your ways. I don’t re­gret not hav­ing chil­dren, not for a mo­ment. Though not hav­ing them makes menopause weirder be­cause you do won­der where the last 40 years of your life went.’

In her case much of it has been spent mak­ing art. She ex­presses her­self in paint­ing and draw­ing, print-mak­ing, in­stal­la­tion, ap­pliqué, sculp­ture, film and pho­tog­ra­phy. As well as My Bed, she is per­haps most fa­mous for the tent on which she em­broi­dered the names of every­one she’d ever slept with (in­clud­ing her aborted chil­dren) and her neon word sculp­tures like the one read­ing ‘More Pas­sion’, which David Cameron hung in No 10 Down­ing Street and which Emin later gave to the na­tion. Best known as a con­cep­tual artist, she has also been Pro­fes­sor of Draw­ing at the Royal Academy. Her new­est pas­sion is for sculpt­ing huge, fig­u­ra­tive bronzes. ‘Imag­ine be­ing 54 and find­ing out you are good at some­thing you didn’t know you were good at,’ she says chirpily. The bronzes are, in part, what has prompted her move to Mar­gate. To work on them she needs more space than she has in Shored­itch. An ap­pli­ca­tion to ex­pand her stu­dio led her into a toxic plan­ning bat­tle with Tower Ham­lets Coun­cil and the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

She was stunned. She con­sid­ered her­self part of the fab­ric of the area. The coun­cil, she says, was ‘ab­hor­rently ter­ri­ble’ to­wards her and she felt the ‘an­i­mos­ity’ of peo­ple she’d thought of as neigh­bours. To un­der­stand how vul­ner­a­ble she is to dis­ap­proval, you have to know that Emin, for all her suc­cess, still feels ‘phys­i­cally at­tacked’ if a critic rounds on her. She took this dou­ble re­jec­tion deeply to her heart.

‘The coun­cil more or less said over their dead body… Then when I with­drew the ap­pli­ca­tion in De­cem­ber, they threat­ened to sue me for time-wast­ing and ex­penses in­curred.’

The row co­in­cided with the loss of her mother Pam, whom she adored. She was 88 and died of can­cer last Oc­to­ber, leav­ing Emin bereft. A pho­to­graphic por­trait, at least a me­tre square, of mother and daugh­ter cud­dling hangs by her front door. ‘Af­ter Mum died I could not face go­ing through that fight. I started to ask, what’s keep­ing me here?’

The loss of her mother was also the end of her phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to Mar­gate, some­thing she re­alised she didn’t like. Go­ing home, she says, ‘is to do with hu­mil­ity and un­der­stand­ing’. She doesn’t need to add it’s also a trib­ute to Pam and a way of ar­tic­u­lat­ing her grief.

She has bought 20,000sq ft of space in an old print­ing works. She’s look­ing for­ward to a

more Mar­gate way of life: the town has al­ways been her muse and she is happy with a £1.50 cone of cock­les and a Guin­ness at the Ben­jamin Beale pub, named af­ter the Mar­gate man who in­vented the bathing ma­chine.

‘Lon­don is so fre­netic and chaotic, it is not a good place for cre­ative peo­ple any more,’ she says. ‘It is such a shame be­cause 20 years ago it was. The East End was filled with artists, now it is all dot­coms and bankers. Who’d have thought Whitechapel would be worth so much on the Mo­nop­oly board?’

Not that she’s sell­ing up. She’s too savvy for that. To­day she is worth a for­tune, with homes in Man­hat­tan, France, Lon­don and now Mar­gate. She won’t tell me ex­actly how much. ‘I’ll be worth a lot more when I’m dead,’ is her pithy an­swer to the ques­tion of her bank bal­ance. Art mar­ket sources es­ti­mate her wealth at more than £10 mil­lion.

It’s all a long way from her early years. She was born in 1963 to par­ents who ran a Mar­gate ho­tel. They split when she was seven. At 13, she traded for­mal ed­u­ca­tion for the fish and chip fun of the sea front – and its seamier side: she was raped as a 13-year-old vir­gin, a trauma that locked her into a pat­tern of de­struc­tive teenage be­hav­iour.

Nev­er­the­less, Emin went on to be­come part of the in­flu­en­tial art scene at Maid­stone Art Col­lege and moved to Lon­don to study at the Royal Col­lege of Art in 1987.

The YBA (Young Bri­tish Artists) move­ment, led by Damien Hirst, backed by Charles Saatchi and feted by con­tem­po­rary gal­leries such as Jay Jo­pling’s White Cube, was her nat­u­ral home. She sub­verted every­one’s un­der­stand­ing of art and looked, from the out­side at least, like the kind of ge­nius who pushes their life to the very lim­its. Talk­ing to her though, you come away with a sense of some­one with a stronger sense of self-preser­va­tion, and a lot more dis­ci­pline, than ex­pected. ‘I’ve been stoned three times: once at the Royal Col­lege of Art when I ate some [dope], once when I was very young, and once in about 1998. I have never taken co­caine.’ She stopped smok­ing years ago and won’t touch spir­its, only wine and cham­pagne. ‘I can’t drink like I used to. You have a choice: you can go out, have a few drinks and dis­ap­pear for days, re­cov­er­ing, or think, “I have to get up to­mor­row and get on with my work.”’ She spends a lot of time at her stu­dio in the south of France, mid­way be­tween Nice and Mar­seille. She loves it there but wishes she spoke bet­ter French. ‘I try but my ac­cent is so strong I sound like In­spec­tor Clouseau try­ing to speak English.’ Not that it mat­ters to her French hus­band, Stone, a 5m x 2m lump of rock. ‘Stone is a metaphor for my sit­u­a­tion. He is re­ally beau­ti­ful and mon­u­men­tal and per­ma­nent and steady,’ she says. She mar­ried him in the sum­mer of 2015 and Poet Lau­re­ate Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem in cel­e­bra­tion.

Don’t tell Stone but Emin wouldn’t rule out a hu­man part­ner. ‘I might meet some­one, mightn’t I, when I am in a bet­ter po­si­tion. When I was younger, it [I think she means last­ing love] could have slapped me round the face and I would not have seen it. My driv­ing am­bi­tion was in­cred­i­ble. It must have been pretty dif­fi­cult for any­one who was in a re­la­tion­ship with me.’

She still sounds pretty am­bi­tious. ‘I will get cru­ci­fied for say­ing this but for men cre­ativ­ity di­min­ishes as they get older. They work them­selves up to a peak and then they go down. For women it is dif­fer­ent – if they are given the op­por­tu­nity they get bet­ter and bet­ter.’ Who’s she think­ing of here – can she sug­gest an ex­am­ple? ‘My­self,’ she smiles.

She reck­ons she’s got a good 30 years ahead of her. By then the for­mer en­fant ter­ri­ble, now Pro­fes­sor Emin of the Royal Academy and a CBE, will have passed through mid­dle age and be­come an oc­to­ge­nar­ian grande dame. She once said that just be­cause the es­tab­lish­ment had caught up with her, it didn’t mean she wasn’t still run­ning. Well, it’s com­ing closer all the time, and you’ve got to won­der how far she’ll get in those big sheep­skin slip­pers. Tracey Emin, My Bed/JMW Turner is at Turner Con­tem­po­rary, Mar­gate un­til Jan­uary 14, turn­er­con­tem­po­ The new book ‘Tracey Emin: Works 2007–2017’ (Riz­zoli) is out now

I have not been in a re­la­tion­ship now for eight or nine years. I don’t think I am celi­bate, I think I ab­stain from sex. Ab­stain­ing means I don’t want to have sex. Celi­bate means you might want to, but you don’t. I am per­ma­nently sin­gle and I en­joy it

Emin with her self-por­trait, Death Mask

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