‘Suddenly, from feeling really exhausted and really alone and very outside society, an outcast, or a witch, or whatever you want to say, when I’m painting I’m so excited and so full of life that I don’t feel alone.’
Tracey Emin has celebrated entering her 50s with new exhibitions, fresh work and a jewellery collaboration with her old friend Stephen Webster. By Louise Carpenter. Photographs by Rick Pushinsky
Tracey Emin remembers a time, about 15 years ago, at the point when her li fe was starting to change – ex t reme wealth from international shows and collectors all over t he world g iv ing her a rock-st a r fa me beyond t he art world – that she told her then boyfriend what really pushed her on was ‘a mad desire to be more human, to be more normal’.
‘Trace, you’re going to have to face facts,’ he told her, ‘you and normal parted a long, long time ago.’
‘He was right,’ Emin says today. ‘It’s not going to happen. I have a diferent way of looking at things, a diferent way of living, a diferent attitude.
‘I don’t do what many other people believe in and have to do to be part of what is considered society. I live outside society and I enjoy that, but I should have been enjoying it a long time ago… But maybe I didn’t have the independence or confdence to know that I could.’
We are sitting in Emin’s four-storey studio space in Spitalfields in east London, par t of t he vast Tracey Emin HQ, which she commissioned from scratch more than six years ago. She has just collaborated with an old friend, the jeweller Stephen Webster, to produce a 35-piece collection of exquisite jewellery, called I Promise to Love You, which is based on her art. Some of her famous neon signs ( With You I Breathe, I Promise to Love You, More Passion) have been turned into bracelets, necklaces and ear cuffs in 18ct gold, and her small animal sketches of birds, cats, toads, hares, owls and badgers have been transformed into delicate gold charms or tiny pendants. There are cufflinks and sig net rings and gypsy bracelets, all referencing her childhood in Margate and the gypsy roots that were uncovered in Who Do You Think You Are? in 2011 (when it was revealed that Emin descended from a large Romany clan in Warwickshire). ‘All of it is the antithesis of what people consider to be successful jewellery now,’ she says of the pieces. ‘It’s traditional, it’s understated, it’s sweet, delicate – so I’m really pleased with it.’
Around us in the studio there are figurative paintings everywhere: about 17 propped up against the walls; many more in the stacks. Next to the sofa, where we drink tea, there is a white model of a single-storey building, the gallery in Brussels that will house a show in May 2017. She uses the model to shrink down each of the paintings planned for the show and work out how they sit with one another. ‘Like a doll’s house. It gives you an idea if there is too much work, or not enough,’ she explains.
Over on another table by the door is a large sculpture of two naked bodies that is almost fnished and much bigger in scale than the tiny bronze works she showed in 2014 at White Cube as part of The Last Great Adventure Is You. She has to send it of to the foundry this afternoon to be cast. ‘I need to get working on the next one.’
These days being Tracey Emin is a huge commercial enterprise. She has collectors all over the world. There are exhibitions to organise (two in Hong Kong in March and one in New York in May), catalog ues to write, trips to make to America, China and Australia. There are book-lined ofces upstairs for the team who work on her catalogues, her books and her diary. (When we go up there later, there are sketches and drawings everywhere. Among them, a young woman is sitting on a beanbag embroidering one of Emin’s big textile pieces.)
It’s a phenomenally lucrative business, a long way from the impoverished conditions in which Emin created her embroidered tent Ever ybody I Have Ever Slept with 1963-1995 and My Bed, which recreated the blood, the semen stains, the condoms and dirty knickers of the artist’s real bed, and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999. Charles Saatchi bought Everybody I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, but it was destroyed by a fre at the Momart storage warehouse in east London in 2004.
My Bed recently sold for more than £2 million to Count Christian Duerckheim, who has loaned it to Tate Britain for 10 years.
Emin is not apologetic about her wealth. When once asked, ‘How do you take to the suggestion that anyone could have put an unmade bed in an art gallery for a million pounds?’, she sniped, ‘They didn’t though, did they? I did.’ Still, she recalls in her memoir Strangeland (published in 2005) that just before she began working with the White Cube gallerist Jay Jopling in 1993, she had thought, ‘My life was too important to chop it into little pieces in the attempt to make art. That was why I had always failed.’
More than 20 years have passed, and her success is built on her ability to sacrifce her life for her art, the way she constantly explores her past – and present – and all the deep feelings that the rest of us usually keep private. She remembers thinking ‘probably around 1992, “If I don’t make art, if I don’t succeed in this I will probably die. Because I don’t have any other options.” ’
What was once shocking, or at least challenging, about Emin – the sex, the explicit sexual fantasises (detailed in Strangeland ), the abortions, the foulmouthed, drunken appearances on TV – now feels less so. It is as if all that energy has been re-routed. Or perhaps it remains the same but we’ve watched Emin, through her career, grow up in front of us and become a member of the establishment? She’s 52 now and her art has developed into something with a lasting appeal. She still hones her skill and pushes herself forward. ‘People are open to it,’ she says of the way her art is received these days. ‘Twenty years ago they weren’t ready for honesty. It wasn’t part of the zeitgeist, but I think it’s a younger generation of people who understand that to experience life you have to be honest, because if you lie you are not experiencing anything, are you? Except deceit.’
Unlike so many famous people, Emin looks exactly like she photographs: the lopsided smile; the eyes hard and challenging. Even in the M&S ad in 2013, in which the most accomplished women of their fields, including Helen Mirren, were photographed by Annie Leibovitz, she looked furious and as if she was about to slap someone. (She said afterwards that she did smile in some of the unused pictures.)
Today she is wearing t rainers, and legg ings under a skirt. It is a low-key look but she pulls back her hair to show me her earrings, which she bought f rom Webster. ‘ Like something f rom t he 18t h centur y,’ she says of them. She also shows me a fabulous Webster stone on her fnger, which she commissioned and which really is a ver y g rand rock. It was Emin’s love of Webster’s traditional jewellery, rather than the gothic and rock-inspired pieces for which he is better known, that led to their collaboration.
Her unmistakable face is why she gets recognised when she walks around Shoreditch (she has a listed house around the corner), by art fans, by tourists, by everybody really. Stephen Webster tells me later, ‘Walking around with Tracey, it’s like she’s a movie star. She’s a hero to a lot of young women – they are not her collectors but it’s like she’s their hero. I think it’s because, in her deeply personal way, she deals with things that young women connect to, she has covered that ground. [Her art] is not abstract; it’s a personal story.’
‘Walking around with Tracey, it’s like she’s a movie star. She’s a hero to a lot of young women’ ‘I don’t do what many other people believe in and have to do to be part of what is considered society. I enjoy that’
Margate pretty much comes to a standstill these days when she drives back to see her mother. ‘She’s very proud of me. All my family are.’ There’s a photograph of them both on the wall. ‘She looks lovely there, doesn’t she?’ Emin says.
Emin and Webster, who hails from Gravesend in Kent, were both part of a small clubbing scene that existed in Margate in the late 1970s. They still occasionally go to a nightclub, or dance in her kitchen, to David Bowie and Roxy Music. Both went to Medway College of Design; from there, Emin went on to get a frst in fne art at Maidstone College of Art, then a master’s in painting at the Royal College of Art.
They lost touch, then re-met through a mutual friend, Mick Jones, guitarist in the Clash. ‘Me and Stephen became really good friends,’ Emin says. ‘He loves all my animal drawings, and t hen I designed a ring and asked Stephen to make it for me, which he did. And then we came up with this idea of doing par t teenage, par t Margate, par t gypsy; this very English collection of jewellery – all stuf to do with our youth and our childhood.’
The collaboration st a r ted t hree yea r s ago. Webster worked from Emin’s drawings and, as she says, ‘He just came back with this amazing collection.’ He gave her his book of designs, and admits that it was nerve-racking. ‘I don’t usually get stage fright,’ he tells me, ‘but it was a lot of work on paper, and you want a positive reading. But she said, “Let’s just see what happens.” For Tracey, it’s probably not that often that the work she has inspired is handed back to her.’
‘Jewellers have asked to work with me [before]’, Emin explains, ‘but they would want something wacky and wild, whereas Stephen knows the jewellery I like. I’m pleased with the whole thing. People think he’s a very rock ’n’ roll jeweller, but he’s not. It’s just they don’t know the other side.’
‘This is not an elitist collection,’ Webster explains. ‘It was important to her that it wasn’t priced just for her [art] collectors.’ (Prices start at around £400 for a charm and rise to £19,000.)
Emin has talked openly about the challenge of turning 50, both in terms of how her body has expanded, and fnding herself alone in the world, without a man or a family of her own. ‘When I was younger I had this amazing fgure,’ she says. ‘I was ft, and I think suddenly you wake up one day and you go, “Oh my God, this has all changed. I think it was lifestyle, diferent things, just age.” ’
You don’t look very fat, I tell her, but she explains t hat she has just recovered f rom appendicitis, which meant an operation and the loss of about a stone in weight. ‘A good side efect.’ She laughs. Joan Collins, her friend and neighbour in the South of France (where she has another studio and can work for days on end without disruption), told her, ‘Being born beautiful is like being born rich. You get poorer and poorer every day.’
‘It’s really good, isn’t it,’ Emin says with her ofcentre grin. ‘It’s so true.’
Still, Emin looks youthful, if not quite like the tiny slip of a thing she was when she became famous. ‘I haven’t got a husband and I haven’t got children,’ she says, by way of explanation. ‘I really think that makes a lot of diference. And I gave up smoking 12 years ago. If you are smoking cigarettes and if you have a husband who isn’t 50-per-cent supportive, you are going to end up doing everything for them.’
She is lonely at times, she says, but reaching 50 allowed her fnally to accept that the love afair in her life is her vocation. ‘With art, if you say to [it], “I really love you and I’m really grateful for everything that you’ve done for me, and I really respect you and I respect everything in my life,” art is never going to let you down. You think it is your calling; it comes and picks you up like a cloud. It’s there for you and holds you, and because of that, as I get older I get an extraordinary amount of faith, and the faith is to keep going because it’s going to be all right.’
She hasn’t had sex for about six years, she tells me, and says she misses it – not so much the sexual act itself but the intimacy. ‘I don’t know if I am celibate; I just haven’t had sex for a long time. Actually, if I wanted to go and have sex this afternoon I could. I’m not going to… I’m just saying I don’t know how interested I am in that – it’s more not having anybody to warm the bed up with.
‘Last night the heating broke in my house,’ she continues. ‘I got up to get a cardigan, then I went back to bed and the sheets were cold. I was trying to think of the last time I tried to warm up the bed with someone, but I couldn’t remember: it’s so long ago.’
‘With art, if you say to it, “I really love you and I respect you”… it is never going to let you down’
‘Jewellers have asked to work with me before, but they would want something wacky and wild. Stephen knows what I like’
I suspect that there is a signifcant part of her that is the opposite of her edgy reputation, that actually she is really rather cosy. When her assistant arrives with some Marmite on toast for her, because she has been working since dawn and suddenly realised she felt faint from hunger, she says in a Teletubbies baby voice, ‘Hellooo, it’s toast time.’ (Emin is very polite and not at all high-handed with her staf.)
Not that she is an easy person to interview. The very aspects of character that contribute to her lasting appeal – her honesty, her uncompromising approach to life, not caring what people think, not to mention the absolute commitment to hard work and the ensuing weight of her achievements (she is one of only two female professors at the Royal College of Art: ‘That felt pretty good’) – these things also make her, at times, difcult. She snaps and corrects and seems to get ir ritated by unexpected things, maybe through concern at being misrepresented, or for the simple fact that she wants to get back to work on the sculpture. It is probably both of these things.
Emin says that for a long time she has felt judged for the choices she has made, for not being what society considers a ‘normal’ woman interested in having children or a husband. She of ten paints through the night, ‘and then [my assistants] come in [the next day] and I’ve fnished three paintings and it’s really exciting.
‘Or I’ve moved all the furniture around. Or I’ve done something and then suddenly, from feeling really exhausted and really alone and very outside society, an outcast, or a witch or whatever you want to say, [when] I’m painting I’m so excited and so full of life that I don’t feel alone. Because I know that if I wasn’t alone and I didn’t have this extraordinary feeling, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
‘It’s not for an ordinar y person, who wants to have two children and a loving husband and a really beautiful life. If you want that, don’t do what I’m doing because it’s never going to work. I’d f—ing hate it if I had someone calling me, saying, “Where are you? Why haven’t you come home?” ’
Given there is no sex in Tracey Emin’s life, there is still a lot of it in her fgurative work. Am I allowed to say they are sexual? I ask her. ‘Not all of them.’
Where’s that one coming from? I ask, pointing at the naked fgures on a large canvas.
She says the painting, like the others, is coming from ‘nature’.
‘So if you want to be in nature and that’s what you desire, you have to understand that you are nature. Do you understand that?
‘Fields and grass and mountains, and waterfalls, lakes and rivers… Right now I would like to be by a waterfall. I can’t be, but guess where I am? Next to this,’ she says, gesturing to her body. ‘It’s an animal, it’s fesh and blood, it’s nature, it’s organic. It isn’t man-made, it’s natural. If I [want to] make art for me, which is close to everything, then I am going to use the nature within in my work, which is the fesh and body, the soul, the mind, everything,’ she says, crunching on her toast. ‘And you must be able to understand that.’ Selected pieces will be launched exclusively on Net-a-Porter on January 20, and the full collection will be in Stephen Webster stores from February 10; stephenwebster.com; net-a-porter.com
Left Tracey Emin in her east London HQ. Below her jewellery collection with Stephen Webster includes thisMore Passion sterling-silver cuff in white, £4,150, and black cuff in resin, £3,750, both with18ct gold and diamonds
From top Toad charm, £400, Hare charm, £400, and My Favourite Little Bird necklace, £1,900, all in 18ct gold; Emin atthe Turner Prize awards in 1999
Below Heart and Kiss earrings in 18ct gold, £700, I Promise To Love You ring in 18ct gold with diamonds, £11,700, and Love ring in 18ct gold withdiamonds, £1,400
Below With You I Breathe pendant in 18ct gold with diamonds, £4,100; Emin with her old friend Stephen Webster, with whom she has produced ajewellery collection