Although long part of Britain’s art establishment, for many Tracey Emin remains the navel-gazing enfant terrible of the 1990s. Representing her country at the 2007 Venice Biennale and being appointed professor at the Royal Academy in 2011 (one of only two women ever to receive the accolade) haven’t been enough to shake off this somewhat burdensome image. So much has been written about Emin—by herself and others—since she first came to prominence alongside fellow Young British Artists (YBAs) Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas more than two decades ago that her story seems to have congealed in a series of now quasi-mythical episodes: the childhood in the seaside town of Margate; the promiscuity; the abortions; the shop with Lucas; the first show with White Cube’s Jay Jopling, cheekily entitled “My Major Retrospective 1963–1993”; the tent (Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995?); My Bed (1998); the drunkenness; the heartbreaks. Emin’s autobiography is so deeply ingrained in every single one of her drawings, sculptures, paintings, neons, and embroideries that it has at times obscured the striking coherence of her artistic project.
Yet things have started to change. Emin’s 2011 exhibition at Hayward Gallery in London gave a full measure of the breadth of her practice and made official the new phase of maturity the artist has quietly entered. It allowed affinities with the likes of Ida Applebroog and her friend and collaborator, the late Louise Bourgeois, to emerge, demonstrating that Emin very much belongs in their league. At Bourgeois’s New York foundry Emin has been preparing a series of bronze sculptures for “I Followed You to the Sun,” a solo show opening in New York at Lehmann Maupin on May 2, which will be followed next December by her first museum show in the United States, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.
Emin welcomed Coline Milliard at her impressive studio, a 17th-century former weaving works in Spitalfields, London, to discuss the busy months ahead.
This feels a bit like your American year.
I’ve never shown in a museum in America. I’m 50 this year, so I think it’s quite late. But then I was a late developer. I didn’t have an exhibition anywhere until I was 30. My first exhibition was at 30, and then for my first show in America, I’m 50. It’s kind of all right: I’m just a slow burner. And this is a very ambitious exhibition. It’s during Art Basel Miami Beach, and it’s a neon show. I don’t know anyone else who has done that. I don’t know any women who have done it, that’s for sure.
Do you think there is still a discrepancy between male and female artists?
Yes, a massive discrepancy. If Louise [Bourgeois] had been a man, her work would now be selling for 30, 40 million—but it’s not, because she’s a woman.
Not long before her death you collaborated with Bourgeois, adding texts and drawings to one of her series of watercolors. And for your forthcoming gallery show, you are working with the foundry she used to use to produce new bronzes.
Yes, I’m working with Jerry Gorovoy and Scott Lyon-Wall. I’m really good friends with Scott and Jerry, and have been for a few years now. Jerry was Louise’s assistant for 30 years, and Scott was involved with the [Bourgeois] foundation. When I did the collaboration with her, I didn’t quite understand what Louise was giving me. I didn’t expect to have this amazing friendship with these people: really warm, close, cozy, brilliant, intellectual, and stimulating. I thought I was doing a collaboration. It’s amazing how it all turned out. I spend a lot of time in America now because of them. I’ve just bought a place in Miami, so you are right, it is my American year.
How did you first meet Bourgeois?
Through my gallery, Lehmann Maupin, that I love and that I’ve worked with now for, like, 16 years. I was upset about something to do with a show that I had. They asked, “Is there anything we can do to make it up to you?” I thought of lots of things, and then I said, “Yes, I’d like to meet Louise Bourgeois.” They said, “She isn’t really meeting anyone anymore, she’s not doing the salon.” And I said, “Yes, but this is what I would really like. You asked me what I’d really like.” Anyway, they called up the studio and Louise said yes. So I went around to have tea with her and ended up having some wine and stuff. I thought she didn’t like me, because she really shouted at me quite a lot!
What did she say?
She asked me if it was my first time in New York. I said no, so she asked, “How long have you been coming to New York?” I said, “I don’t know, about 11 years.” And then she just went ballistic in French. Basically, she was saying, “why is it the first time you’ve come to see me then?” I saw her a few other times, and then the idea of the collaboration came up. I could either send her stuff or she could send me stuff, but we didn’t decide. Then one day I just got this roll of prints through the post. I could do whatever I wanted with them. It took me two and half years, because I was nervous. I wanted it to be a unique thing in itself. I wanted it to be me and Louise, and I also desperately wanted it to look as if one person had made it. I just loved her watercolors; to me they were finished, I didn’t have to do anything. I had to work out how I could make my mark on them without overriding what she did. And I did it. Louise came up with the title for the whole thing, “Do Not Abandon Me,” and I titled each print, so everything was balanced.
Before she died, Louise collaborated with three people: me; the writer Gary Indiana; and Peter Zumthor, an architect. It was thought through. That’s the other thing about Louise, she’s really academically smart. She could have done anything. She didn’t have to be an artist, she could have been a judge, a scientist, anything.
Are there other women who have played a similar role in your life?
No. But it’s her age as well. She might have known a lot of people who influenced me. Edvard Munch died in 1945. She was connected to a part of history that I really respond to. I don’t think it’s the fact that she’s a woman, I think it’s about the kind of artist she was, and where her influences were coming from.
Can you tell me about the bronzes you’re working on?
I’ve been making bronze sculptures for a long time. My sculptures are wholly unsuccessful and uncommercial. No one is even the remotest bit interested in them. So it’s almost like my hobby. In New York, working at the foundry, I was making these little figures. I desperately would like to make big figures, but I just can’t do it, my hands don’t do it. We were talking about making bronze plinths, and then we made one, a square one. I wrote on it, then I put a little figure on top, and it just looked really good. It worked.
There is an animal thread running through your work.
I really love animals. My cat is my little soul mate. He’s not just a cat, he’s my friend. In France, where I live, I’ve got this pet fox that comes in and eats in the kitchen. It’s really strange, it’s a beautiful little fox. It looks more like a little deer. I’ve taken lots of photos of this fox and made a film about it. Scott and Jerry started to collect animal figures for me, a menagerie of all these different animals. It started off with a deer—I made this little figure riding on a deer.
Do you start with clay?
Yes. But the animal is a real figurine. I made the figures and set up a dialogue between the animals and the little figures, then added the plinths and put the text on them. They are like mini-mausoleums. What’s good is that with the bronze, you can have heavy, morbid, or sad expressions, whereas with the neon, it’s actually quite hard to do that, because there’s a contradiction, and it looks cynical. I’ve never seen anything like these bronzes before—and when I make something, and I’ve never seen anything like it before, I usually know that I’m on to something. [Emin brings out some photographs of plastic figurines, parts of works in progress at the New York foundry.] Jerry collected all these animals for me. I go around to Scott’s flat, and there’s all these animals. And he’s like, do you notice anything different? And I’m like, horse?
You seem to have a really close bond with the two of them.
It’s made a really big difference for me. It means that when I go to New York now, I work. I go to the foundry. Before, I used to take clothes with me so I could look nice and dress up, but now I go with all my working clothes. [She shows me the picture of a swan on a plinth on which humiliated is written in capital letters.]
It’s amazing how much one can recognize your drawings in your clay figures.
Have you read The Black Swan by Thomas Mann? You’ve got to read it. I had this intellectual crush on someone. You know when you are thinking all the time about what someone said to you, and you have this dialogue in your head? I went on one of those trips. But he didn’t feel the same way about me. We went to see a show together, and for a present he bought me Black Swan. It’s basically about a woman who falls in love with this young guy. She thinks that her periods have started again, and it’s like the elixir of love, she’s become young again, but in truth she’s got cancer of the womb, and within a couple of weeks, she’s dead. The complexity of the book is really interesting, especially from the point of view of a woman who is 50 and has an intellectual crush on someone much younger than herself. This is why I made this piece.
Did you feel humiliated?
Yes, totally! But it’s quite good, because the swan looks quite clitoral—without being over the top. [She turns to a picture of a clay figure riding a plastic pig.] In a way you think: I can’t do that, it’s too stupid, it’s too much of a metaphor. But then, one of the biggest derogatory remarks made about my neons was “pithy, overindulgent sentimentality.” Have they never fallen in love before? Obviously, they haven’t. Obviously, they’ve never had the courage to express any kind of emotional feelings, because people who have can relate. It’s like the lyrics of a song like “One Day I’ll Fly Away.” In the right situation, it doesn’t matter how drossy that song is, it can affect you, because everybody can relate to the sentiment—especially at a funeral, actually. Put that song in a funeral context and, wow, everyone is in tears, aren’t they? If you go around judging on a supremacy level, you are never going to experience anything, are you?
Do you feel that people are scared of their own feelings?
Yes. It’s a bit like karaoke. The people who are best at it are the people who can’t sing—they try their hardest. It’s endearing, it’s heartfelt, and you really feel it. If you are a professional artist and you have been doing what you are doing for 20 years and you have conviction behind what you do, then you should do it. You shouldn’t go, “I can’t really do a figure on a plastic pig, it’s a bit stupid.” There’s nothing cynical about it.
Your own story has featured prominently in your work. But with these sculptures, you seem to be coming at your story somewhat tangentially.
I do need to escape, because there’s stuff I want to say about love and about people but I can’t. At the age of 50, you can’t keep banging on about the same kinds of things. Grow up! You are getting better, get on with it. You may have the same issues as when you were 20, but you address them in a very different way. When you are hungry as an adult, you tend not to scream about it—you go and get something to eat. I don’t do therapy: I just want to do it all through my work. When I work something out, it’s such a good feeling: “Oh yes, of course, love didn’t exist, I just thought that it did.” Once I realized that, I felt so much better, because I realized that a lot of the agony or hurt that I went through wasn’t real. It’s just what I thought was happening.
You seem at peace now.
I am. I just feel much better than I did. I’m not always like this. I feel stressed out about the year ahead, but excited about it. I’ve probably taken on more than I can cope with, but it’s good.
By doing so much in America are you escaping from the Young British Artist label?
The irony is, in Britain I’m not seen as a YBA at all. I’m going to get my CBE [Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] this week. I’m a professor of drawing. I’ve got a position. The irony is that in America I’m seen as a YBA, but very few people there have seen my work. The only thing I’ve done there is commercial gallery shows. I’ve done nothing else, whereas all my contemporaries have. I was given a show at the Brooklyn Museum but I cancelled it. It wasn’t right—they wanted the show to travel. And that’s impossible: I don’t do traveling shows.
No matter whether they’re bronze, painting, drawing, embroidery, assemblage, film—your pieces are immediately recognizable as yours.
I’m so lucky, aren’t I? I think it’s because I was such a failure as an artist. I wasn’t going anywhere. All the things I was interested in were really unfashionable.
What period are you talking about?
The 1980s. At the Royal College of Art, I was doing really embarrassing pictures that were a cross between Byzantine frescoes and Munch. They weren’t fashionable, and there was no room for what I was doing. Harry, my assistant, found these watercolors from 1985 or 1986 in a book, and it’s really funny because you can see that I did them. There’s one of a girl sitting on a rock kind of thing, with her legs open and all this blood coming out, and fish bones around. When you are an art student you use these signifiers that you think are meaningful. I’m more or less doing the same picture now, but without all that.
Death is common in your work, with its references to abortion, the unborn babies, your own death mask. But with these recent pieces, you’re really going into it.
Yes, I am, because part of me has died, and it’s not coming back. I’m 50. Sex, fecundity, all of those things are gone, they won’t come back. Love or whatever—affection or warmth might be there but not that lustful sort of desire, wanton. That’s never coming back, ever. It’s gone. That’s what the death is.
This article is published in the May 2013 issue of Modern Painters.