Amy Zion: So often, conversations about your work focus on its content, themes of intimacy, confessional material, or even salacious details. Perhaps we can begin this conversation by focusing on the role of painting in your work, on a formal, conceptual, and even emotional level. I was speaking with an artist in Canada recently who said: painting is like a specter that haunts you as an artist. Over the span of your career, from the ’80s to the present, how has painting figured into your work, how it has changed, and how is your relationship to painting inflected by various events in your life?
Tracey Emin: Yeah, it is a specter. And this is what’s really interesting, ok, I can paint. And I’m so lucky; some artists can’t. They didn’t really stop painting — painting left them. Painting said: “fuck it, I’m not coming back. You didn’t want me, that’s it, it’s over between us.” It’s like a love affair — I’m not coming back. And sometimes you think: I miss painting so much!! [laughs]
After my abortion in ’94, I stopped painting completely, and it took me years and years to work all of that through. I know it sounds pathetic in a way but I’m really sensitive and all that stuff really touched me and got to me in a big profound way. I said that I wasn’t just going to make things, after understanding that the essence of real creativity about the inner self — I couldn’t just make an object or a thing. The abortion film that I made in ’95 was about being a failure as an artist, because I always felt that had I been more successful I might have had a baby. Because I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anywhere to live…. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t even look after myself, much less a child.
From 2016-17, you took a sabbatical and you took out a fullpage ad in Artforum to announce it. How did that come about, and how did it affect your work?
The first time I took out an ad was in Parkett after 9/11 because suddenly people were canceling things all over the world, overnight. I thought to combat this, you had to show you aren’t afraid. That’s how I came to the idea of taking out an ad. At the time, there weren’t really any women with full-page ads, it was all these big frilly men and big galleries. In those days there was nothing big about me at all. As a woman, because I can put a full-page ad in Artforum, I thought, yeah I’m going to do it.
That ad for my sabbatical was a fun thing, and the sabbatical was brilliant. I didn’t do anything — no interviews, photographs, charity work, shows. It was strange that I planned the sabbatical four years in advance and it happened that was the year my mom died.
Is there a direct impact of that experience and the sabbatical on the work you made after?
I was struggling, wrestling with my conscience, dissatisfied with my work. I thought my work was a big failure. I needed to step back and figure out why I was dissatisfied, which was because I wasn’t focused enough on what was really important to me — my art. I love making work, the energy of that that it gives me; when I’m working that’s my identity. I really needed to get some distance from what I was doing before, and I did.
Did you break through that by changing as an artist or through the sabbatical or both?
Through the sabbatical. I was changing but not fast enough. It’s like doing a Masters or a PhD. You know what you want but you can’t achieve it quickly. Only time can do that. Showing, doing everything — I didn’t have time to do what I needed to do, to get my head in the right place.
The only way you can do it is you cut off from everything, you say: no I won’t do the interview, I’m not having my photograph taken today, you have to deal with my office. Sabbatical means you couldn’t get me on the telephone. And I’m not telling you what I’m doing and if you call my studio, they just say: “Tracey is unavailable.”
Maybe I’ll take another sabbatical in 2022… you have to be really planned and you have to be really strong. You can be offered the best thing in the world and you have to say no. And if these things are any good, they will come back to you. You have to be financially solvent as well.
Is it possible to elaborate on why you thought your work was failing and what you needed to reach that you hadn’t reached before?
I’m a painter, and to paint, you need time, you need to sit sometimes for hours to stare into a void. You have to make lots of mistakes to understand what you’re doing, to understand that painting, the act of what you’re doing. etc. I’m the kind of artist that just makes a picture. I’ve always said that.
My mother’s death was a similar event to the abortion: one is future, one is past. I know I made the right decision but a few years ago I was frightened about growing old alone. It really worried me to the point that I was frightened. Now I’m not frightened at all.
And do you credit to that any event or was it something you worked through?
I credit it to my mom’s humility in her life, how she lived, and didn’t expect anything at the end of her life. I learned a lot from her. My life is pretty amazing when people criticize “My Bed” (1998) I say, this is a painting — not because it was a conceptual piece of art — because it really wasn’t, it was a wild crazy expressionistic moment. I recently showed it with a JMW Turner painting so similar to the bed. It even has this light blue in it, like the blue knickers on the bed.
After my abortion, I physically couldn’t paint. When I was pregnant I couldn’t paint because it made me physically ill. For a couple of years, I couldn’t work. I went to part-time philosophy courses at Birkbeck College. In that period, writing and making films was a way to exercise another part of my mind. So that while one part of my mind was injured, I strengthened another part.
Currently, you are painting a lot, can you speak about a recent work?
I had my mum’s ashes in my studio and I didn’t want to leave them on their own overnight. So at 1:00am I carried the ashes home and walked past the church near my house, I couldn’t believe how heavy they were and I realized that I was walking like this strange figure from my mind, not from reality. I knew I wanted to paint this feeling and that moment. The next day I went into my studio and I ended up painting this figure from my mind that actually looks like I’m on a strange scooter or what is it called? You stand on it…
Yes! I’m on some strange segway or something… this painting is just so wrong, but I love it. I’m not going to paint over it so then I decide to draw in the ashes, and suddenly it goes really crazy, then the painting just becomes something else completely. But all of that goes into it. You can tell that when you look at it. I’m not trying to paint like Joan Mitchell. This is me: my emotion, my gut, my heart being poured onto this canvas. And if other people can’t see it, I don’t mind because I’ve got my painting.
Does it feel good to access that again?
The truth is, I wasn’t accessing it before. I didn’t know about it. Sometimes it frightens me. Because of the energy involved. You’re stirring, trying to get something more to happen, and when it happens …. You don’t know where it’s going to go, it’s out of control. But if it’s 3 a.m. and I finish a really good painting, it’s such a high, I’m not afraid of anything. I go back into my house, I feel really good. I put the radio on, have a dance in the kitchen.
But if I fail, I wash the brushes, and I can’t sleep. Once it’s daylight I go straight back to the studio because there’s a chance the paint isn’t completely dry, I can use sponges and pull it out. Then it makes something else.
That must be hard on your body though…. Really hard. Imagine if you’re pregnant or just had a baby and you have to climb up a ladder to prime a canvas?
I’m doing 20 big paintings, if I get two good ones out of it I’ll be really happy. But before that I have been 1.5 times around the world in the last two months, I have to get really fit, swim every day, get in good headspace or else I really can’t do it.
On that note, I wanted to ask you about your recent marriage-
Not that recent, about two years ago now…
So then are you no longer newlyweds, or is the feeling still there?
When I see my stone, I am so happy. I really like the idea of psychometry in objects, objects having feelings. The stone is a metaphor for the fact that I’m connected to something. It makes me feel good. It’s primal. It has nothing to do with anything fleeting or superficial… It’s a primal understanding of a place that makes me feel good. When I think about the stone I immediately relax and feel good. I feel solid.
How did that story, your marriage to the stone, come about?
I’m superstitious. I was cleaning out my house in France, when I found this tiny silver ring, and I put it on my wedding finger, and I went oh shit, that means that I’ll never get married! And I thought, what am I going to do? I said, instead of never getting married, I’ll get married right now. And I thought, what do I really like, that I could marry? I love this stone, so I ran upstairs, put some white clothes on. I was having so much fun. And the stone had the sun on it, it was really warm and pulsing…
It was a happy stone?
Yeah! [laughs] And I wrote to my mom, I said I got married today, and sent her a photo. And she replied, “and how is the lucky… stone?” Everyone smiled because it’s just a nice thing.
And when I went to Hong Kong for an exhibition in 2016 and did interviews, I spoke about the stone at this global press conference and they just ran with the story because it was uplifting. People understand it completely because it goes back to what I said before, that I was afraid of dying alone. And many things give us solace.
And so what’s next for you, as you talk about going toward this potential you haven’t reached yet. How would you characterize that, where are you as an artist?
I’m on the cusp.
The cusp of what?
Of the future. That means leaving the past and going to the future. I have maybe 30 years to get it right. When I die, I want to look back, I might have got things wrong at the beginning or at the middle, but at the end, I got it right. And you have to work really hard to achieve that.
And so the end is actually the most exciting chapter. That’s also a nice way of reframing the narrative or an artist, or of a woman’s life.
I have a work called “Self-Portrait” at Chateau Lacoste, a beautiful winery in France. It’s a barrel installed on a lookout tower, and there is a tiny cat in the barrel. I went to Niagara Falls, and I was so impressed by the barrel rollers.
Funny, I read a novel, a historical fiction about them when I was growing up and they remained a fascination for me too — because they were women, right?
Yes, lots of women, who were so destitute, their option was to join the saloon and be a prostitute or to be a barrel roller. For them, it was basically like, I can commit suicide or I can do this: go over the falls in a barrel; this could kill me but it’s better than being broke. I was fascinated by them: “I survived the Niagara Falls! I rolled down in that barrel and I survived!”