An Interview with Tracey Emin

Since Tracey Emin first caused a stir in the British art scene in the mid-90s, she has been one of the most discussed and conflicting of present-day conceptual artists.

Emin has continually brought forth an uproar of debate, laying herself and her emotions bare with earnestness through a number of media forms.

This year, two major retrospectives of Emin’s oeuvre will be displayed in the UK’s foremost art galleries, the Tate Gallery and Saatchi’s cutting-edge modern art display.

Furthermore, she will have prominent exhibitions in Australia, Rome, and Istanbul. Additionally, Longchamp’s French luxury brand will be debuting her designer luggage in 2004, and her first feature film, _Top Spot, will premier.

Emin has utilized language to engage her audience from the very start of her career, using it as a means to provoke her viewers.

Instead of opting for enigmatic titles, she chose to go with something more distinct, such as “And then you left me–Left me cold and naked” (1994).

One of her most memorable works is her tent, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995”, where she painstakingly embroidered the names of everyone she had slept with.

In 2001, she stated that it was her words that made her art stand out.

The Tate Gallery described her first published text, Exploration of the Soul, as “a poetic but frequently harrowing account of her sexual history.” The work dealt with similar themes.

It was a frigid winter night when Tracey arrived for our discussion at my home. While my siblings were drinking, we talked about the following topics.

— Stephan Collishaw stated

An image depicting a variety of objects can be seen. These items include a pair of glasses, a shopping bag, a laptop, and a phone. All of these items suggest the modern lifestyle of today.

In 1995, Tracey Emin created the artwork, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995”. It is appliqued tent, mattress and light and is 48 x 96 1/2 x 84 1/2 in.

The artist holds the copyright to the piece and it is on display at the Jay Jopling/White Cube Gallery in London.

In your artistic output, words have always occupied a significant role. As a visual artist, how do you explain this connection?

Tracey Emin maintains a diary as part of her creative practice and often starts her drawings with a title. She finds that words fill her mind more than images, and feels that art should be used for communication.

BLVR: Does it feel like words and art are both claiming your attention, vying for your affections? Do you feel as if they’re vying for your soul?

TE: My point of view on this is different, as it doesn’t reflect how humans operate. An individual may create hundreds of forest paintings, yet they still won’t be an artist.

Take James Joyce, a writer, as an example; he will never be a writer, but rather an artist.

Additionally, some books, when held, give an impression that is not just words, but an entire world. Artists paint, and you can almost observe a conversation, a location, a period in time, and a narrative. It isn’t just a painting; it’s almost as if it’s a tangible three-dimensional world.

Is there something that the realm of words can gain from the realm of art?

TE: In the next century, we will be able to observe how successful the artistic experiments of today have been, and whether they can withstand the test of time.

This necessitated the progression of art, as painting can only be pushed so far. Consequently, we have had to think of other methods to communicate ideas.

BLVR: Penning words has its limitations as well…

TE remarked that writing is particularly challenging because it entails language and dialogue, which must be understood by readers in order to be successful.

She cited reading Madame Bovary as an example of this, noting that its descriptiveness enables readers to feel as if they are walking alongside the protagonist and can even smell what is being described.

TE went on to say that literature is perhaps the most experimental form of art, referencing her recent reading of Graham Greene’s works. She concluded that she admires his talent but would not have wanted to be involved with him romantically.

BLVR: How have people responded to your highly personal writing?

TE: My only issue has been the distress that my work has provoked, particularly from the mass media.

The level of hostility I have faced has been so extreme that it almost leads me to doubt my creative abilities. It even makes me contemplate the notion of making concessions.

People are not against my work, but the bourgeois mainstream critics have been. I have been harshly criticized by the art world, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to be scrutinized by the literary world too.

Consequently, I sometimes question my work and have to remind myself that I am not bad. It takes a lot of mental strength and determination to stay focused on my work.

BLVR: Are the stories and artwork you create based on your own life experiences, or are they solely imaginary? Would your work being autobiographical make it more difficult to accept criticism?

TE: When I look back on the things I have done, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is an absolute truth, as it is my memory and the passage of time has created a lot of uncertainty. What is pivotal though is how I choose the material and structure it.

The idea of truth is very hard to define, and no one could be trusted to decide which perspective is more valid than another.

When it comes to the stories I write, I could offer three or four different versions and the moral would vastly differ.

I am now struggling with the idea of making it more fictitious, instead of writing the truth, as I am scared of the potential criticism I could receive. But, I guess we will have to wait and see what happens.

BLVR: Do you have any limits when it comes to the topics and techniques you use in your art? Do you think artists and writers should have some kind of restriction on what they create?

I firmly believe that it is essential for everyone to take responsibility. When I was younger, I was less aware of this and there are certain decisions I would not make right now. However, I still don’t restrain myself from trying new things.

What techniques do you use when writing? What is your process like?

I procure a sheet of paper, taking a seat and beginning to write.

BLVR: Is your preferred writing medium pen and paper?

I’m not adept at working with computers or typewriters.

BLVR: C’mon Tracey, everybody is capable of doing it…

TE claims that it only takes her a second to write “Tracey Emin is thirty-eight” by hand, but five minutes on a computer. She is not fond of the fact that she cannot spell on the computer.

When she edits, she moves paragraphs around and cuts out pieces, but does not search for the perfect word as her writing style is direct.

She comes up with ideas in her head, such as when she was ice skating and witnessed a young, fast child who pulled off their hat to reveal long hair – a girl. All of Emin’s ideas, she claims, are simple. This is how her writing process begins.

BLVR: Do you take the same approach when crafting your writing as you do when creating your visual art?

I don’t consider dialogue or plot when I’m writing; rather, I’m focusing on action.

BLVR: Are you intentionally expressing innocence in your artwork through the writing?

TE: When it comes to the prints, I’m writing in reverse. Each drawing usually takes me about a minute.

You must be careful and write rapidly. For Exploration of the Soul, all of the spellings were amended.

As the piece was set to be printed, I had to decide whether it was going to be in my handwriting and if I wanted to keep my own spelling.

In the end, I chose to have a lovely print; so, we couldn’t keep my errors since that would have been ugly. I compose using a stream-of-consciousness style and think my work is more about the overall picture than the specifics.

Do you envision a particular group of people when you write?

I don’t typically have an imagined audience when I write. Unless I am attempting to convey a message to someone, my writing is not motivated by any particular person.

BLVR: Could you tell me more information about the possibility of you obtaining a book deal?

I found it quite amusing that I once mentioned in an interview that I had a dream of writing a book, and some publishers noticed and came to me offering a publishing deal.

Three publishers reached out to me, with Penguin being the first to express interest.

BLVR: How do you manage to fit in writing amidst your art, press engagements, and the rest of your activities–not to mention your well-known social life?

TE: It is not easy for me to do all the time. For example, last month I was asked to write for a catalogue and was pressured to send it in by the twelfth.

On the fourteenth, they called me to ask where it was. I replied that I was faxing it, although that was not true. Right after I got off the phone, I had to make a decision and I decided to sit down and do the work, then fax it. I do not take the time to evaluate if it is good or not, I just do it.

A few years ago I had agreed to work on a book, but it has been a challenge to find the time. I even thought of returning the money, but they would not allow me.

They said I could have more time. It is obvious that they trust me and they know that nowadays they would not be able to get me to do the book for the money they paid me four years ago.

BLVR: How have letters been involved in your art? Do you think they have an important role in your art and writing in general?

I’m quite prolific when it comes to letter writing; I will usually compose four pages, and then add a couple of extra ones to the envelope.

I really enjoy this style of writing, as it is gratis and has an audience. Every creative has a core element to the work they do; be it photography, sculpture, or in my case, the thought process that underlies the art.

Writing is the best way to elucidate this concept, which is why letters are so valuable.

BLVR: Recently, you have been involved in quite a few activities. One of them was modelling for the punk designer Vivienne Westwood, another was designing luggage for a high-end brand, and then you are also working on a movie with the BBC.

Producing my movie Top Spot has been an endeavor of mine for the past half-year. Right now I’m feeling a bit impatient as I can’t wait for the public to be able to watch it.

It will be available to view in movie theatres across the UK for a duration of three months starting from the summer of 2004, after which it will be broadcasted on television.

The narrative revolves around the experiences of young girls navigating the adolescent years and its associated ups and downs.

Set in Margate, the provincial seaside resort where Tracey Emin spent her formative years, the story does not take a grim perspective.

Rather, it touches upon aspects such as teenage sexuality and teenage motherhood, which were common occurrences in the author’s own upbringing.

In spite of this, the film is not intended to be a hard-hitting kitchen-sink drama, but instead is visually stunning and portrays growing up by the sea.

Emin is certain that those who appreciate her work will likewise embrace this movie, while those who do not enjoy her work will not.

When the BBC contacted me, I was very pleased. It was an amazing opportunity, as the art world had not been supportive at that time, so I wanted to find a place where I would be accepted.

I’m really enjoying myself with all the activities I’m doing. I’m always on the go. A lot of people make comments about my ambition, however, my goals are mainly focused on myself. My ambitions are all centered around my own development.

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