Tracey Emin on How Illness Has Made Her Redefine Love and Her Legacy

Tracey Emin in her studio, London, January 2016. Richard Young

Tracey Emin is a legend in the art world. One of the few women to rise as part of the group known as the Young British Artists in the 1980s and ’90s, she has proved herself a steady force in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography, asserting the female voice in contemporary art for over 30 years.

The provocative artist, now 57, has long been known for making autobiographical artworks. With her fearless prose, putting her inner world on display, she writes secret desires in fluorescent lights and hand-stitched onto objects. Whether painting the female form or putting items from her bedroom on display, Emin takes viewers through a diaristic journey detailing the most intimate details of her life. 

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Some of her most famous works include Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, which takes the form of a tent with that list of names embroidered onto it, and her artwork My Bed, an installation of her unkempt bed that broke new ground as a work of installation. One of her most powerful pieces is a hand-crafted quilt called Psycho Slut, which is adorned with laboriously created texts that recall her childhood abuse and other elements of personal trauma. 

Last month, Emin announced publicly that in the course of treating bladder cancer, she’d had her uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, lymph nodes, some of her colon, urethra and part of her vagina removed this past summer. Now that she’s in recovery, Emin is characteristically empowering women who have been through similar experiences by speaking—and making work—about her illness. Currently she has two exhibitions on view; “Details of Love,” an extensive show at Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels of new paintings and drawings (on view until December 19) and “Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul,” which opened earlier this month and runs until February 28 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Next month, Emin opens an exhibition at White Cube Mason’s Yard called “Living Under the Hunters Moon.”

Emin spoke to Observer from her home in London about losing her cat, her love of letter mail, her musings over writing a new book and her thoughts on the female gaze in painting.

Observer: At what point did you want to start making the work for your show at Xavier Hufkens?
Tracey Emin: The watercolors were made during the summer. They’re all to do with me living in my house during the lockdown in London.

Some of them feel lonely; a few feature your cat Docket who died, correct?
There’s a few pieces with Docket in it, he died this year. I had him for 20 years. He was my little soul mate. It just came out in my work. The big paintings are different. The [paintings on view] in Brussels [as part of] “A Detail Of Love” are different from the small watercolors, which show furniture, shelves, books, things on tables. It really is detailed work.

Installation view of Tracey Emin’s show ‘Detail of Love’ at Xavier Hufkens. Courtesy Tracey Emin and Xavier Hufkens; photo by Allard Bovenberg, Amsterdam

Your work typically has dealt with love a lot. Does this work tell a particular love story that is really special to you?
It’s about unrequited love. 

That’s the hardest kind of love, but it’s the most poetic, in a weird way?
It’s definitely the most poetic because any love that you can’t touch will become a greater love in your mind. The whole show is about a detail of love, which is different than details or different from just love, but understanding where love resides. What makes love?

What inspires the feeling of love? I don’t even know how to answer that.
None of us do. It’s just a feeling. It’s in the details—the small things that only people in love notice. I have been celibate for so long, it’s something I have. I love people from a distance. I just wanted to love someone. I didn’t want to fuck them or touch them, maybe touch their heart or soul, but nothing else. It’s different, but I had a different attitude towards things. Often when I do big shows—this one in Brussels is big and a lot of new work—it’s like a benchmark. Its amazing it coincided with me being so ill.

I read about your illness. I love how it has given you a new optimism to live life with so much passion and enthusiasm.
I always had it, but I just didn’t flaunt it. Now, I think life is so short. Now is the time to get on with the positive side of it and get rid of the negatives. Move forward.

Tracey Emin, I said I would say goodbye, 2019. Courtesy Tracey Emin and Xavier Hufkens

What do you enjoy the most about life right now?
I love love. I love having my breakfast in bed in the morning—fruit salad.

You also love being a devoted letter writer? Who do you write to?
It’s true, but I’m a bit behind. I have about 30 letters sent by people that I haven’t even opened, people sending me “get well” wishes. There’s so much handwritten mail sent to me, which is nice. People just typically don’t do it anymore. People need art right now, they need to see things made by the human hand. They want the validation of feeling and emotion, [to know] that there’s a passionate world out there. There’s a lot of negativity and greed, as well. If you’re interested in the soul, maybe this isn’t the right place to be at the moment.

It’s a sensitive topic.
Going out the door is quite brutal. For some people its beyond brutal, there is no door, there is no outside. It has been destroyed. Flattened.

What do you think of the female gaze in painting?
My work isn’t the female gaze. I’m looking at myself. It doesn’t matter if I’m a female or not, I’m an entity. It’s me.

How did it feel when you were called a narcissist in the 1990s because of your work, which was essentially about one woman’s own story?
I was because I made work about rape, about bad things that happened to me, being a woman, and because I used myself as a model. And I always will because it’s what I know. I’m not going to make work about the white square on the white square, or the polarization of the E.U. I know what I live, experience and witness.

Were male artists given the same treatment?
Well no but it wasn’t just the male critics, it was women, too, who were quite aggressive towards me. It wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me, some bourgeois critic slagging me off. But to be under attack because of the person you are, because the way you speak, your accent, your background, or you’ve got big tits, or the way you dress, I think it’s ethically and morally wrong. And professionally wrong. People got away with it, but they wouldn’t now.

How do you know?
I was talking to a friend the other day, they’ve been reading old reviews of my work from the 1990s and they couldn’t believe how nasty it was, it wasn’t talking about my work putting it into a historic context, they didn’t like my work because I’m brash or I wear gold jewelry. They’re having a go at me because I wear gold? I’m talking about class. Someone from a sophisticated, middle- or upper-class background deciding to attack me because of where I come from, it doesn’t make sense.

Tracey Emin, I found my way to the lake, 2019 Courtesy Tracey Emin and Xavier Hufkens

Did academics have a stronger hold on the art world then, compared to now?
I think there are just snobs out there, and there still are. I think people are mean and disingenuous. It’s strange they’re not open enough. They don’t own the academic world. Someone like me comes along and I appear to be a threat. I’m just doing my thing.

When did you see the shift? Was it the #MeToo movement? Before? After?
For one thing, it was me becoming part of the British establishment, and it’s being older. It’s harder to attack an older woman. Its #MeToo, and the laws have changed. People have to have qualifications to make a judgment, making it harder to attack as they did before.

Would you say you’ve been telling your own story fairly intuitively?
Yeah but I’m an artist, so I edit, I work, it’s not just a bunch of shit or vomit I’m throwing out into the world. It’s my thoughts, it’s considered, it’s calculated, framed, hung on the wall. That’s what makes me an artist. I turn things into something else. It’s like an alchemy. It’s a lot of hard work. If you’ve been doing what you’re doing for 30 years, people have to have a certain attitude about you because you’re not going away.

How does it feel to be one of the greatest well-known and respected women artists of our time?
It doesn’t always feel like that. At the end of the day, you’re on your own, making your own stuff, waking up at night, worrying, thinking. I’ve been an artist 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re never going to turn off from it, ever. I can’t retire from what I am. It’s part of my DNA, my whole psyche.

You’re showing alongside works by Edvard Munch at the Royal Academy, where you have a piece on view called I Am The Last Of My Kind, what does that mean to you?
I am the last of my kind: I don’t have any children, there’s reasons why there are no parts of me in the world. When I go, it ends. There’s no more of me. That’s kind of exciting. Where do we go? I’ve believed people have kids, and they die, part of them stays on this planet. When I go, I don’t know where I’ll go.

Tracey Emin, Detail of Love, 2020. Courtesy Tracey Emin and Xavier Hufkens

Isn’t art an incredible thing to leave behind, like a legacy?
It is. It’s important. The legacy of how I’ll be remembered. Because I’ve been so ill, it’s mattered to me a lot lately. I feel I’ve been misunderstood, as well. I’d hate to die and be misunderstood. It would be horrible. Oh fuck it. Damn! I have to make people understand me before I go.

Will you write another book?
I wrote My Life In A Column as a weekly diary for The Independent in the 2000s, and Strangeland, a diary from age 18 to 38, that reads like a rite of passage, a dreamscape through lived experiences. I want to write another book, but not yet. I don’t want to write a book, I want to put all my writing into a book, like all the others. I write almost everyday. I always say: When I’m old and I can’t move anymore, I’ll just write by dictation.

What do you think of Brexit?
I think it’s a disaster on every level. I’m pro Europe, there were problems with E.U.-U.K. relations, but leaving Europe now with No Deal Brexit is economic suicide for the country. What do I know? I didn’t think people would vote for Boris Johnson, but I was wrong. Britain might do well outside of the E.U., all I know is that it’s not a good thing to do, because we need Europe and Europe needs us. I find it bizarre, during a pandemic, when we need allies between countries, now we’re not going to have that. The country can’t even sort out COVID tests, never mind getting out of Europe.

What do you think will happen over the next five years?
I always expect the worst, then if anything good happens I’m happy. I haven’t been back to America in three years, I don’t feel comfortable, really. It’s not a very competent situation. As an artist, you’re sensitive to things. You hear noise. It’s volatile. London is shaking, things don’t feel comfortable. It’s hard to make work in that situation, you feel uneasy all the time.

Will you be making art in the meantime?
I’m too ill to make art. It’s the perfect time really, I’m not missing out on anything. Everything is shut down. I just had really bad cancer; these art shows have kept me going. Now, I have three exhibitions and all of them are closed. I can’t even go to Brussels to see my own show. It’s like, I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that’s how it is.

Are you getting better?
As far as the cancer’s concerned, I get a test every three months and just pray that it doesn’t come back. I just want to make plans for the future, but nobody can make plans. It’s a strange, bizarre time to live in. Time is going so slow because there’s nothing to look forward to. Time is spinning.

As you once said: “You fall off the boat, you swim, you have to deal with it.”
Yeah, it’s just obvious.

What advice would you give to artists today?
There’s no shortcuts, absolutely not. Don’t think that being a woman artist means it’s making things any easier. Waking up and making art and being driven by that, you’re always in a state of angst. There’s always pressure on you. You create. For me, that creative spirit comes from outside, you don’t know when you’re going to be hit by it. One thing is, respect it. Don’t be blasé about your talent or creativity.

Because it’s a gift?
Yeah. And if it isn’t, you’re probably not an artist.

What do you see when you look at Munch’s painting, The Scream?
Unfortunately, The Scream has become a fridge magnet or a motif that is misunderstood. He has done better paintings than that. Now, his older works are known and he’s more respected. He’s being taken seriously now in a way; people want to relate to emotions. This is his time. His real time in history.

What are your favorite Munch works?
I like his weeping women series. At the moment, I like his Old Woman in Hospital. That’s a strange, melancholic picture. It’s something I’d love to have in my home on my wall.

Do you really feel misunderstood by people?
Not so much, I don’t really care. When I thought I was going to die, I thought: “Oh no, what if I die and people don’t understand what I do? What if I come back and haunt them and say no, no! You’ve got it all wrong! I wasn’t like that! That isn’t what I said!” It’s made me realize how important it is to be more focused and more concise with my work. Not wasting time.  Tracey Emin on How Illness Has Made Her Redefine Love and Her Legacy