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Interview

Interview: Tracey Emin

published on 25 June 2003

Controversial, outspoken and guaranteed to provoke strong opinions: cultural icon Tracey Emin, Britain's most celebrated female contemporary artist, took the chair in a live online interview - the first artist to sit as part of our In Camera series - in 2003.

This interview was showcased online with a series of live stills updated throughout the course of the interview, and a real-time transcript typed and edited live.

Controversial, outspoken and guaranteed to provoke strong opinions: cultural icon Tracey Emin, Britain's most celebrated female contemporary artist, took the chair in a live online interview - the first artist to sit as part of our In Camera series - in 2003.

35 Q&A Posts

  • Q. We have asked you to be the fourth in our series of live interviews with major image-makers because you and your work are inextricably linked and as such, equally fascinating. Have you ever wished you'd never started the whole process? Penny Martin, Editor in Chief, SHOWstudio, London
    No, I am the centre of my universe! Essentially, things start from me and then they go out into the world. Even though this might appear to be narcissistic or self-indulgent, I think it's quite honest. I usually have a bit of space left over for other things.
  • Q. When I first met you, you were sending letters to people. You'd be paid 15 quid a year or something and you'd write a couple of times per year. Do you still think a sense of intimacy with the viewer is important? If so, how do you try to achieve that in you gallery and installation work? James Roberts, Editor, Frieze, London
    First of all, it was £10 (cash or postal order) for my creative attention. I didn't intend that to be an artwork. It was a desperate plea for cash. At the time, I had to pay £100 out of my dole money to Midland Bank and Visa Card. The intimacy was in return for the money. Yes, I do think this is very important. When I'm most disappointed with my work, it's when I feel I've lost touch with that intimacy. For me, the whole process of making art is about communication.
  • Q. Did you make any money from your 'Shop' in the Bethnal Green Road? James Cherkoff, London
    Yeah, we made money from Shop but we spent it all every day. Some days we'd make £2.50 and other days, we might make £500. On some occasions, we'd have to rob from the fish who lived in a hexagonal, large pond at the centre of the Shop. People threw pennies into the pond to make a wish and sometimes Sarah and I, in our desperation to get those last two pints of Guinness, we'd steal the money from the fish.
  • Q. Do you ever worry that using your own life and experiences as a source of your work will leave you bereft of ideas in later years as your past is exhausted? Martin Smith, Edinburgh
    Yes. Do you worry for me as well, Martin? But my life is often exciting and the worst that could possibly happen is that I will design swimming pools.
  • Q. It must be an amazing experience to be an artist who receives immediate and strong responses to every work of art they create. Is this a help or a hindrance to creating new work for you? Do you feel a pressure to anticipate or second-guess your audience? Charlotte Cotton, V&A Museum, London
    After the Turner Prize, with all the flack and shit that I got, I kind of felt that I never wanted to show my work in public again. In 2001, when I had my show at White Cube, I did 6 weeks boxing and circuit training to try and increase my stamina because I had to be strong to defend the flack. The audience I make my work for is a mass audience. I strongly believe in the hierarchy of the pyramid. My favourite audience is the foundation of that pyramid.
  • Q. Is there anything that's too painful or personal to become art? Avril Mair, Editor, i-D, London
    Yes, of course. I had to have a camera up my bottom and afterwards, the hospital insisted on giving me the film because I am an artist, but I passed out just looking at the screen. It wasn't that I hadn't had anything up my arse before but I doubt whether I'd ever use the film in my art. I don't think I'd ever do anything like masturbating or shitting in my work, some things are too private. i.e. masturbation that isn't mutual masturbation. If I ever had any children, then I don't think I'd use them.
  • Q. Your work is specifically about you. Do you think you would be interested in making work that wasn't? Toni Booth, NMPFT, Bradford
    Yes, I keep saying this. I want to design swimming pools. If I ever had a daughter, I'd like her to be an architect. I couldn't be an architect because I don't have the mental capacity, but it's something I dream about.
  • Q. Do you feel that your celebrity is a help or a hindrance in terms of your ability to communicate through your work? Alice Rawsthorn, James Quayle, Design Museum, London
    It's a fantastic help, but not for the worthy art aficionados. I don't expect to be chosen for things because there's that expression: 'done to death'. But fuck it, how many artists have a four page spread in Vogue or write a regular column for GQ magazine and raise vast amounts of money for charity?
  • Q. Has art emotionally scarred you? Alexander McQueen, London
    No, not art. Art is what I probably use to get rid of the emotional scars. I don't think scars are all bad things; I try to learn by them. As I'm getting older, my life seems to be getting better.
  • Q. How important is sex to you and your work? Emma Greenhalgh, Sascha, London / Yohji Yamamoto, Singapore
    It's really important, but as far as my work's concerned, it probably only covers about a third of its subject matter. There are all different kinds of sex. Some of it I think about a lot, because I've never quite been able to get my head around it. It's the kind of thing I want all the time and then when I'm offered it, it can scare the life out of me. It's because I'm afraid of being hurt and disappointed and left. That always happens to me.
  • Q. What proportion of yourself do you see as a writer and what proportion as an artist? Is the role of artist so all-encompassing that you could never make the division? Maureen Paley, Interim Art, London
    No, I could never make the division. I love writing. I think every artist has a backbone to what they do. For some, it could be photography, painting, the ability to make a formal sculpture stand, but for me it's writing. I find something very dignified in it. Sometimes, when I write, I make myself laugh. I enjoy having a surprise dialogue in my mind. I do the majority of my writing in the swimming pool. I swim approximately 40 lengths and with each stroke, comes another sentence. That's almost every day.
  • Q. What is it that you are getting out of making your work? Louise Bourgeois, New York
    First of all, I am delighted that you have asked me a question. I am a great admirer of your work and deeply regret not buying a piece of yours that I saw a few years ago. Your work gives people a great deal to think about and digest and I really hope that my work does this for others. When I was younger, I used to find it more like a therapy, a cathartic kind of thing. Everything was a gut response. Now, I try to use every component of myself, mind, heart, spirit, conscious, subconscious. It's a good way for me to try and deal with this world. I'll be 40 next week and I swear I'll always be eternally grateful to art for keeping me alive. Next time, when I come to New York, I'd love to meet you.
  • Q. Did you ever see the feature in Now or Take a Break magazine where an enterprising journalist tried to clean up your messy bed, to apparent applause from other gallery attendees? How do you react to your work being taken less than seriously? Gavin Stoker, London
    If I'd have seen the person doing it, I would have wanted to punch them. I'd never dream of destroying or harming someone else's property (well, I probably have out of anger or spite). If people don't like what I do, then why don't they just leave it alone? I'm known to have a really good sense of humour but not when it comes to harming those things that are close to me.
  • Q. Do you think the stupid things said about your work (mostly by men) makes you and your work stronger? Nick Knight, Director, SHOWstudio, London / Jason Evans, Hove
    Yes. Especially boorish journalists. There is one in particular, David Lee, who seems to have a real bad problem, almost on the level of stalking. Give him any opportunity to denigrate me, he will and he gets paid for it. I've always had this joke that these journalists write 500 words about me, put me down, get their pay packet, pay off their credit cards, pay their mortgage, shag their wives and when they do, it's me they are thinking of.
  • Q. You once said something like 'success has taught me censorship'. When exactly are you going to put that into practice, or do you think you already have? Caroline Roux, The Guardian, London
    The problem with being successful is that what I say and do carries a bigger weight, like a snowball. So, I'm more calculated and have a desire to protect those that are close to me. It's ok what I say about myself, but I feel now that it would be unwarranted to use the names of others. I can't ever see myself making another tent.
  • Q. Isn't autobiography the best form of fiction? Sarah Morris, New York City
    Last year, I read Barbara Windsor's autobiography, All of Me, and at the same time, I read Moll Flanders. Moll Flanders is probably the most boring book I've read in my whole life and the level of fiction in it was tedious and monotonous. Yet, it was supposed to have been a true account of a woman's life. What I loved about Barbara's book was the tragedy of her life and how she dealt with it was by never putting herself down. Sometimes, when I read it, I found myself having a mental dialogue with her and I'd hear myself saying 'Oh, come on Barbara, you've got to admit, you did fuck up here or there. Take some blame'. But, in the end, I just had absolute respect for her. Why shouldn't she say it in her words? It's her life and she can portray it as she wishes. There are two kinds of truths in this world: contingent and necessary. As an artist, you constantly work with the contingent, whether you are making white squares on white canvas, or dissecting your life for the benefit of yourself.
  • Q. Does hanging around most of the time with other artists impede your creative output? Barry Kelly, London
    I don't hang out with that many artists. The people I mix with are mostly creative types. What does impede my creative output is a vast amount of socialising, because while I'm out having a good time, I'm not actually making work, but I do have really good ideas. But unfortunately, sometimes I get very drunk and can't remember a damn thing.
  • Q. You just touched on this, but I wanted to ask if you think it is it justified to expose others for the sake of your art? Johnnie Shand-Kidd, London
    Johnnie, is this your idea of a hard-core question?! Can't we talk about my beautiful legs and the Benny Hill factor? No, I don't think it's justified to expose others for the sake of my art, but I would expose someone who I believe committed a heinous crime.
  • Q. My 10 year old daughter thought your pants at the Tate Modern were really 'dudy'. They were the only thing she remembers and loved, but she was upset when her teacher told her they weren't art. What would you say to her and her teacher? Nick Knight, London
    They were art. Tell her she shouldn't listen to her teacher. She should listen to me. I exhibited them as part of an art installation. My knickers, left by my bed this morning, or to be honest, the ones that I put in my laundry basket, I would never consider as art, but I bet they have a price on the market. When you look at art, you make your mind up what you feel. I don't listen to some jealous teacher.
  • Q. Do you think popular culture has helped people engage with your work, especially the climate of female confessional as characterised by Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal? Jo-Ann Furniss, London
    Let's talk about Princess Diana or Julie Burchill, they are and were real people. My timing is good for the psyche of the nation. The media deals constantly with first-hand opinions. This would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. When I was doing my degree, you had to say things like 'if one had the opinion of...', but I always used to shove my hand up and say 'I think...'. I think it's fantastic that we are allowed to voice our personal opinions and our emotions. Secrets can kill people.
  • Q. Has the pace at which mainstream advertising copies and subsumes images from modern art increased while you have been working? Do you feel a pressure to create a distance from those mainstream copyists in order to produce more 'authentic' art? Andrew Perry, Philadelphia
    I'm very lucky in the fact that any advertising campaign that's even tried to touch my work has had the courtesy to ask me first. I like sophisticated advertising but it hurts me when I see my friends' work get ripped off. There is a big difference between appropriation and stealing.
  • Q. If you bought anyone else's art, whose would you love to own? Burnham Clark, Manila
    Last year, I bought a small, black and white photograph called 'Narcissus'. It is a self-portrait of Mat Collishaw and was made in 1994. At the time, I could have bought it for £500. Last year, I paid £5000 for it. I was so happy to get it because it was something I'd always desired and I regretted never buying it in the first place. I'd like to buy a giant Louise Bourgeois and give it to the nation. For my home, I'd be happy with a Vermeer. I recently bought a painting by Harland Miller, one of his Penguin covers, which says 'Margate, just a kiss away'. Also, I've bought a pair of wooden, sable shoes by Abigail Lane, a self-portrait by Juergen Teller (not one of the naked ones!) of him holding a tray of a vast amount of food. In my house, I mainly have pictures of cats. I have one Victorian painting of a dog holding his master's pipe in his mouth, but I mainly like collecting antiques. When I'm older, I'd like to have a collection of Egyptian artefacts and some of my clothes by Vivienne Westwood, which I treat and wear like a wonderful piece of art.
  • Q. What makes you feel beautiful? Laura Bradley, Leicester
    Being kissed all over. Having a really good suntan. Laughing 'til I cry. Cumming until the point of saturation. What makes you feel beautiful, Laura?
  • Q. Why are you always drunk every time I see you? Chris Shaw, Night Porter, The Langham Hilton, London
    Who are you really, Chris? I didn't see you in my kitchen this morning, and I'm not always drunk. But I did used to be an alcoholic. Now I get drunk when I go out as opposed to getting drunk, staying in on my own. My maximum amount of alcohol these days is a bottle and a half of good white wine. Maybe two, if it's mixed with water. At that point, I usually black out. But I've come a long way from the 4 cans of Stella, one bottle of brandy and anything that I could shove down my gullet in a night.
  • Q. Many kinds of personal catastrophe are considered legitimate grounds for creative endeavour. Can there be any other reading of abortion than something especially traumatic? Lesley Hall, Wellcome Library, London
    I don't believe that any woman wants to have an abortion. Who the hell wants to be unconscious and have a hoover suck up the neck of their womb? No one in their right minds, unless they have Munchhausen. You have an abortion because you cannot have a baby. A lot of women are made to feel guilty and traumatised by having abortions. Everyone's got an opinion on it, but the most important opinions should come from those women who have had terminations. Some women can deal with it extremely well. My first abortion left me almost suicidal because of the fucking guilt that was inflicted upon me by a doctor and the fact that it didn't work left me very unwell, mentally and physically. My next abortion I dealt with, I can only say, with a pure, Fascist, determination. There is a very good chance I'll never have children, but one thing's for sure, I'm so happy I didn't have those ones. I was not ready and if I had been, I would have had them.
  • Q. Your father seems to appear a lot. In your work, do you have a better relationship with him than your mother or does she appear in your work also? Juergen Teller, London
    Juergen, are you asking yourself this question? My Mum and my Dad appear in my work. As you know, I have a twin brother. My brother was my Mum's and I was my Dad's. My Dad has always treated me like a princess. I left home when I was very young but my Dad left home long before I did, but my Mother always encouraged me to stay close to my Dad. In fact, she always said 'We can call your father a bastard, but no one else can'. My Dad's 82 and I'm so glad that I see him at least 3 times a week. We go on holiday together and at the moment, we're building a house in Cyprus. With my Dad, I'm always trying to catch up that lost time. I love my Mum and my Dad and I get very frightened at the idea of them going away.
  • Q. In what way if any would you have been influenced by 'Tracey Emin' when you were a teenager in Margate? Charlotte Wheeler, London
    I'd have fucking loved her.
  • Q. How do you reconcile selling out to Saatchi, considering the history of his involvement with the Tory Party? Mark Muggeridge, UK
    I've got a really, really beautiful Huguenot house, but you see, Charles Saatchi didn't buy it for me. Selling out is like a form of prostitution. Charles Saatchi bought in at a time when I was already established. I refused to even entertain the idea of selling work to Charles Saatchi, who with his campaign put Thatcher into power. The Tory Party's not the problem, it was Thatcher. I believe that she should be tried for crimes against humanity, for her silent agenda on arms dealing, bombing the Belgrano when it was in Argentinian waters. 800 conscripted sailors died. For completely fucking up the health and education systems in Britain, and for encouraging the atrocities that happened in Northern Ireland. I explained all this to Charles Saatchi before the deal went through to sell My Bed. I wanted to know his opinion. He told me that he'd done advertising campaigns for tampons. I said he should have stuck to tampons; they're a lot more honourable. And yes, we laughed over our cup of tea and Kit Kat in Cork Street. A couple of weeks before that meeting with Charles, I'd been in the same room as Margaret Thatcher, this wizened-up, shrivelled old lady. It was like looking at some old Nazi war criminal and thinking 'Oh, this little old man couldn't have done that'. I always thought I'd spit at her, but instead I saw it as a challenge and by promoting my work and my art, I am no doubt the antithesis of everything she ever stood for. Charles Saatchi never promotes me.
  • Q. What are the primary objectives when you dress? Hywel Davies, Sleazenation, London
    Clean underwear. No high shoes if they are to be worn longer that three hours. To feel comfortable for the right occasion.
  • Q. What would you graffiti my bathroom wall with? Love from Kate. Kate Moss, London
    Kate, I promise I won't do it again. Probably, a very sensual love poem. Something that would immediately make you feel comforted, after retrieving your head from the bowl. To be honest, I think my graffiti days are over and when are you going to pick your neon up? Are you coming to my birthday? Love to Lila, Trace xx
  • Q. Tracey, is there anything special you'd like for your birthday on Sunday? Sue Webster and Tim Noble, London
    Driving lessons. I've just bought myself a really nice car. It's my man magnet. So, maybe a man to go inside my car and take me out to the countryside with a really fantastic picnic hamper, chilled white wine, pate, ice-cold watermelon... You know, usual stuff.
  • Q. Tracey, you're such a clever girl. Will you tell me what my ambition should be? David Bowie, London
    I thought you'd disappeared off the face of the earth. To be a really good Dad.
  • Q. David Bowie described you as 'uncommonly sexy'. Was the feeling mutual? Fiona Wylie, London
    I think it's true what he said about me, but he was referring to my appearance and how I carry myself, not how he felt about me. What amazed me most about David is what an amazing sense of humour he has. We got on very well, but I can 100% say that there's an intellectual tension but nothing sexual.
  • Q. If you were allowed to officially blow up a building anywhere in the world in a huge controlled explosion which building would you choose? Emma Reeves, Photographic Director, AnOther Magazine
    Nice question. Architecturally, there are lots of buildings but I'd like to go back in history and blow up the headquarters of the Third Reich with the whole fucking lot of them inside it. But, I strongly dislike this new hotel that's been built in Margate. It's destroyed the whole panorama of the seafront. I cannot believe they got planning permission for it.
  • Q. If you were given 3 days to live how would you spend you time? Mark Quinn, London
    I've been playing games like this ever since I was a little girl. My favourite was to look out of my Mum's window in our flat above the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Margate with a clear view to the sea and sometimes, the horizon would look like a crest of a giant tidal wave and I would imagine that I was the only one that knew about it. But to answer your question, trying to put all my papers in order, finalising my will, a giant party, so I could say goodbye to everyone and really tidy up my house.
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