ON LONELINESS / ARTIST
interview by HARPER SIMON
portrait by ED TEMPLETON
HARPER SIMON — What’s your idea of a dream date, Tracey?
TRACEY EMIN — Oh my god… that’s a really difficult question because, first of all, I don’t go on dates. It would be a real fantasy. Well, we go on the perfect picnic with the perfect food, somewhere really beautiful, in the country, with a really lovely blanket, near a stream. And we take really good books to read in the shade beneath a tree.
HARPER SIMON — And what happens in the evening?
TRACEY EMIN — Well, in the evening, you go home. My ideal date is in the afternoon, so if anyone I find reasonably attractive asks me out, I would never go out with them at nighttime. I would want to go out with them in the day.
HARPER SIMON — Because you feel too awkward at the end of the night?
TRACEY EMIN — Yeah, I’m too drunk, anything can happen at that point! But it depends on what people think is a date. I went to an art gallery and saw some pictures with someone, that was really nice and pleasant. I mean someone can consider that to be a date.
HARPER SIMON — Can you go on a date with your friends?
TRACEY EMIN — You can go out and have a really nice time, but there has to be some romance.
HARPER SIMON — There’s got to be the thought somewhere in the back of your mind that you might be getting shagged.
TRACEY EMIN — Absolutely. Now that hasn’t happened in quite some time. The idea of dating isn’t something I’ve taken seriously. I did go on a bender for three weeks with someone though! He couldn’t keep up with me in the end. He’d become really ill! No, I’m joking. But, really, a lot of people can’t keep up with me, and I don’t really like doing it anymore anyway. Romance isn’t something I’m lucky enough to have much of in my life, and I think it’s because I travel a lot and I work really hard. Also, because of my age; I think if I were younger, it would be a lot easier to have more romance and I move around a lot and I’m very selfish so…
HARPER SIMON — You mentioned the other day that you are holding an inquiry into the nature of being in love. What did you mean by that?
TRACEY EMIN — Last year I worked a lot on the idea of whether love really exists, whether it’s not just a fantasy but more like an apparition, a ghost. Like, if you think you’ve seen a ghost, then you believe in ghosts; if you haven’t, chances are you don’t believe in ghosts. Love is like that: if you’ve really been in love, then you know love exists, but if you’ve been so crushed by love and then have decided to destroy it and not be hurt by it anymore, it’s very hard to bring it back to life. You’re guarded all the time. Then you start to think: does love really exist or do we just make it up and imagine that it does?
HARPER SIMON — Did you feel like you did that after getting out of a hurtful relationship?
TRACEY EMIN — Yeah. I think I protect myself now by actually not being in relationships. You can’t make yourself fall in love. It takes two to tango. Someone has to be in love with you as well. You have to be open to it, but being open to unrequited love is really painful. It’s not worth it. I fall in love. I do fall for people, but it’s always the wrong people.
HARPER SIMON — What does it feel like when you fall in love?
TRACEY EMIN — Tingly. In your fingernails, in your hair, in your smile. You see things in a much more beautiful way — life’s more beautiful. Now are you feeling like that at the moment? Do you know what we’re talking about?
HARPER SIMON — Yeah, I know, but then it’s like you’re completely at the whim of another person. You can be in a bad mood and then you look down at your phone and they’re calling you and all of a sudden your mood brightens. It’s ridiculous.
TRACEY EMIN — It’s pathetic. When you’re my age, it’s really stupid to be like that, you know what I mean? You should know better, be more controlled. I know lots of people who would just have a relationship with anybody — they don’t really care — rather than be on their own. And I’ve never been like that. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people; they’re just weak in that regard. They’re not weak about everything, it’s just that they just can’t be on their own. If you’re an artist or a writer, or you’re creative, it’s easier to be on your own.
HARPER SIMON — Have you used the men in your life as muses for your work?
TRACEY EMIN — Absolutely, definitely. Without a doubt.
HARPER SIMON — And when you’re not having a love affair or dating somebody, do you feel like that muse is absent and do you find that problematic?
TRACEY EMIN — Well, I’m not sure I want the muse thing anymore — I want intellectual stimulus. I want someone to chat with every day, to have a dialogue. I don’t want to just keep having a dialogue on my own. I want it to be a mutual thing. I was talking to my friend Scott today about, you know, what do you want in life? When you’re 80 are you going to keep fucking each other up the ass or fucking all the time? No, you want to sit by a fire and read a book.
HARPER SIMON — You can have that with your friends though, can’t you?
TRACEY EMIN — Yeah, but I’m talking about soul mate, one-to-one. Someone that’s more special than anyone else in the world to you. I’ve got millions of friends. I really do have wonderful friends that are really loyal, and when I’m with them, the friendship is brilliant. I don’t want another friend. I want someone very special in my life. Where I’m their number one. I’ve got a show coming up in São Paulo, where I’ve done lots of work about being alone, but actually having distance from that loneliness. Seeing myself. Because normally when I work it’s really immediate, it’s me. Whereas now I’m getting some distance from myself.
HARPER SIMON — Why is it important to use yourself as material, for your work to be autobiographical?
TRACEY EMIN — Because I’m the first witness and everything else comes afterwards. What I’m looking at or thinking is channeled through me in the first place. But this is what I was just trying to say earlier: I’m getting distance from that. Things are becoming weirdly much more existential as I get older.
HARPER SIMON — You’re famous for being free and honest about your personal life in your work, certainly in your earlier work. What do you keep public now and what do you keep private?
TRACEY EMIN — Well, the point is, I don’t really have much of a private life anymore. Everything’s changed quite a bit. I don’t have any heightened private moments, really. Before, you knew that every picture was me, now you can’t tell. I’ve just become a stamp, a symbol of someone. Like my work in Margate, which I call my cavewoman drawings, and they were just like a woman, a stamp of a woman. It’s a repetitive idea of something. It’s not about me: it’s something that’s been happening way before me and will happen afterward. I just happen to be the person that’s making the marks, putting them down. I’m not so solipsistic at all anymore, and that comes through age.
HARPER SIMON — Do you think solipsism is an immature artistic phase?
TRACEY EMIN — No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a useful phase for an artist. If you don’t go through that, you can’t come out on the other side. On the other hand, you know, I’ve got a much broader horizon, the way I look at things. Things aren’t so internalized; they’re actually going outside of me.
HARPER SIMON — When did you first discover Andy Warhol? You seem to fall into a Warholian model of a modern artist in the sense that you’ve explored so many different kinds of media, and I suppose now the notion of branding is more common, but I always think of it as coming from Warhol with the Paul Morrissey films and The Velvet Underground.
TRACEY EMIN — I first came to Warhol when I was 15, at school. I had to take an art exam, and Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were the two contemporary artists we were being tested on. I always just imagined that one day I’d come to New York and meet him. I didn’t because by the time I came to New York, he was dead, but I’m sure I would have met him. But I’m not influenced by Andy Warhol. It’s the opposite. What Andy Warhol did is he invented something completely new. I’m not doing that. It took me ages to work out that I’m not doing anything new. I’m doing something so traditional. What I’m doing is quite old-fashioned, really; I’m not trying to invent anything. I’m just doing what I do in my own little way. When I was younger, I’d go to a show and I’d ask myself, what kind of artist do you want to be: Joseph Beuys or Andy Warhol? And actually, you don’t have to be anything.
HARPER SIMON — Do you see your influence in other artists’ work today, and are there any other young artists that you are interested in?
TRACEY EMIN — Well, the young artists I’m interested in don’t make work like mine. It’s different. But if we’re going by art schools, there are loads of people influenced by my work, not so much now, but maybe five or 10 years ago. Now, I don’t know who the trendy, hip people are anymore. I don’t think it’s me. I’m still appreciated by younger people, though. The show I just had in Margate had 170,000 visitors in three-and-a-half months. Which is pretty mind-blowing, and a lot of them were under the age of 25.
HARPER SIMON — That’s amazing!
TRACEY EMIN — I’m on the school curriculum in England. Maybe that’s why. Lots of school kids come and look at my work. You might think that’s not where the power is, but it is. The bottom of the pyramid is the foundation holding everything up. They’re the people who are going to be in charge of the world later: the young people. I’m not trying to get the attention of the people at the top.
HARPER SIMON — Do you consider participation in the public sphere, and in the media as well, as part of your work?
TRACEY EMIN — I think it’s an important part. When I was young, in my early 20s, I always wanted to make art, put art in public places. To put work in prisons or hospitals or courtrooms, stuff like that. That’s what interested me when I was in my early 20s. But in a way I’ve sort of done that, gone full circle. My art is public because even people who don’t know anything about art — this is in the UK — know about what I do. I hate to say it, but I’m totally mainstream. That’s bad because certain areas of the art world won’t take you seriously once you’ve done that. You’re supposed to stay pocketed, stay reserved. But that brings the conversation back to Warhol and Basquiat. They were aware that art wasn’t about staying in museums and staying in this pocketed situation. Gilbert and George said that art should be for all. It shouldn’t be this sort of doyen of good taste.
HARPER SIMON — Something only to be enjoyed by academics or wealthy people who can collect it… TRACEY EMIN — It should be for everybody. Music is for everybody. All you have to do is use your ear. Turn the radio on. But art still has this sort of stifling thing about it. But not so much in England anymore; it’s much more democratic there.
HARPER SIMON — How did you end up running with the torch for the 2012 Olympic Games?
TRACEY EMIN — The torch was coming from my hometown of Margate, so they had to try to get a well-known person from each town, and I obviously fit the bill. They tried to emphasize some of the town’s best features. Margate is the home of a new art museum that’s been built, the Turner Contemporary. I had my show in it at the time, so I was the obvious choice. It was good fun.
HARPER SIMON — Do you consider yourself a pop artist? TRACEY EMIN — No, not at all. Nothing Pop-y about me. If I have to be labeled. HARPER SIMON — You don’t have to be, so let’s not bother.
TRACEY EMIN — Thank you!
HARPER SIMON — But only a handful of artists ever become embraced by the media like you have, to the extent that they become a mainstream persona.
TRACEY EMIN — Only in the UK. And in Germany a bit. If I walk down the road here in California, no one knows who I am. They would only know if they saw me in a museum. It’s not like in the UK, where if you’re a well-known artist, people ask for your autograph when you walk down the street. People want to stop you. In the US that doesn’t happen.
HARPER SIMON — Do you think that’s to do with American culture or is it something else? Is it to do with the quality of the artist or do you just happen to have a personality that translates that way? TRACEY EMIN — I’m recognizable. My face is recognizable. A lot of artists aren’t. I don’t look like other people. A lot of artists, they’ve got fair hair, they’re six-foot, they wear a suit. They’re men. Male artists aren’t so recognizable. Andy Warhol and Basquiat were instantly recognizable. David Hockney, too, because of his whole style and manner. These people have personality and it emanates. A lot of artists are artists because they’re actually subdued. It’s their work, their vision, the stuff that they put out that they want to be recognized. There are very few artists who are happy to be recognized. It’s too much of an overload.
HARPER SIMON — Have you found it to be too much of an overload to be followed by paparazzi?
TRACEY EMIN — They know if they get photographs of me falling over or something, they’re going to get a little money that day. It’s cynical, too. Sometimes I get so sick of my name, especially when I have to sign stuff. I just say, “Aw, fuckin’ Tracey Emin, for god’s sake.” Fuckin’ A, it’s nauseating. Especially when you’ve got to get up and make work and you make work about yourself. This isn’t a “woe-is-me” or a pity story, it’s about me feeling like I need distance from myself to be able to do what I do. To be an artist, you have to have a lot of ego to be able to do what you do. You need it. And then on the other hand, when that gets too much, you actually have to shrink away from yourself; you feel physically sick with yourself. It’s too much. That’s why I like chilling out and doing different things, because I need to break away.
HARPER SIMON — You were a teenager in England in the late-’70s, early ’80s, when punk rock was really exploding. Did you see any cool punk shows?
TRACEY EMIN — Yeah, I did. Because bands used to come down to Margate, so I saw quite a few actually, but I was only 13 or 14 then. Thirteen, but I wasn’t really into punk. I was into dressing quite punk and sort of azutec and sort of different and sort of alternative.
HARPER SIMON — What does “azutec” mean?
TRACEY EMIN — Azutecs were people that wore sort of Bowie trousers and red hair and feathery earrings.
HARPER SIMON — Like glam rock?
TRACEY EMIN — Glam, but with a much more contemporary twist at the time. So slightly punk, slightly glam, but also you like sort of soul music. My favorite music at the time would have been Young Americans by David Bowie.
HARPER SIMON — That was when he was in his Philly soul period.
TRACEY EMIN — But, if you’d seen David Bowie walking down the road at that time, you wouldn’t have thought, hmm, he’s a soul boy, you’d just think, whoa, he’s azutec!
HARPER SIMON — Azutec! I’ve never even heard that word before!
TRACEY EMIN — My only great punk moment was when I was 13, in 1977, when I worked at Dreamland Garden Café and the punks came in and they said to my boss: She’s coming with us. And I was this little punk and had this day-glo striped T-shirt, and you had the big white flares then and you took them in yourself on the sewing machine. And I had jelly sandals on and there was this guy in a butcher’s overall covered in blood, and they took me on all the rides and everything.
HARPER SIMON — She’s coming with us!
TRACEY EMIN — Yeah. And she’s getting paid, yeah. But Margate, it wasn’t punk. I was more rockabilly at that time. But still a David Bowie fan. I liked Blondie, David Bowie, Velvet Underground. I’ve always been a massive Marc Bolan fan.
HARPER SIMON — Did the visual aesthetic of punk have an impact on your work?
TRACEY EMIN — Yeah, unfortunately a bad one. Because I used to do these weird Picasso-like faces. My friend Donna did them, too, and then she put swastikas on them. No, she did different faces from me, and her swastikas were the wrong way round, like the Indian thing, but I didn’t know the difference, so I have all these Picasso things with these fucking swastikas on them, which was a massive mistake. At the same time, I have all these diminutive little beautiful clay figurine things that I made. So it’s a bad contradiction. But the big influences in my life then were David Bowie’s albums Lodger and Heroes. And that’s how I found out about Egon Schiele. Because David Bowie was doing that pose, that comes from an Egon Schiele painting. When one of my friends pointed it out to me, I went to the only bookshop we had and looked up Egon Schiele. I found one tiny image in a book on German Expressionism.
HARPER SIMON — There’s something very punk about Egon Schiele. Everyone’s got spiky hair and looks a little bit like Sid Vicious.
TRACEY EMIN — They do really look like Sid Vicious, yeah.
HARPER SIMON — You once told me that you burned all your early work. How did that come about and what did it feel like?
TRACEY EMIN — I hacked it all up with a sledgehammer, actually, which I think is slightly more exciting than just burning it. But the work that I destroyed was just work that you can’t carry with you.
HARPER SIMON — It wasn’t because you felt it was immature or derivative work?
TRACEY EMIN — No. But even so, there still would have been interest to keep it. I’ve got images of everything that I’m quite happy to put up on the Internet, any time, so I can look at them as much as possible. I’ve got no embarrassment about anything I did when I was young. It’s all a learning process. Well, I am embarrassed about some things. There are things you do in life that you shouldn’t have done. Mind you, I’m a really lucky person. I work at it, but I’m lucky. There are lots of people who can’t say that. They’ve been terribly unlucky, and I haven’t. I’ve not married, I haven’t got children, whatever. But I’ve got lots of things in my life. Like this view, for example, with the birds, with the sea and the people — it’s funny, you couldn’t be sitting here and be miserable. You’d have to be a complete twit.
HARPER SIMON — I happen to know you’re an insomniac. What do you do when you stay up all night? TRACEY EMIN — Well, thanks to David Hockney, I started drawing on my iPad, which is really good. And now I’ve started drawing for real. The iPad thing has energized my brain. And because I’ve got so many friends all over the world, I can e-mail someone in Hong Kong, Australia, wherever. So I have conversations with my friends, which I love doing. And then, when I do sleep, I dream a lot. When I’m unhappy, my insomnia is hell. Like, why did god give me another eight hours a day? But when I’m happy, it’s great.
HARPER SIMON — Do you like to watch movies?
TRACEY EMIN: When I was little, I went to the cinema every week, until I was about 11. And when I was at Medway College of Design I went. At Maidstone I was a part of a Kino club. But now, as an adult, I never go to the cinema, unless… I have to be taken on a date, right? But it has to be someone I really like, and it has to be a film I really want to see. I haven’t been to the cinema for about six years
HARPER SIMON — Six years?
TRACEY EMIN — Yeah. Should we go to the cinema?
HARPER SIMON — Yeah! Let’s go to the cinema! First a picnic and then the cinema. It’s time for our dream date, Tracey!
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