Racy Tracey

Can Emin still shock us?

I’m late, walking as fast as I can through the labyrinthine streets off Brick Lane, in East London, to the studios of Britain’s best-loved and most reviled artist. As I draw near, a blank-faced woman wearing a raincoat approaches from other direction. It’s Tracey Emin.

I introduce myself, tell her I’ve come to interview her. She smiles, presses a button and presents her face to the entry phone. Somebody inside buzzes her through. Then she shouts upstairs to the women in her office, in a girly voice but with unmistakeable irritability: “Is that bloke here yet?”

She beams at me as the reply comes back: “No!” Seconds later, my phone rings: it’s Emin’s assistant calling to hurry me along.

So Emin’s in a playful mood. Phew.

Like many people, I got my first impression of her from a late-night TV chat show in which she appeared drunk, insulted fellow panellists then stalked off. (She later blamed her behaviour on painkillers.) And a friend of mine interviewed her once, shortly before one of her shows. It may have been the pressure of work, but none of my friend’s questions interested Emin, and after a while she declared herself “fucking bored”. (After that, I’m told, she got much better.)

In a lavishly illustrated new book devoted to her work, Emin expresses the wish that interviewers, rather than ask tiresome questions “about life, and meaning and feeling”, would say: “What did you do today?” or, “What did you have for breakfast?”

Anything more sensational, after all, would long ago have been covered by the interviewers who came before me – or, more likely, by Emin herself, in artworks that have mined every conceivable aspect of her extraordinary life. Or in her newspaper columns, or her recent memoir, Strangeland, of which Jeanette Winterson wrote: “Her latest writings are painfully honest, and certainly some of it should have been edited out by someone who loves her.”

I ask why she bothers to do interviews. She shrugs. Sometimes she doesn’t. “I did one interview with someone from Sweden,” she says, “and I had to ask them to leave. They were just staring at me.”

I make a mental note to look away every so often.

Emin has spoken with justifiable pride about her body. “Many artists have used female nudes in their work. I’ve got a good female nude I can use whenever I like and it’s mine.” In 1995, she did a sketch entitled, “My beautiful legs”. Today those limbs are largely covered up, in navy blue tracksuit. She wears a pale blue shirt, unbuttoned fairly low. “I’ve got an amazing cleavage when I’m wearing the right bra,” she once said. “It knocks spots off the average cleavage.”

Her pretty face is enlivened by a curiously wonky mouth, which lends her by turns a quizzical or irritated expression. (Or as she has put it: “I've got a really crooked mouth and my teeth are aggressive-looking and quite scary.”) Her hair, tied into pigtails, has a bit more grey in it than I’ve seen in photos. But she looks healthier. Indeed, she says her face looks better than ten years ago: “I’ve put so much weight on. I’m 15 kilos heavier.”

With what strikes me retrospectively as devastating tactlessness, I agree with Emin that 15 kilos is indeed a lot of weight. After a moment’s reflection, I add that it’s just about how much my daughter weighs. (This compounds the gaff rather horrifically, because Emin, who has had two abortions, famously regrets not having children. “Sometimes I imagine I’ll be an old lady surrounded by all my newspaper clippings,” she once said.) But she appears not to notice my unintentional slights.

Tottering a little in her high-heeled espadrilles, Emin offers to show me round the studio, which she bought recently after years renting elsewhere.

Upstairs in the office, on the wall, there are 23 meticulously planned “to do” sheets. These do not include art projects, which are filed elsewhere, but things like a magazine story about celebrities and their cats, and a half-hour interview for Newsnight.

In the corridor she shows me yard after yard of archives. If anything leaves the studio, Emin says, it has to be accounted for. “If I decide to give a friend a birthday card, it has to be scanned and put into an inventory, so there is a provenance if they sell it.”

I ask if it’s odd, even unpleasant, to think that friends might sell birthday cards she sends them. “If you give someone something it is theirs,” she shrugs. “They can do what they like with it.”

Largely thanks to her extraordinary candour, Emin has succeeded in surpassing all the other “Young British Artists”, even including Damien Hirst, in terms of notoriety. But when Art Review published a list of the most powerful people in the art world just one woman appeared in the top 30 – a collector and not an artist. This prompted Emin to make a documentary, broadcast in March, showing that work by male artists routinely fetch millions more than their female counterparts.

Emin’s best known work, My Bed, which she entred for the Turner Prize in 1999, was bought by the Saatchi Gallery for £150,000 CHECK. Damien Hirst’s pickled shark, by contrast, sold two years ago for £6.5m.

Of course, it’s collectors who control the art market – and collectors tend to be wealthy, white men with City backgrounds, according to Oliver Baker, head of contemporary art at Sotheby's London. These men pay macho sums for macho art that reflects their vision of themselves.

Luckily for Emin, many collectors do appreciate her more feminine approach. I recently looked around the home of Judith Greer, co-author of a new guide, Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook. Among Greer’s own collection are installations and drawings by Emin. “They’re very evocative,” Greer enthused.

“It's very British not to talk about money,” Emin says, “and especially embarrassing to make a fuss if you're quite well-off. I've always thought, ‘I'm doing OK, I can't complain', which is a very female attitude. I've never asked my gallerist why so many of his male artists sell their work for more and I've never asked the Tate why they paid so much more for Chris Ofili's work than they did for mine. Perhaps it's because I didn't win the Turner Prize. But I was nominated. Or maybe it's because I haven't represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. But that begs the question: Why haven't I been asked?”

She has now. Days after our meeting the British Council announced that Emin was to have a solo show at Venice next year – the art world equivalent of being selected to captain England at the World Cup.

We wander into another studio. “This is my painting room,” she says. “I can do anything I like in here. It’s my space. I could fuck in here if I wanted. If anyone wants to come in, they have to knock. But the rest of the studio anyone can come and go.”

Back downstairs, I notice the model for the delicate bird sculpture she erected on a metal post last year in Liverpool. Some critics considered that the BBC, which commissioned that work, wasted £60,000 of licence payers’ money. A bulkier, more traditionally masculine work would perhaps have attracted less controversy. She originally thought of putting the bird on a massive plinth, like the ones in Trafalgar Square. “But then I thought that the plinth itself is actually quite enormous and ugly. You don’t need it, just the bird.”

Beside the bird, on the workbench, she shows me photographs of items she’s soon going to cast in bronze. Once again, they’re not in the least macho. They’re baby clothes she found here and there, plus a bootee knitted by her late grandmother. “It’s like really sad. I was thinking about lost moments, and about young women who have children and lose their youth but gain a child, whereas someone like me is eternally young.” And childless.

We sit down on antique chairs to enjoy a civilised pot of tea such as one might share with a twinkly great-aunt. Nearby, a vast canvas leans against the wall with what looks like the early stages of an image of herself, lying prone and vulnerable. The outline is wobbly, as it is in her drawings. On the left of the canvas she seems to have painted something out.

She’s got two shows coming up, in Rome and Los Angeles. How’s the work going? She gestures towards the unfinished canvas. “I have not shown my paintings for years. So this is quite exciting for me. No one except me can make this painting for me. And if it doesn’t work then that’s my fault.”

On the floor beside us, resting on a vast beanbag, there’s a piece of fabric with a needle hanging out of it on a thread. “I’m not going to do all that myself. It would take me six months. Which is fine, but the price would be blown out of all proportion.” Instead, she employs artists and seamstresses to work for her. This particular work will be carried out by several people. “If one person did it they might become possessive about it.”

While they sew, Emin paints. “And we chat, and dance, and so on.”

I find this intriguing. In the movies, artists create their masterpieces in solitude. Emin grins. “You do still get that lonely macho thing – ‘I’m being creative!’ – but it’s more like Little Women in here.”

Emin was born in Croydon on 3 July 1963. Her father, an ethnic Turkish Cypriot, was married to a woman other than her mother and divided his time between his two families. Her mother had intended to have an abortion, and even booked into the clinic before finally deciding against it. In the event she had twins: Tracey was born after her brother, Paul.

Their father owned a hotel in Margate, where Tracey grew up, but when the business failed the family suffered a severe decline. “For many years I was like a nomadic bag lady, carrying my things from place to place.” At one time she lived in a bed and breakfast, eating Pot Noodles and washing by boiling a kettle and standing in a bowl.

At 13, she was raped. In the year or so after that, no longer going to school, she regularly had sex with older men: on the beach, down an alley, in parks and hotels. “I had sex with so many people that I wasn’t in love with. Sex with people I shouldn’t have had sex with. And I think, what was I doing there? Some bloke on top of me, shagging me, because I was a hole.”

In the new book she makes it clear that the exploitation continued for a long time afterwards. “I was with someone for years who never kissed me but brutally fucked my arse every time my eyes were closed.”

In 1990, she had an abortion. (“When I came round in the recovery room I couldn’t believe what I had done. I had killed the thing which I could love most.”) The procedure caused horrific complications and after a few days she was hospitalised again.

Carl Freedman, an ex-boyfriend who remains close to Emin, and who wrote the words for the new book, says she has alchemised “a lot of ordinary stuff as well as many of the shitty things” in her life into gold. The words can be understood quite literally. Many of Emin’s most successful early works were created out of blankets and other materials she'd owned as a young child, treasured possessions rich in association – a sense of warmth, of security and shelter, as well as nomadism and homelessness. She regularly cried when the finished works were sold.

Moving from the old studio, she says, she got rid of 70 dustbin bags of fabrics. “I only kept a few that I really wanted, like Carl’s shirts, or my dad’s best, or a calico that was really thin, or something that had been misprinted in an interesting way.”

Did she miss the stuff she binned? “No, it was fantastic, because I chose to get rid of it. I have friends with really small houses, two up two down, and they’re always trying to make them bigger, and I say, you can’t do it. Just throw some stuff out.”

Clearly, being wealthy has changed her. “It’s not about possessions. It’s freedom. When you have been really, really poor, earning money is such a liberating thing. If I’m ill, I have a private doctor, and if I miss a flight I can catch another. And being able to eat the food I want to eat is brilliant.”

After some years alone, Emin has a boyfriend again. But she doesn’t talk about him, apart from mentioning him as the other party involved in a discussion about redoing her interior decoration. The effect is rather unbalanced because she talks fondly about Freedman and another ex-boyfriend, the artist Matt Collishaw. “Carl and Matt are my best friends. I love them a lot and they know me inside out and upside down and they can take the piss out of me and they’re enduring and warm friends to me. I wouldn’t lose that for anything.”

In 1995 Freedman curated a show and encouraged Emin to contribute something ambitious. The result was the patchworked tent entitled Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Though often talked about as a shameless exhibition of her sexual conquests – a misinterpretation the title seems to invite – the tent was really about more general kinds of intimacy: the names appliquéd inside included not only sexual partners, but also relatives she slept with as a child, her twin brother, and her two aborted children.

Another notable work inspired by Freedman was the beach hut they shared in Whitstable, which Emin uprooted and turned into art in 1999 with the title The Last Thing I Said to You is Don't Leave Me Here. But in May 2004, a fire in a Momart storage warehouse in East London destroyed many works from the Saatchi collection, including both the hut and the tent.

Thankfully she hasn’t lost Freedman. He’s her tenant CHECK, living in a weaver's cottage at the back of her 450-year-old Huguenot house.

Before each show, she discusses her work with him and Collishaw. “They’re really honest with me, but I might disagree with them and fight my corner.” The biggest argument they had was about putting her bed up for the Turner prize. “Everyone said ‘No’. They thought it was too theatrical or too personal.” But she went ahead anyway.

Consisting of her own unmade dirty bed, presented as it had been when she had stayed in it for several days, feeling suicidal – with used condoms, blood-stained underwear and other detritus – the bed caused a huge media furore. It didn’t win, but as Emin says herself, “It became an icon, a seminal piece of art. Isn’t that incredible? My bed now exists in the national psyche.”

She pours herself another cup of tea. In the new book, she seems worried about parodying herself. “It is something to be aware of,” she tells me, “especially if you are successful. For example, the thing that people love is my quilts. People all around the world are waiting for them. But if I made more that would be making money, not art. A lot of artists do that, they make hay while the sun shines. But I don’t want to.”

One thing she’s keen to do with the money she has made is buy back her art. She’s done that before, occasionally, when things came up at auction. What would she buy if she could?

“I would quite like to get my hut back, and the tent, but they burnt in the fire… And I’d like to get back some of my paintings that I destroyed.” I note that she hasn’t mentioned anything she actually could buy. But perhaps if she named a particular piece the owner would offer it back at a vastly swollen price.

“I can still go and look at things,” she says cheerfully, “in private collections, and so on. I might ring a collector and say I would really like to see something. They might be quite chuffed.”

Sometimes she finds her art in surprising places, such as the British Airways business lounge at Istanbul airport. “I didn’t know they were there. I jumped up and down. And I wrote in their book, ‘That’s me. It’s my drawings on the wall!’ It’s a bit childish but I was really chuffed. You’d think I could be more grown up about it.”

Has she actually got better as an artist? “I put it like this. It’s like, do you get better in bed? You sink into it a bit more. And it’s like that with art. It has more control. A good driver is someone who has more control, not someone who drives fast.”

But then she seems to change her mind. “Technically, you have a chance of getting a lot more crap. The first blanket I made, the stitches were quite big and neurotic. And that might be considered to be better than stitches that are really controlled. Today, if I wanted to, I could get a piece of material and cut out a letter R right in front of you, just sitting here. I used to have to draw it really carefully. But now every bloody R is the same.

Emin’s confessional work takes forms that appear rudimentary, improvised, unmediated. Her videos have the scratchy quality of home movies. Installations appear alongside handwritten explanations, in pencil, with crossings-out. Like these considerations, Emin’s misspellings add to the effect that Freedman describes as “like watching a car crash in slow motion”.

She denies that they’re deliberate. “People used to knock on the windows and point out the spelling mistakes,” Emin says. “So I unpicked it. But it looked shit when I put it right so I put it back.”

I wonder whether the improvised, casual appearance of her work might also explain why some people think it won’t endure. Emin was recently confronted with that criticism. “They did a vote on this radio programme and they asked the audience if they thought Tracey Emin’s work would have longevity.” Many didn’t. “I thought, ‘Fuck you, cunts.’ One minute I’m happily working away in my studio listening to the radio, the next it felt like I was on a witches dunking stool and my head was being submerged deep in a cold river.”

By Emin’s standards, our meeting has been largely uneventful. She’s sworn a fair bit, in her charmingly girly voice, but not insulted me or stalked out. But before I leave, I manage to save one of her works from destruction. It’s a canvas lying on the floor, covered in writing. It’s upside-down, but I pick out the words “Terence Higgins Trust”. I ask what it is, and why it’s on the floor. Emin says it was her “Christmas tree” for the Tate. “I don’t know what to do with it. I was going to paint over it.”

I’m astonished, particularly after her lecture about scanning every birthday card she sends out, and her fury about that radio audience consigning her to oblivion. Her uncertainty over this canvas seems to betray a fundamental, and attractive, lack of self-importance. Why not offer the work to the Terence Higgins Trust, I suggest. Putting her cup down, she ponders the idea. “I wonder if they might want it for their office. They might not have enough space for it… I must ask them.”