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Tracey Emin interview: “When I die, there could be riots”

Having survived cancer, the artist has returned home to Margate. Now she’s working on her legacy.

By Kate Mossman

At the age of 20, Tracey Emin threw herself off the harbour in Margate, Kent, with a whiskey bottle and a goodbye note in her pocket. Contrary to her plans, she floated. At 33, she imagined a grander ending, a funeral pyre on the white chalk cliffs, or a Viking burial out at sea. She started work on a coffin – a kind of ottoman divan, in which she could be splayed out artistically, not cramped with her arms by her sides. Then she realised that she didn’t want to die: she wanted a baby.

These funeral plans took on a different aspect when Emin, now 58, was diagnosed with aggressive bladder cancer in 2020. She underwent a hysterectomy, had her bladder and urethra removed, and now has a urostomy bag. The body she has presented in 40 years of printing, painting, drawing and stitching has become, in its hacked-about form, a new subject – currently on show in the giant screen prints of A Journey To Death at the Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate. The exhibition tote bag features a portrait of Emin in a small coffin after all, arms by her sides.

Upstairs from the gallery, four master printers work on her lithographs. And through a maze of interconnecting doors, deep inside the building, you’ll find the new living quarters of Emin herself.

She blinks up from white pillows, her head sunk deep in the feathers. She is in bed at noon – a sleigh bed with sheets as white as the walls. There are no pants, dirty tissues or condoms, just Emin, in navy blue pyjamas. The skin on her chest is soft and brown; her expression naughty, her voice tiny, her lip curled. It looks so nice in there, with the sun streaming on to the duvet, I wonder if I’m supposed to climb in and conduct an interview with a 1990s feel.

Where is Tracey Emin’s “Bed” now, I ask? Part of her entry for the 1999 Turner Prize, it was bought by Charles Saatchi for £150,000. It is now owned by a count, she says, and in storage at the Tate: to protect it from sunlight they can only bring it out once every five years, a bit like the Shroud of Turin.

Lately she has had to think about inheritance. The problem about making a will, Emin says, is that it is all very well in the abstract. “Then, when you think, I’m really going to die, you take a look and go, ‘Fuck, what was I thinking?’ Especially if you don’t have children.” Certain people were hastily written out – she won’t say who. But the main problem was her stuff, “my personal belongings. Because I’ve got to make sure that after I go, they’re not considered to be art. Hmmm.” She purses her lips, and blinks.

More than any other contemporary artist, Emin has made stuff into art, and in death imagined she would pay the price for this, people picking over her belongings like something out of A Christmas Carol. When her cat Dockett went missing in 2002, she stuck posters to street lamps, but people pulled them off and tried to sell them; Emin had to disown them in an attempt to render them valueless. How does she draw a line between art and stuff?

[See also: “I didn’t want anyone to know it was me”: on being Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”]

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Her creative director at the Tracey Emin Studio knows where the line is, she says. “He, luckily, is 25 years younger than me. When we thought I was going to die, he said, ‘Oh, God, there’s so much stuff!’ I might not die for another 40 years now. But it is what I have to think about. When you die, people argue over your memories, your favourite song, even if you don’t have anything. With me, there could be riots.”

Emin is still in bed because the previous night she attended a ceremony where she was made a Freeman of Margate. This ancient honour – she is already a CBE – gives you strange privileges, such as the right to walk your sheep through certain streets. It was a tiring evening. She shifts herself slowly, painfully, out of bed and tells me to go down to the courtyard. Then she disappears into a bathroom for a long time.

There are patterned tiles on the floor, and a spiral staircase which seems to be both inside and outside the apartment. It leads to the courtyard, a suntrap which could be on a Greek island. Emin’s taste is not as busy as you might imagine from her installations and embroideries: she has a thing for Quaker furniture. But it’s not that she has decluttered in her sixth decade – it’s simply that she has a lot more space to put her stuff. For many years, she lived on Fournier Street in London’s East End, and was a neighbour to the artists Gilbert and George. When she arrived there in 2000, it was up and coming; now that it’s up, it’s all changed, she says. She no longer knows anyone in the pubs, and she was fed up of the Jack the Ripper tours congregating outside her house. Every day, around the same time, you’d hear a guide announcing, “She was ripped from anus to vagina.”

Her Margate acquisitions are substantial: they began before her cancer, but now represent a large, unexpected expansion of her personal industry, and a self-conscious legacy project. As is not uncommon for those who’ve looked death in the face, the work is coming fast: in addition to the Margate exhibition, there are shows in Edinburgh (where a six-metre bronze woman lies masturbating in a wood) and in Oslo (a nine-metre bronze of Emin’s mother kneels outside the Munch Museum). In Margate there are ambitious, socially-minded projects: an art school, a skatepark, a catering college. “If you have more, you have a responsibility to look after people who haven’t,” she says as soon as we’ve sat down. “I don’t see it as a political thing – I just think that’s how people should be.”

The Margate Project is Emin’s Big Society. There are networks of white rooms that go on for miles: some will be used as studio space, some she has slept in for a night or two. She has bought a row of Victorian buildings which once formed Margate’s Constitutional Club, where men in hardhats work on internal scaffolds. When she thought she was dying, it was going to be a museum to Tracey Emin. Now that she isn’t, she’s in less of a hurry to unpack.

She coaxes her cats, Teacup and Pancake, down the spiral stairs. Still in her pyjamas, she lies back in a wicker sunlounger and lifts her top to show me a small white pouch on her abdomen an inch or so thick. The urostomy bag fills more quickly than a colostomy, and is much less predictable. Was it harder to get her head around than the menopause? This is the kind of question you feel you can ask.

“No! Because I was still – weirdly enough, don’t ask me why – ovulating,” Emin says. “I could have got pregnant, I could have had a baby! It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? And I don’t think I look 60. I don’t at all.”

She does look young, it is true. Her Turkish father had dark skin and said he could trace his lineage back to a Sudanese slave. When Emin and her twin brother Paul were young, children called him a “wog”; her mother told them it meant “Western oriental gentleman”. Her father kept two families, refusing to leave his wife for Emin’s mother, and ran Margate’s Hotel International, formed from six houses knocked together. Tracey and Paul, Emin once said, were “rich and spoiled”; then, after her parents separated and the hotel closed, they fell into poverty. Her mother would take the twins to work at a club in Ramsgate, where they slept on benches; on other nights, she would leave them at home alone.

Two years ago, Emin tells me, a gallery in Texas hung one of her paintings: it was the first time her work had been exhibited in that state. She has never sold well in the US, and puts it down to her subject matter, much of which has focused on her abortions, and her promiscuity – introduced with a bang at Saatchi’s 1997 Sensation exhibition in the form of her canvas tent, Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With 1963-1995, which was embroidered with the names of 102 people.

“Now there’s lots of artists standing up for women’s rights – it’s a language which is allowed,” Emin says. “It’s lots of things I’ve been talking about for the past 30 years. People said that I was moaning and screaming and whining –‘Oh, God: narcissist.’” She seems to shrug it off, accept it. Reviews of her new show have been kinder, as though to make a study of a damaged, aging body must be considered art, while her younger self-portraits were something else entirely.

She had an abortion in 1990, just after leaving the Royal College of Art; she also had one as a teenager. Afterwards, she disposed of much of her degree work, writing in her 2005 memoir Strangeland, “I wanted to destroy everything I loved that did not love me back.” In language that will speak to some women, and baffle many others, she says that her second abortion was “revenge for the first”: punishment for a wound already self-inflicted. She writes with poignant clarity: when she went to the doctor, already hard-drinking and self-destructive, she told him she knew that she was pregnant because she suddenly felt “well”.

“Everyone uses abortion as a political tool,” she says now. “All these people that have never had abortions, all these people that would never have abortions, talking about pro-choice. I say, no woman wants to have an abortion. Some women have to. It is not empowering. It’s horrific, it’s like missing a fucking flight.”

[See also: Delia Smith: “I was told I was not sexy enough. It was very hurtful”]

Even the journalist Julie Burchill, whom she would later befriend, had what Emin calls an “oh diddums” attitude to her work on abortion. “She was quite gung-ho. But my concern was women having abortions who had no help afterwards, and who maybe felt like me – suicidal. When I was pregnant, all I could see myself doing was holding the baby in my arms and jumping off Waterloo Bridge. I would have been on my own, a single mum, beyond broke, and I just thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I swore to God that I’d never make art again: I was so fucked up and so guilty.” In her memoir, Emin writes that her mother told her she would not cope with a baby, and she agreed.

She calls an aide on the phone, and asks them to come and make some coffee.

“I’ve never been married,” Emin says, stroking a cat with a vigorous pull of the tail. “Because no one ever asked me, right? I’m not saying I wouldn’t get married: no one’s ever asked me! You have all these girls who go, ‘I’d never get married.’ I say, ‘You’re 32. What are you talking about?’ They probably will within three years and have two children and a very lovely life.”

Before Emin had surgery, she sent an email to her friends telling them not to contact her while she was in hospital. “It gets on my nerves, having to explain how I made a mono screen print. Imagine having to say, ‘I’m just taking my morphine now.’ She said that anyone who did contact her would be off her list immediately: to her relief, none of them did.

“I live as I am,” she says, “and that’s a hard thing to do. If I had my choice, I’d live in a kind of monastery or something. I’d just live quietly – now, especially – and that’s secretly how I’ve always wanted to live my life. I think there are some really good ways to live without having children. It’s not what you have to do.”

Emin left Margate at 18, returned again intermittently in her twenties, and is now back for good. What age does she see herself as, I wonder, when she walks around the twisty lanes? Thirteen, she replies: running about, looking for dark alleys in which to have sex with boys, and men.

“If you start having sex when you’re 13 or 14, it’s another revenge thing,” she says. “Revenge against the sex you had when you were eight or nine. So suddenly you’re 13, you think, ‘I can do sex, I’ve got this control and this power,’ and of course you haven’t. You think it’s your choice, like the second abortion.”

And it’s not? “Of course not. Why would anybody who’s 25 want to fuck someone who’s 13? It’s weird.”

She was abused by more than one person from the age of six, while living at the Hotel International. She was later abused, aged ten, by her mother’s boyfriend. After that, she saw sex everywhere. Swimming in Walpole Bay, where the water forms a tidal pool, aged 11, she cut her shin, and when a passer-by took her to a beach hut to bandage it up, “he threw me out, because I tried to give him a blow job, and he was just trying to bandage up my leg”. She laughs. She was raped behind a Burton clothes shop when she was 13. “There is a nice little gallery there now. When friends come to stay, I say, not only have we just seen a local art exhibition, but here, in this spot… The building is a beautiful art deco building. So it wasn’t all bad!”

When Emin made Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With, she was recording her abuse as well as her promiscuity. The Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle told me that, “Emin is a life force. Her strongest suit is her storytelling.” He described her as “a Kathy Acker for now”, as well as “a local phenomenon who makes a lot of sense here in the UK, where her story has been recycled”. One common criticism is that her art lacks a transformative quality: the same body, the same concerns, reproduced again and again – not blossoming in magical realist directions, like Frida Kahlo, but dispatched as consistently as a screen print. You can’t help but feel that the repetition speaks to the size of the original wound: the mind has formed around it, with humour and with great self-regard, never quite coming to terms with what happened.

Did people fail to understand what was behind the work? “They still don’t!”

Has the critical reception changed over the years? “Yes and no,” she says. “The critics are ­getting younger. There are new museum directors, new Arts Council people who think it’s exciting. They saw the punk side, the wildness, and didn’t see me as an enfant terrible

“But the older people, no. There was a lot I didn’t say. I said, ‘I’ve had an abortion, I’ve been raped.’ I didn’t say that I grew up in adverse poverty with a mum who was never in the house, didn’t say that I went to school in dirty clothes. I didn’t say that I was sexually abused from the age of six. I didn’t say these things because I thought it was blatantly obvious in my work.

“I’ve got to go and empty my bag or it’ll burst,” she adds. “Last time it burst really badly was in Chanel.”

She disappears, then returns to lie down again, the pyjama top rucked up to expose her belly and the stoma. One brown breast peeps out. The coffee arrives in large blue and white cups, heavily foamed.

“Class really has a lot to do with it,” she continues. “If you’ve read reviews from the past, they all take the piss out of my accent, they all talk about my tits. One talks about how I waltzed into the room like Moll Flanders with my pirate jewels and my cleavage. Moll Flanders was a thief! I was making my art. You wouldn’t say, ‘Jeff Koons, the highwayman of art, swaggers into the room with his penis swaying from side to side’.”

Emin was rather sad when the Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell died, though he couldn’t stand her. He focused, in early reviews, on her wealth: the sense of scam in her work. “He worked out how much money I’d made at the Royal Academy summer show,” she says. “He actually sat there at his kitchen table with a calculator, working it all out! I thought, ‘Oh, that’s useful, thanks Brian, I can use that for my tax.’ But Brian’s from a different generation, a different class. He wouldn’t be writing now. He wouldn’t be allowed.”

The prints for Emin’s Margate show were done incredibly quickly – sometimes just 45 minutes a piece. “Some of my paintings take me five years, and the ones I like best are the ones that took me 45 minutes! No one else likes them, but I do.” Had she ever worked so quickly before? “Yeah, drawing and painting, but it’s not particularly good. But these new ones are really good!”

A common question asked of Google is “can Tracey Emin actually draw”. Some critics think her style – wobbly “expressive” lines, limbs with indeterminate joints, rudimentary faces – is less an artistic choice than a lack of skill. In 2011 Emin was made a professor of drawing at the RA but, Searle tells me, “she doesn’t have the range, the encyclopaedic knowledge of drawing that her predecessors had. Her drawings are very articulate but in a limited way. It’s one note; it’s more about what she says, the frankness, the openness.”

The prints in Emin’s new show explore her face as much as her body: in one strong portrait, At The End Of The Day, she has rendered herself mummy-like, dried up, in the dark. She has always had an interest in the Egyptians: you can imagine a white pyramid in Margate one day, with Emin inside, surrounded by all her things. Did the face become a new focus as the body changed?

“I hated my face for years, right? So someone can say, ‘Oh, such a lovely photo of you,’ and I always see the negative side. Since I’ve been ill, my body’s got really fucked up: I’ve had all the muscles cut through, I’ve had my lymph nodes taken out, I’ve had half my vagina cut away. It’s really brilliant coffee, isn’t it? It’s just an ordinary little Moulinex coffee maker. Anyway, so, my face…” She doesn’t finish the thought.

When Emin first started making money, she spent it on two things: posh food and private health care. The latter put her in good stead during the pandemic. On three consecutive Thursdays, when the hospitals were full of Covid patients, she was seen, diagnosed and booked into a private London clinic next to the Shard.

She is not a socialist, and foresees a huge cost to the country as a result of pandemic bailouts. “They were printing money. You think austerity was bad: wait till you see what’s going to happen. Eighteen thousand people in Margate live below the poverty line.” Figures published earlier this year found that 28 per cent of children in the town are living in poverty, against a national average of 19 per cent.

[See also: Norman Scott interview: “I never loved Jeremy Thorpe, but he could be enormous fun”]

Emin’s politics marked her out at Maidstone College of Art, where she took her first degree in the early Eighties; the school was so left-wing that Sinn Féin sent a visiting lecturer. The miners of Kent, who had striked the longest in the country, came to lecture, telling the students, “You may wonder what we’ve got in common. The government has shut us down, and you’re next.”

“And it was true!” says Emin. She was social secretary of the student union, and says she was very fair. “I wasn’t walking round like some mini-Thatcherite, because I hated Margaret Thatcher. She should have been put on trial for crimes against humanity for what she did to care in the community.”

But she loved David Cameron and backed him in 2010, which horrified some (“I could have been a serial killer and I would have got off lighter”). She believes in voting for one’s own interests. “I’m considered to be right-wing – when I’m smack bang in the centre and fight at my own peril to stay in the centre. How come everyone can slag me off for voting for Cameron? When all the fishermen and factory workers who should never, ever have voted for Boris Johnson did just that.”

In protest at Johnson’s duplicitousness, she recently requested that the art work she had donated to No 10 on Cameron’s watch – a neon sign called More Passion – be removed. Tony Blair, she adored: “Blair was fucking brilliant. He would have overtaken the US and Russia. We would have had this global warrior leader to take the world into the next decades, and he got fucked over. He was actually going to stop wars. He was going to make everybody more equal. He really was, because all the old money, new money, Tories – everybody fucking loved him, so that gave him a lot of power.”

In a classic, unverifiable Emin anecdote, she tells me she asked Blair why he invaded Iraq. “I sat next to him at dinner. I got to know him a bit and I said to him, ‘Why did you do it?’ He said, ‘What, exactly, Tracey?’ He’s quite funny! I said, ‘You know what I’m talking about!’ He was as candid as he possibly could be. He said, ‘In hindsight, Tracey, all of us look back on our lives and realise that there were things that we shouldn’t have done…’”

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At this point, four or five athletic young men – artists, aides, staff – arrive to take Emin to lunch. I am to join them, but first her estates manager wants to show me another part of the Margate project. Down the back streets, in the hot sun, the remains of a Victorian bath complex are being worked over by more men on scaffolds. These baths are being converted into Emin’s new art school; there will be 30 studios, and common rooms; there is a small Victorian building that used to function as a morgue, for bodies brought in from the sea: this will be a student canteen.

Over lunch in a little seafood restaurant, wearing a dress the same colour as her pyjamas, with Crocs instead of slippers, Emin makes me up a plate, maternally. She slices her turbot in half, and pulls together some chickpeas and potatoes from other plates, pleased with her efforts. Then she tells me her plan.

“I’m good at property, as you can see,” she says. “I give so much money to charities –I must have given a million pounds – and I never see the results. The school will be here after I’m dead, which is really great.” She sips a non-alcoholic beer. Emin no longer drinks, preferring Fortnum and Mason’s sparkling tea. She had a dangerous relationship with alcohol in the past: she was sponsored by Smirnoff, and has recalled reaching into the toilet to fish her false teeth out of her vomit; her front two corroded from malnutrition as a child.

The restaurant in which we are sitting will take people from the local job centre and put them on a catering course, run in the canteen-cum-morgue. As students for her art school, Emin will select 30 people for a free place (no upper age limit, no previous experience required), and there will be paid-for places, too. The content of the course has not been decided. Visiting lecturers will be paid in the form of Emin’s work; she might give them a paperback book – say, an Eighties edition of Wuthering Heights – with a watercolour painted inside. The books will definitely count as “art”.

“There’s things I’ve done I don’t like,” Emin says, by way of explaining her big plans for Margate. “Mistakes I’ve made, big regrets: imagine if I’d died with those regrets and felt that I couldn’t put them right. I want to make things right as possible. Not for the world, but for me.”

What are her regrets? “I think I’ve been really selfish in the last 20 years with my art. I haven’t been focused and I got led astray. It happens to a lot of people. What happens to the others, they have children – and that calms them down. With me, I just could be pulled and dragged any old way.”

There will be a discipline system at her art school: a yellow card if you smoke on the premises, another if you don’t finish your assignments. Three strikes and you’re out. And there will be no quotas. “If I get 50 applicants who are all middle-aged white men, then that’s who my students will be. If I get 25 black ­women, that’s who my students will be. There are a lot of very talented people who don’t get the chances because of quotas these days.”

But who will teach at the school, one of the young men at the table asks her?

“We will!” she cries. “We all will!”

The sun is going down, and she fancies a paddle at Walpole Bay: the place with the tidal pool, where she tried to give the man bandaging her knee a blow job. It’s just a paddle, mind – she can’t swim with the urostomy bag: there is too much risk of infection. Her staff cancel their evening plans, and someone finds a van. Tracey Emin gets up stiffly, carefully, and heads out into the evening.

A Journey to Death is at the Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate, until 19 June

[See also: How nostalgia fuels the culture wars by Hannah Rose Woods review]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man