Being Childish

Art - Graham Bendel asks how much Tracey Emin's work has been influenced by her ex-boyfriend

Tracey Emin, celebrity and acclaimed artist, is known for her confessional, emotionally charged work. Her life is well documented by her art. There is, however, a "missing period": the years 1982-87, the time of her passionate affair with the artist Billy Childish. The nature of their complicated relationship is fairly well known, but what is less so is exactly how much Emin's art and her current persona owe to Childish.

Childish has never sought fame. In fact, he considers celebrity to be a nonsense. Yet his work to date includes more than 80 albums, 30 volumes of poetry, innumerable woodcuts and 2,000 paintings. His poetry is admired by Mike Leigh and, as a novelist, he has been described as a British Bukowski. He has achieved all this without an agent or a manager. His fan-base stretches worldwide: as an underground artist, he is popular in Japan, the United States and Europe. Some regard him as a minor deity.

Emin met Childish in 1982. Enfant terrible, artist (recently expelled from St Martin's School of Art) and lead singer in the band The Milkshakes, he was a charismatic figure with whom she rapidly became obsessed.

Childish convinced Emin to give up her fashion course at Medway College and switch to art. The early days of their affair were spent hanging out with the Medway Poets, a group of loud-mouthed artists who used a variety of media, be it raucously performed poetry or painting. Under Childish's wing, Emin took part in their activities, but was always regarded as a hanger-on. She seemed the least likely of the group to achieve success.

Those who knew her then saw her more as someone who promoted the work of others - in particular, that of Childish - rather than as an artist in her own right. As a fellow student pointed out, "Billy was the artist and she was always the salesperson".

In the early Nineties, Emin destroyed all her previous work, made new artistic friends - among them Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst - and endeavoured to become the brave, tortured confessional artist to whom she had previously played understudy. Her new friends, unacquainted with her past, accepted her in this capacity, and the rest is art history.

A letter to the Times, dated 16 November 1999 and written by her old friend Steve Coots, throws some light on those years about which Emin is strategically mute. The letter pointed out that "if anyone was a local legend (as Emin recently claimed) it was Childish", and maintained that the spirit of Childish still resonates in her work today. In response, Emin launched an invective against "the nobody" who wrote the letter and stopped speaking to Childish.

But what evidence is there that Emin's work is derivative of Childish's? In 1989, Childish published a collection of stories called The Silence of Words, which included "Analysis of a Soul Rancid". In 1994, Emin published her account of a traumatic childhood, "Exploration of the Soul". His stories, wholly autobiographical, confront his ugly childhood experiences: masturbating an adult; being raped; being bullied by other children and being hit by his brother. In "Exploration of the Soul", Emin records similar events, also set by the sea. Her sentences, however, are nowhere near as penetrating as his.

In The Interview (1996), Emin interrogates herself on film. She both questions and accuses herself in a public act of deconstruction. The video, of which there are only three copies in existence, is a collector's item worth thousands of pounds. Eight years previously, in the film Conversations with Dr X, Childish had ploughed the same introspective ground.

Her second most famous work, the Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 tent (1995), was assembled using an early poem by Childish as its foundation. Childish wrote "Your name is one" in 1993; in this, he lists his former lovers. (Theresa, Rachel, Sally . . . ) Another poem from the same year is titled "The names of those I've wished dead".

When Emin's My Bed, her most idiosyncratic work to date, was previewed in New York and Tokyo, there was a noose hanging above the bed. Childish had always kept a noose suspended from his kitchen ceiling (his record label and publishing name is Hangman). Oddly, this detail did not make the move to the Tate Gallery.

So why is it that Emin became the superstar and Childish did not? The answer is that Childish does nothing but burn bridges. He rarely does interviews, refuses to attend glitzy parties, and annoys music journalists with songs such as "We Hate the Fucking NME". He snubs his fellow artists: Nick Cave and Paul Weller "flatter themselves by passing their lyrics off as poetry"; Jarvis Cocker is "wallpaper". He doesn't even reciprocate the praise garnered from his showbiz fans, among them Beck, Blur and the late Kurt Cobain.

Emin does sometimes acknowledge the influence of Childish. For example, at the finale of the "Blood under the Bridge" talk at the South London Gallery in 1997, she said: "I saw his paintings in 1982 and thought I could do that."

Childish jokes that "for Tracey, a work of rare originality is double-guessing what I'm going to do next". He does not mind that she gets ideas from him, but considers it "pretty rich" that he is considered an imitator by her cronies. In the press, he has been portrayed as a fellow student, the worst insult yet. He becomes angry when he thinks how different it would be if a man did this to a woman. He likens his experience to being "airbrushed out of a picture".

Emin is entitled to explore artistically the same emotional terrain as Childish. Significantly, their work is informed by a shared past: drinking, unconventional sex, gonorrhoea, self-loathing. Abused as youngsters, both Childish and Emin see themselves as victims.

Childish, still fiercely protective, points out that, if there are similarities, it is "unconscious" on her part, and largely to do with familiarity with his work. She was, after all, a tireless promoter of his work for much of the Eighties, working on his small press, Hangman Books.

During their long friendship, Emin has criticised writers such as Bukowski and Celine, who were highly influential in Childish's understanding of the truth as art. But, through him, her art is deferential to them. Too often, her art is like his - but diluted, made more palatable for the market.

Once you know Emin's background, the po-faced critiques and mighty comparisons become fragile. Reputedly shaped by Basquiat, Kathy Acker and Sylvia Plath, Emin is not as complicated as her sympathetic critics would like us to think.

Charles Thomson, a former Medway Poet, believes that Emin has undergone a metamorphosis, emerging as the person Childish once was (before he exchanged the whisky bottle for a flask of tea). She has adopted a voice that she has decided to maintain, without making an effort to nurture her own. This includes the drinking, swearing, arrogance and confrontational behaviour in public.

Emin is Billy Childish repackaged: more neurotic, but less passionate. She has become him, as he was all those years ago.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?