The Story of I
An interview with Tracey Emin by Stuart Morgan
Stuart Morgan:You return to your experiences again and again in your work. Will this ever stop?
Tracey Emin: No. When people ask ‘How much of herself can she keep digging out?’, I say ‘You’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, mate’. The more confident I get, the more will rise to the surface. I’ve started writing love poetry, but I don’t want to write fiction; I want to take from life. What travels through me is what I make. Something comes into me, spirals out, and as it spirals I pull it in, create something, then throw it back into the world. I want to move quickly; I need the confidence it gives. People think my work is about pain, but it isn’t; that’s just the part people hook onto. The part they choose to remember.
SM: In your work you talk about daily life but also about spirituality. Why do you place these side by side?
TE: First, in order to be open about it. It’s like a light that’s always switched on, so I can talk to like-minded people. The only thing I’m well-read in - and my friends take the piss out of me for it - is mysticism: moving into other dimensions through the understanding of time and space, whether it’s levitation or astral projection. It’s the only thing I’ve ever studied with any interest, but you get to a point where you have to cut it out because you end up wafting around. But now things are better; now I’m making sense of everything.
SM: Is there something holding it together?
TE: Definitely. I was talking to friends last night about reincarnation, and I said ‘I’m not coming back here again. I mean it. This is my last one.’ And they said ‘but if you believe in life after death, where are you going?’ I said ‘I’m going to be part of the sun, that’s where I’m going. I’m going to become light.’
TE: I’m not going to become negative. Dark space is my enemy, and I’ve seen it ever since I was a child. It would come into the room and sweep over me, but now it doesn’t come in its true form. It disguises itself as images which I might find attractive.
TE: More like dreams in real time. I’m lying in bed, I wake up, someone is there and I have to rationalise the situation. A few weeks ago I didn’t. I followed it into the hall, which became a sea-wall with me sitting on it, looking onto a Mediterranean-type sea. And as I looked, this person started stabbing me in the stomach and there was blood, like real blood. I was in genuine pain.
SM: Does it have a face?
TE: It does now. In 1987 I was living in Bell Street. One night a noise woke me and as I looked at the sofa there was a person on it, with skin like autumn leaves. She sat up and her eyes were red sockets and the hair was completely white as if it might break. Then she started to levitate and to walk towards me in a long purple gown. It was the most terrifying thing because it was me, walking towards myself as if I’d been buried for six months. I was so frightened, I said ‘Dear God, I promise I won’t be afraid, please don’t let it hurt me. Take it away. I’d confront it but I’m so afraid.’ While I said this little prayer I knew it was really close. As I took my hands away and looked straight ahead - I couldn’t really tell how far away - colours appeared, all the colours of the rainbow, and as they started to spin, every shade of blue you could imagine was there. Then it changed to aquamarine and every kind of green, every kind of blade of grass, every kind of leaf: the whole spectrum. It felt like hours, though it must have been only moments. I saw every colour there is, then just laid down and went to sleep. I think it was my reward…
SM: Why do you think these things visit you in particular?
TE: Well, I was talking to my Mum the other day. In her house she has a white Formica table. I said ‘Why is this table so special?’ She said ‘Because we used to do the seances, the ouija board, on it’. I said ‘On this table? Where was I?’ She said ‘Under the table’. My family has always been psychic, especially Uncle Colin who died. He was decapitated in a car crash. It only took a moment. He was holding a Benson and Hedges packet just before he died. It looked like real gold. In my family when we die we are cremated and our ashes are thrown into the sea amongst the seagulls. I love seagulls. I’d like to be one.
SM: Is your family alive?
TE: Yes, but my Nan died last Christmas. It was sad, but I still feel close to her. Two weeks ago I was here, crying, and I felt her touch my arm. That was the second time. The first was on a bus once in Sweden when I felt someone touch my back. She was behind me. I saw her hand on the edge of the seat. People imagine that they see the dead because they really want to, but it isn’t quite like that. You miss people, you have to see them, you are desperate to know what happened. So sometimes you feel them or imagine that they’re sitting there. You see it, you sense it and then it’s gone. I’ve had a few visitations from my Nan.
SM: Will you pursue this in your work?
TE: That and other things: travelling to parallel worlds, other dimensions. Now that Joshua [Compston] and my Nan are dead I reckon that when I go on my own journey they’ll be there to help me. So I’m not afraid; I just have to expand my mind for the next place. It’s one thing to be into sex, but I have to get kicks in other ways too. And art, in the generic sense, is never going to do it for me.
SM: What more do you need?
TE: Artists shouldn’t just be making things; they should be having conversations like this.
SM: What kind of conversations are you having at present?
TE: Well, Sarah [Lucas] gave me this book called The Other World; it has descriptions of heaven from people who have died and come back in seances to tell us what it’s like. There are people with silvery robes, some see-through. Different people reach different levels of spiritual attainment. Some who were mad about their jobs are there with their work. And there are animals in heaven, but only if souls were connected to animals they loved. People are wandering around in heaven in silver robes and every pet they ever had is walking along beside them.
SM: How do you want to be when you are 70 years old?
TE: Compos mentis but eccentric, with a massive house by the sea. I’d like to be a writer. And to have somebody to hold my hand.
SM: And children?
TE: I don’t want to give birth.
SM: You could adopt.
TE: Or have a caesarean - I’d want to be unconscious. If I ever did get pregnant I wouldn’t terminate it; I would have to go ahead. I’ve had a miscarriage and two abortions, and I can’t do that again. People have family values - I don’t, not in the conventional sense - I know I’ll never be part of society, so why try? That’s what’s lovely about being an artist: I don’t have to.
SM: Much of your work involves violence towards women.
TE: Because I am a woman, people have been violent towards me. It’s something that should be discussed more. I was raped at 13 by someone hardly older than myself. This happens to boys too. You must break that chain. Be aware of what’s happening and stop it. In my work I continually re-address my youth, when I let things happen to me.
SM: ‘Let them happen’?
TE: I accepted them as part of life, but I was so nihilistic then that I didn’t expect happiness.
SM: How do you feel about that now?
TE: I can stand up for myself.
SM: When you depict sex and violence in your work I can’t always tell them apart.
TE: I hardly ever go to the cinema, but when I do go I choose masculine, violent films with plenty of blood. It must excite me. For me, aggression, sex and beauty go together. Much of my work has been about memory, for example, but memories of violence and pain. Nowadays if I make a drawing I’m trying to draw love, but love isn’t always gentle.
SM: In your work you talk a lot about anal sex.
SM: Does it have to be pictured so violently?
TE: I haven’t had anal sex for a long time, but it can often be painful; it feels like a violation. But if you love someone and that’s what you’re really into, you feel brilliant. My anal sex drawings aren’t recent; I am probably remembering what it was like. I had one relationship which was all about that. In the years I was with him I think I only had vaginal sex twice.
SM: His choice or yours?
TE: The sad thing is that it was probably his choice.
SM: Why is that sad?
TE: It’s hard to say. I’m sitting here thinking, remembering it. Women are not allowed to enjoy anal sex. Well, a lot of women are never going to get it because they are not ready to accept the fact that they like it. They’ve probably never been with a partner who would face up to wanting it. A lot of people don’t know how to do it properly, that’s the other thing. But my Nan told me it used to be the major form of contraception. I’m sure that 100 years ago it wasn’t a problem.
SM: It’s a short step from here to the artists who have inspired you, like Egon Schiele or the German Expressionists. Do you still want to be a German Expressionist?
SM: Did you ever?
TE: Some people say the Beatles were only good between 1959 to 1963, and I was like that about art; only art from one period seemed important. Schiele was marvellous. So young - he made those drawings between the ages of 18 and 28. People forget he was only 28 when he died. He was sent to jail for his art. I like his lifestyle; it was open. My other favourite is Edvard Munch. He was free with his emotions, he was a socialist, and although people call him misogynistic he was quite female in the way he expressed himself. His titles and subjects were almost soft, yet he made this hard kind of mad painting. There are photographs that show him painting naked in the woods.
SM: He seems to have been so lonely, particularly as he got older.
TE: Even if you depict lonely things you have an audience in mind.
SM: When you make art who are you talking to?
TE: First, to me, questioning myself. Secondly, to society. I want society to hear what I’m saying. I’m not only talking to galleries, museums and collectors. For me, being an artist isn’t just about making nice things or people patting you on the back; it’s some kind of communication, a message.
SM: What is that message?
TE: It’s about very, very simple things that can be really hard. People do get really lonely, people do get really frightened, people do fall in love, people do die, people do fuck. These things happen and everyone knows it but not much of it is expressed. Everything’s covered with some kind of politeness, continually, and especially in art because art is often meant for a privileged class.
SM: Do you mean rich people or educated people?
TE: Educated people.
SM: People like your work because it is honest. Like the video you made about your life in Margate. You had sex with men there - men older than yourself - and you enjoyed dancing. In fact you danced so well you entered a competition, only to find the boys you had slept with booing you off the stage. You knew you had lost the competition and that what you wanted most was beyond your reach for ever. Is all of this true?
SM: Is it true that because you had slept with them they kept shouting ‘Slag! Slag!’ as you danced?
TE: I’d slept with quite a few of them, yes. And I was 14 and they were between 19 and 24. You could say that they should have known better than to sleep with a 14 year-old girl. Well, they certainly should have known better. They shouldn’t have publicly humiliated me. But this story is very edited. Even when I walked down the High Street they used to shout ‘Slag!’ or ‘Slut!’. I never did anything wrong to them; all I did was have sex with them. Last year I met one of these men and we talked. He has daughters now. He said he’d thought of the way he’d treated me and felt bad about it. So the story is absolutely true. But I had such good fun making the film and I really do love dancing and their calling me ‘slag’ is never going to stop me fucking or making love with someone, it’s impossible. But for years I felt very strange about sex.
SM: The first time you had sex, was it against your will?
TE: I don’t think it was the first time I ever had anything put up me but it was the first time I’d had a penis there, yes. And it was against my will. But after that I was on some sexual exploration. After about six months I thought ‘This is great; we can just do it.’ I was very free and I wasn’t in love. I thought sex was great.
SM: What did it give you that you lacked?
SM: To do what?
TE: Well, I had this idea. I left school at 13, but I was quite good at Geography. I had to go back at 15 and they said I could do Geography O-level, but I said no, I didn’t need to sit an exam; I’d rather study maps. I’d study the world and travel, that’s how I’d learn about geography. And I had this idea that if you slept with someone it was like going to another country. I still talk about the springboard effect. Usually the biggest events in my life have coincided with a new sexual partner. It gives you a fantastic feeling. It’s…
SM: Confidence in yourself?
TE: More. It’s things coming together. It’s a coming together with someone new. It’s not about physical satisfaction; it’s about being with someone, drifting. I would like to get into people’s minds, to explore inside, not just outside. Sometimes that can happen when you make love.
SM: The opposite would be if you were faced with surfaces and nothing else.
TE: If I think about my mind or myself as a whole, a pomegranate is what I’d like to be. It’s got that prickly helmet on the top, but when you open it there are tiny sweet seeds. And it comes out in sections, so it’s also like a mind: split into layers, like my dreams.
SM: All these things occur in your drawings. But what role do the drawings play?
TE: They float like sections of my mind that materialise in drawing. It could be a sentence, could be figurative, might be anatomical, or could end up as a squiggle with crass writing on the top.
SM: Finally, you have plans for a tent.
TE: The idea came from the Tibetan exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. I want a tent with a sky blue floor. It will travel - anywhere with grass would do - and I’ll perform inside, perhaps for a day. Not real performance; the important thing is the stories. I could do other things too. Recently I danced to one song for an hour.
SM: What’s the song?
TE: Marc Bolan’s ‘Oh Girl’. But I assumed he was singing ‘Oh God’.
SM: Did you think he was religious?
TE: No, but he might be now.
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