Remembering Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas’s ‘The Shop’
Hilton Als, Sadie Coles, Pauline Daly, Emin, Lucas, Gregor Muir and Cerith Wyn Evans on the artists’ short-lived project space in Bethnal Green, London
Hilton Als, Sadie Coles, Pauline Daly, Emin, Lucas, Gregor Muir and Cerith Wyn Evans on the artists’ short-lived project space in Bethnal Green, London
In December 1992, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas – then young artists recently graduated from the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths, respectively – signed a short lease on a former doctor’s surgery in the East End of London. The Shop, as it came to be known, opened at 103 Bethnal Green Road on 3 January 1993. It closed with Emin’s 30th birthday party – ‘Fuckin’ Fantastic at 30 and Just About Old Enough to Do Whatever She Wants’ – six months later, on 3 July. It purveyed all kinds of handmade merchandise – T-shirts bearing the painted slogans ‘Complete Arsehole’ and ‘Fucking Useless’ were particularly popular, as were ashtrays with pictures of Damien Hirst’s face stuck to the bottom (a nod to the cigarette works he was making at the time). It was also a gathering point – for making and talking, drinking and dancing – that was unlike anywhere else and which drew people back time and again. Mythologized as part of the yBa legend in the decades since, The Shop marked an inaugural point in both artists’ careers at a moment when London itself was on the cusp of transformation from a parochial art scene to today’s commercial powerhouse. frieze spoke with Hilton Als, Sadie Coles, Pauline Daly, Emin, Lucas, Gregor Muir and Cerith Wyn Evans and has pieced together their accounts to give a brief history of what The Shop was and what it meant.
HOW IT STARTED
Sarah Lucas I got out of sharing a studio with Gary Hume, which I’d done for a long time, but I’ve never been much of a studio person. Tracey and I went for Indian food one day on Brick Lane [in east London] and we were talking about that sort of thing – studios or not studios. Tracey wasn’t making art at the time. She was thinking of herself as a writer and, anyway, we just thought it would be fun to do something. We looked around for a shop with a short lease, six months.
Tracey Emin There were loads of closed-down shops – this was the beginning of the 1990s and there was a recession. As Sarah and I were cycling around, I said something like: ‘It’d be good to have a shop.’ We both said, together, ‘a shop shop’ and we knew exactly what we meant.
Sadie Coles Bethnal Green was nothing like it is now. It was completely ungentrified. It was a place you went to late at night to get bagels on Brick Lane after clubbing in the West End. At the end of Brick Lane, you’d turn left and The Shop was on the right. It was a very small, scruffy storefront. At the time, it reminded me of Claes Oldenburg’s The Store  – it was on that kind of scale.
Tracey Emin I had no money, not a penny, and Sarah had this money from Saatchi. For the rent and the lease, Sarah signed all of that money over to the estate agent and we got the keys. That to me is important, because everyone slags off Saatchi, but he gave us a financial leg-up. We decorated The Shop with cheap magnolia paint. Everyone else was painting everything white as white and using polished steel and Perspex. We did it up over Christmas and we opened on 3 January.
Sarah Lucas It was a stinky sort of neighbourhood, lots of rats. We had three floors, but The Shop was just on the ground floor. If we went upstairs and got into our sleeping bags, you’d hear little rats scratching – it was kind of horrible. It was much better when we stayed up all night drinking.
Tracey Emin The basement was the life-drawing room, which looked more like a speakeasy. Then we had The Shop on the next floor, and a little kitchen and a back room where Sarah worked. I worked upstairs. There was a little room where I drew my birds. I had split a pillow – that was an accident – and everything was covered in feathers. I had my ‘office’, which was just a desk with one light bulb coming down. I had a typewriter, and I wrote love poems to my imagined ‘international man’. On Saturday nights, people would get really drunk and come up and I’d just be sitting there typing. It was all very performative.
Gregor Muir I went to The Shop to interview Sarah and Tracey for frieze. I asked them both: how does it suit you, working shop hours? Tracey said: ‘We’re open Tuesday, from 1pm to 6pm, Wednesday to Friday, from 11am to 6pm, then we work on Saturday from 11pm to Sunday afternoon, around 4pm. So, we do keep regular hours.’
Tracey Emin We were always going to have a name – The Shop was just a working title. One night, we got totally drunk listening to David Bowie and we decided to call it ‘Golden Years’ [after the 1975 song]. We spent all night cutting out letters from yellow plastic and put up a ‘Golden Years’ sign. In the morning, we were like: ‘What have we done?!’ So, we took them all down again. People would only have seen that, fleetingly, if they’d happened to have gone past that night.
Sadie Coles The Shop felt like the two artists were determining their position within an art scene. It wasn’t clear where it was going to go, but they made a stage, a platform that would not have been offered to them elsewhere. For me, it was really inspiring and radical. You know, the two shows Sarah had just done in 1992 – ‘Penis’ at City Racing, which was a not-for-profit run by artists, and ‘The Whole Joke’, which was in an empty shop on Kingly Street – had been self-determined in many ways. It felt like this is what you had to do to get on that stage to get that attention, especially when Damien [Hirst] was making a lot of noise. So, this felt – especially for me, as a woman – like an exciting takeover of that space in Bethnal Green.
Sarah Lucas Post-college, the first wave of people to be taken seriously or courted by the established art world, such as it was, were the young men.
Gregor Muir I’ve got the original transcript of the interview. After Tracey tells me about the opening hours, Sarah says: ‘The thing is, we’re open and whatever we’re doing is open. That’s the main thing about having a shop, that we’re open, which is not the case if you’ve got a studio, that’s the major difference. It’s not discriminating about who comes in. You don’t have to say: can I come and visit you at your shop? If people take it upon themselves to come and visit, then fine, whoever they are.’ It’s fascinating to me, still, how clever that move was. Sarah’s work, with all its visual puns and references to casual sexism, drew a lot from exchange. The Shop was a social, living entity, which doubled as a studio, where anyone could drop by.
WHAT COULD YOU BUY?
Sarah Lucas First, we needed to have a bit of money coming in. We quite fancied ourselves being quite shoppy about it, in a way. I must say Tracey, even in those days, really had her head screwed on, business-wise.
Tracey Emin I used to make rabbits out of cigarette packets; we would chain smoke and, when we’d finished smoking a packet of fags, I’d make a rabbit and we’d sign it, put it in the window and sell it for the price of a packet of cigarettes. On Brick Lane, you could buy loads of fabric for £2, orange plastic sheets for 10p each – you could buy all of these odd, fucked-up materials. We’d buy whatever we saw and just make things out of it, anything we could think of.
Cerith Wyn Evans There was a lot of that. Objects that had fallen out of worth or use to anyone – just trash or rubbish. But there was a sense of repurposing and recycling and re-evaluating systems. On that level, there was something highly sophisticated and civilized about The Shop. There was an ethical backbone to the whole experience, really. It was about having an exuberance in the midst of everything, reacting to the world’s tyrannies and hierarchies and unfairness. It was arte povera with a fuck-you punk feminism. (All of a sudden, I can see that in print, and I am thinking: no, don’t write that down.)
Gregor Muir The best moments, for me, were in the daytime, sitting at the counter, watching Sarah make stuff or Tracey on the floor cutting something out. It was a making space, which sounds really awkward, and is possibly why people have gravitated to the hardcore party end of what was on offer. But it was a craft shop, of sorts.
Pauline Daly Everything was all over the place. There was a paddling pool and everybody would throw coins into it to make a wish. It’d be really funny. Making ashtrays with pictures of Damien Hirst at the bottom of them, Sarah’s octopus – made from sheer black tights stuffed with shredded newspaper – on the radiator.
Gregor Muir The octopus stayed for a while. People like [curator] Norman Rosenthal would wear it on their heads and dance around.
Sadie Coles I remember wanting to buy one of the T-shirts that read ‘You’re so Sucky’. It had already been sold several times and was beyond my financial abilities. They went up in price each time one was sold. It was £125 or something, and I couldn’t afford it.
Sarah Lucas Tracey said: ‘Let’s make all these business cards with the address on them, our names and, I don’t know, “Fucking Fantastic Shop”. And every time we go to a private view, we’ll hand them out to people,’ which we did.
Cerith Wyn Evans There were stoner-humour jokes everywhere. The octopus was the first time Sarah used tights in her work. [The gallerist] Anthony d’Offay bought it. They had a big bill – for their rates, I think – which they couldn’t afford. So, very straightforwardly, they said: ‘We’d like you to pay this bill on our behalf. That’s the price of this octopus, by the way.’ He said: ‘Gladly.’ And that was that.
Pauline Daly The mannequin with Tracey’s suit on it was always in the corner, with birds stitched onto it.
Sadie Coles Sometimes when you went to The Shop it was open; sometimes it wasn’t. It depended on whether you were lucky or not. There were ashtrays lying around. Lots of Tracey’s embroidery – small things. They were embroidering the outfits they planned to wear in Geneva for their show ‘From Army to Armani’ [at Galerie Analix Forever] when they crossed over to Europe in 1993. Loads of beer, too. There was a hammock, as far as I remember. Music. Lots of table-top sculptures Sarah had made, some of which were displayed alongside Tracey’s embroideries at Alison M. Gingeras’s show at Tate Modern [‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’, 2009].
Gregor Muir I had a girlfriend at the time called Fenella, who was quite well-to-do. By comparison, I was a real reprobate. One afternoon, she said: ‘We’re going to dinner with such and such in Hammersmith and I want you to go out and buy a rose sapling for them as a gift.’ I said: ‘How am I going to do that?’ She’d banned me from using her car, but she gave me the keys and said I could use it, as long as I came back within the hour. So, I drove around in her Fiat Uno trying to find a flower shop or a garden centre where I could buy a rose sapling. She’d given me ten quid. Anyway, after a while, I gave up. The car rolled to a halt outside The Shop. I drew up a chair at the counter and started to tell Sarah how badly my relationship was going. (I only found out later that my girlfriend had already reported her car as stolen to the police.) As I was talking, Sarah took a piece of cardboard and quickly painted it red. She cut out the letters ‘R, O, S, E, B, U, S, H’, put them on wire stalks and stuck them in empty Pils bottles. She said: ‘You can have that for a tenner.’ I thought: I can’t bring these old beer bottles and bits of cardboard back to my girlfriend. She would have killed me. I politely declined. Of course, the next time I saw that work, it was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was devastated.
Cerith Wyn Evans They were constantly making little gifts. I commissioned several things. They did a whole outfit for me. The T-shirt I wore most said ‘Complete Asshole’. But because the ink was quite wet when it was painted, it had seeped through to the back. So, ‘Complete Asshole’ also appeared backwards on the back of the T-shirt, blotchy and faded. Sarah, who’s rabidly intelligent, and I spoke a lot about psychoanalysis and feminism. The idea of there being a complete asshole was a Bataillean, early Lacanian notion. But it also came across as a self-deprecating, idiotic, shameful badge of pride, wearing a ‘Complete Asshole’ T-shirt.
Gregor Muir Everything was a conversation piece. My big investment was Cerith’s balls.
Cerith Wyn Evans There is a film of me standing in The Shop, smoking. I’m very young and very thin. I’m wearing a gingham Ben Sherman shirt, a skinhead shirt from Carnaby Street, and these camouflage army cargo pants, which have, at the crotch, a silver bell and a gold bell hanging down like testicles. And then there’s a curved, phallic ribbon that says: ‘Emin Lucas Bollocks’. I’ve got a bottle of beer in my hand and I’m just chain smoking and leaning against the wall, snarling at the camera.
Tracey Emin I have two favourite Cerith stories. On Saturday night, we’d all meet up at 11pm and we’d ask each other what we’d been up to. One time, I said that I’d been reading [James Joyce’s] Finnegans Wake . Cerith turned and said: ‘Oh my God, how are you getting on with it? What about the language?’ I said: ‘Oh, it’s fine; it’s not as if the whole book’s going to be like that.’ I’d only read 20 pages or something! The other thing was that Cerith used to wear these ribbons between his legs, which had bells on, that me and Sarah made. One night, Cerith got so drunk and we heard this clamour of bells. He had fallen down the stairs. All we could hear was jangling.
WHO WAS THERE?
Sadie Coles The Shop wasn’t far from the Golden Heart pub in Spitalfields, where people used to hang out. Those same people would then gravitate towards The Shop, especially at the end of the evening, when they knew it would be open.
Pauline Daly People would come and go after the pub – everyone would just be in there. But it wasn’t always that busy when I went, until the closing night. I was trying to remember if I went with anybody, but maybe I didn’t. It could have been with Brendan Quick. I did go a lot by myself and just hung out for a couple of hours with whoever was around.
Tracey Emin Lots of people said they went to The Shop, but they didn’t. And I know they didn’t because I’ve got a book with everybody’s name in who did.
Cerith Wyn Evans I first went to The Shop with Hilton Als. Now he’s become very grand but, at the time, he was a friend of a friend and, when he was in London, he would stay with me.
Hilton Als I went to London for Vibe magazine. I was doing a piece about Chaka Khan on a limited budget. At first, I stayed with Jonathan Caplan, a college friend, and his partner, Angus Cook, in their little flat on Old Compton Street. Jonathan and Angus were very hospitable, but their place was tiny, and it was through Angus calling Cerith that I met Cerith and got to stay in his bigger flat. I remember the bed being surrounded by books. And I think it was through Cerith that I met Sarah and Tracey and, oh boy, did we have fun. I was agog and confused and happy with everything.
Tracey Emin In the Brick Lane area, you could have your premises open 24 hours because it was market trading hours. When me and Sarah found that out, we decided to open all night. And people would come. I’d met Gregor, for example, before, but I didn’t know him that well. Gregor was in love with me. He’d come to try to court me. There was a loyal group that would come every Saturday. There was nowhere else to go on a Saturday after 11pm unless you were part of a members’ club, which we weren’t.
Gregor Muir It was a heart-warming sight to walk down Redchurch Street and see all these windows steamed up, lights on and this hubbub. You knew it was open and it was midnight. It was like: ‘Thank God there’s something to do in this country.’ It was such a nice thing.
Sadie Coles The Shop was one long party. An endless party. There was always a party – unless you went early and they had been sleeping there all night. That was a bit more coffee and bagel time.
Tracey Emin There was so much dancing, so much dancing, so much dancing. An unbelievable amount of dancing. Everywhere.
Cerith Wyn Evans I must have been there pretty much every Saturday night into Sunday morning. I was a regular. They put a hammock up for me because there was nowhere to sit down. Tracey somehow found a paddling pool in order to make it more tropical. So, there was a paddling pool underneath the hammock and I could take a nap in the middle of The Shop while people were coming in.
Sarah Lucas We had a really cheap cassette player. Nothing special, no sound system or anything. We had two albums that we mostly listened to – Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill  and The Beatles’ Abbey Road .
Tracey Emin There was a schoolteacher who used to come regularly; he loved it. The cafe next door loved us – the man used to bring us round chip butties. And the guy who ran the market sponsored us. He paid us a big lump of money to make a T-shirt that said ‘Brick Lane Market Open Sundays’. He gave us £500 or whatever. [The art dealer] Ivor Braka came and bought a lot of stuff.
Gregor Muir In the frieze interview, Sarah said: ‘I’m always amazed at all this stuff about people not being interested in art. It’s like a magnet. They are interested in it. They only don’t like it if they’re having it rammed down their throats as art.’ That really was the whole vibe.
Cerith Wyn Evans There was an anarchic – perfectly well-meaning – but savage, punk, do-it-yourself freedom about the place.
Gregor Muir There was poetry, is my point. It wasn’t an off licence. There were moments when you got the feeling that they were finding a brilliant solution to the boredom of being in a studio.
Sadie Coles Eventually, it attracted people from all over, like [gallerists] Matthew Marks [from New York] and Max Hetzler [from Berlin]. It was great – you never knew who would be there. But you would be immediately included in the conversation and meet someone interesting or bump into someone you were curious about. I remember Paul Noble doing some really good, crazy dancing.
Tracey Emin The last night of The Shop was my birthday party: ‘Fuckin’ Fantastic at 30 and Just About Old Enough to Do Whatever She Wants’. We didn’t tell anyone whose birthday it was. We wanted to go out with a bang, like rock stars. [The artist] Joshua Compston knew this beer company called Zeiss, in Essex, who wanted to sponsor art events. It was champagne and beer mixed together. So, they gave us 1,000 bottles. They came with Zeiss girls, who were blonde. They had loads of make-up, high-heeled shoes and short dresses with sashes on. Gilbert & George came, Jay [Jopling] came – the building was full. Sarah passed out in the backyard with Angus Fairhurst. My dad found them under a piece of cardboard at 6am: my dad was always at The Shop; he was quite a character. Outside, there was a sea of glass. I’m not talking two or three broken bottles: I’m talking a glittering sea of glass. I don’t know how it happened. There was still stuff in The Shop; nothing had been stolen. There was money on the counter with little notes written by the Zeiss girls: ‘Three David Hockneys sold. Four badges. One beer can.’ It was wild that night. It was fucking brilliant.
Gregor Muir They managed to get drinks sponsorship from a beer called Space, or Zice. It was disgusting and, at the same time, free. You did the math. It also had an unbelievably high alcohol content. It was like a trendy version of Carlsberg Special Brew.
Sarah Lucas I don’t bloody remember anything about it. Tracey’s birthday was really, really over the top. In those days, if you had free beer, everyone was going to come, weren’t they? We put all the empties into this little tiny backyard we had, and we had a huge, great mountain of them, which I remember tripping over at one point and being pulled out by Tracey’s dad.
Pauline Daly I do remember Tracey’s birthday. Everything was cleared out. Lots of things got taken. But they didn’t mind that, as far as I understand. There was lots of dancing and The Shop had been emptied, at least on the ground floor. We were dancing like crazy. Everybody liked dancing back then.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Sadie Coles After The Shop, there was no going back.
Sarah Lucas We went to Geneva for six weeks, which was nice, because it was a bit weird finishing The Shop and thinking: what do we do now? It was an interlude. It wasn’t very similar to The Shop because Geneva’s not very lively like London. We didn’t have loads of people coming over when we did this project.
Gregor Muir I got letters from them in Geneva. First of all, letters?! I was like: ‘Are you alright?’ You got the sense they might be getting a bit bored. Unless I’m wildly wrong, I’m pretty sure I saw a picture of the bloody octopus in Geneva. I think it travelled.
Sarah Lucas We went in army surplus gear. It was quite funny, actually, because when we got off the train at Milan, there was a whole load of army blokes – hundreds of them – at the station. I remember someone shouting out: ‘Desperados!’ We did look a bit like that. Not so much on the way back, though, because we were in Armani suits.
Tracey Emin After – this is really important – Sarah didn’t want anything to do with The Shop. Nothing. She didn’t give a fuck. I had all of the stuff and I was thinking: ‘What am I going to do with it all?’ It was a moment, The Shop. It was exciting and wild and different, and there’ll never be anything like it again. It wasn’t about people’s work – it was about the happenings and the ideas. It couldn’t be re-created. So, I burned everything. I made a massive bonfire in [gallerist] Carl Freedman’s garden. I exhibited the ashes in the first show I did with Jay [‘My Major Retrospective’, at White Cube, in November 1993].
Gregor Muir Tracey and Sarah were in and out of each other’s pockets. There was barely a minute when they were out of each other’s sight. At the end of it, you began to sense – that was another sadness – that the dynamic between the two of them was coming to an end. There was a fork in the road. Tracey became Tracey and Sarah would go on to run a fairly consistent path.
Cerith Wyn Evans Two days don’t go by that Sarah doesn’t send me a picture or a joke or a piece of music or something like that. She’s probably one of the few friends that I have left. I’ve been getting rid of all my old friends because I just think that there’s something bad about having friends in general.
Sarah Lucas The Shop was one of those moments where you met a lot of people. You don’t know it at the time, but you meet people who are going to be a big part of your life later on, who are going to be long-term friends.
Main image: Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, A group of seven works from The Shop, 1993. Courtesy: © Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Phillips