Tracey Emin: Woman, Interrupted
Why, wearing her father’s funeral shroud, did artist Tracey Emin marry a stone in her garden?
Of all the Young British Artists, Tracey Emin has always seemed the most youthful. Her work captured folly, hedonism, sex and abuse, reckless abandonment of the senses, with lashings of adolescent self-indulgence.
Her Turner Prize-nominated My Bed, strewn with old fag ends, used condoms and bloody knickers summed up teenage mawkishness exquisitely. Then there was Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, a Glastonbury-worthy tent appliqued with the names of all her former lovers and bed-sharers, sewn in her recognisable scrawl. The photo of a skinny Emin running naked down a cobbled street at dawn, holding a Union Jack above her head became a symbol of unapologetic British hedonism.
But now, at the age of 52, Emin has had an epiphany. She’s no longer young. “For a long time I drew myself as I was when I was 20,” she says at the launch of her latest exhibition, ‘I Cried Because I Love You’, her first in Hong Kong. “But I realised I’m not this girl anymore, she’s gone. I’ve replaced it with this hip-breasted, jelly-rolling, older, menopausal woman.”
More than any other artist in modern times, Emin’s work is vividly autobiographical. It is her and she embodies it. It is self-confessional exhibitionism at its most raw, and her passion for what she does is palpable. A woman that wears her emotions on her face, her distinctive sloping half-grin half-scowl threatens at any minute to spill over from rainbow to thundercloud. This happens when she is asked what she considers a silly question. “Did you hear what she said?” She shrieks in her high-pitched girl’s voice, gesturing to a hapless journalist at the press conference. “She said in this show I’ve got a lot of drawings of my own body, and before I used Edwardian erotic pictures. NOT TRUE!”
Her realisation of her ageing process and future solitude is vividly and painfully described in her work. Faceless, dreamlike lovers are painted in soft whites and pinks, again and again. Emin herself appears in several, alone, watching the stone in her garden (more of that later). But Emin is exhausted and it shows. This year she announced a year-long sabbatical to recoup her energy. The constant demand of public appearances — shows, exhibitions, events, interviews and black-tie galas — are taking their toll. She needs to escape.
“As I get older I realise I have to conserve some energy and that’s why I’m having a year sabbatical,” she explains. “It’s draining. My personal life, my weekend, is working. This year I swore I would take a day off a week, go and have a facial. I have to look after myself more to carry on doing the things I find important. I don’t have a partner to say, ‘let’s go on holiday’.”
After many tumultuous relationships and affairs, Emin resolutely believes that she will spend the rest of her life as a spinster. Last summer at her bucolic home and studio in the south of France, she turned this conviction into performance art, in an unmistakably Emin-esque way.
She was having a cleanout of her house when she came across some old boxes. In one of the boxes Emin discovered a silver ring with a tiny ant on it, an unopened birthday present from a few years ago.
“I thought ‘that’s so cute’, and I put it on my finger. And I realised it’s superstitious to put a ring on your wedding finger, it means you’ll never get married unless you throw the ring away. But I didn’t want to throw it away so I thought, ‘I know, I’ll get married’. Who can I marry? I love this stone that’s in my garden, so I ran upstairs to find some white clothes.”
She didn’t have a white dress, but a funeral shroud that had been made (but not used) for her father was the next best thing. Emin says in an interview with her friend Carl Freedman: “Rather than go, ‘oh my God, I’m never going to get married, I’ve just f_____ up, that’s so unlucky, what have I done’. I just thought, ‘shit, turn it all around and make it into something’.”
Which is exactly what she did. As well as marrying the stone, the stone became a muse.
“I thought about the way that I love, and that it’s impossible, that I pour love into people and things passionately and never expect it to be returned. It’s just me who gives, that is how my life is now. So the stone became a metaphor for my feelings and emotions. When I have an intervention such as this it revs me up and I have something to work with. I have a dialogue with it and I wonder what happens next.”
The artistic process does not always come easily, Emin says, especially as she gets older. A creative block leaves her physically and mentally ill. “I get tired and deranged, and weak and sick when I haven’t been working,” she explains. “When you’re really sincere about what you’re doing you can’t paint all the time. You only have these windows when it works.”
Emin once said that her abortions (she had two, one of which was botched as they didn’t realise she was carrying twins) was a Faustian pact, and that her success had been granted to her in return for her children’s souls. Emin wasn’t able to paint for many months because she felt “so guilty” but it didn’t stop her from “drawing, didn’t stop talking about painting and getting angry about painting”.
But now Emin has come to terms with ageing and being alone, growing older has helped to focus her mind. “As I get older, everything else is being cut out, and it’s going in one straight line towards the artist I want to be. There’s nothing else.”