“THE ARTISTTracey Emin(b.1963, Croydon, UK)Tracey Emin is one of Britain’s most celebrated artists. A natural storyteller, she uses her own life as the starting point for her art. Though most of her work, as she says, ‘starts off with me’, it transcends the personal, becoming something that others can relate to. Her disarmingly frank yet often profoundly private drawings, paintings, installations and sculpture are by turns hard-hitting, romantic, desperate, angry, funny, intimate and ironic. Sometimes confrontational and often provocative, her work resonates with the legacy of feminist art, which investigated issues such as violence against women, female sexuality and so-called ‘womanly’ crafts.
Emin has been awarded many honours. In 2007 she represented Britain at the 52nd Venice Biennale and in 2011, following her major exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, she was appointed professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. As the writer Jeanette Winterson maintains, ‘Tracey Emin has done more for public awareness of art, both as a force in its own right, and as a necessary part of life, than any other living artist.’ Jeanette Winterson (b.1959, Manchester, UK) Jeanette Winterson’s writing so far is book-ended by two accounts of her life. Her first book, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, written when she was 25, is semi-autobiographical (she calls it a ‘cover version’ of her past); her most recent book, Why Be Happy When You Can be Normal?, published in 2011, is a companion and in some ways a corrective to Oranges. In between, she has written poetic novels, science fiction, essays, short stories and books for children. Why be happy?’ tells how Winterson leaves her working-class home aged sixteen and later, against the odds, wins a place at the University of Oxford to read English. Oranges, written shortly after she graduated, won the Whitbread First Novel award, became an international best-seller and was adapted for television.In conversation with Jeanette Winterson”
I really enjoyed this conversation. It was warm, funny and revealing. These are my notes:
Both realised that ‘cover stories’ and ‘cover versions’ of themselves both hide and reveal the true stories. (Such as semi-autobiographical work – it both hides and reveals reality.)
Emin stated that post WWII, emotions were eradicated from art. That works became distant and ironic. But prior to that emotions were prevalent.
Emin’s work is close to her emotions. Over time her emotions have become more complex and stranded. She likened emotions on a given topic to a book which she kept in a mental library in her early life. Now that same ‘book’ has become a filing cabinet full of files. The one topic expanded and stranded yet further over time. She has also found that she revisits subjects with more humility in later life. Nothing is taken for granted anymore and her process involves more thought and diligence.
She believes that good manners and humility go hand in hand and that good manners get you through the door on very many occasions. They invite you in and make you feel at ease. If you are making controversial work (even slightly controversial) then you have to remain polite and have humility to invite people into the work.
Some critics lock people out of the art world, rather than letting people in (JW). But both felt that art can be a meeting place for heart, mind and people from different places.
JW surmised that Emin’s work often had that ‘invitation’ quality to it. Both the tent and the bed invite you into them. They are somewhere you feel safe.
Emin said the tent (Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995) was about a transference of that invitation. She used to eat, watch TV and sew inside the tent while she was making it. She said it had a ‘certain smell’ about it because of that.
The bed (My Bed) and tent both invite the viewer to partake in an intimate experience. To get inside.
Emin laughed about the fact she is now fanatical about leaving her house and bed tidy whenever she leaves – in case she should die whilst she is out. She supposes she would not be remembered for all of her other works of art, but always that she died with her bed as messy as that piece. “That piece changed me.” Her home and bed are now immaculate.
Emin has a waiting list for people willing to buy one of her blankets without ‘swearing’ in it – but to make work that is dictated to her does not appeal. It repulses her because it stops her from being free. She has had offers to remake the tent – but doesn’t feel she could remake it for money. She prefers to make work because she wants to – they both said this. That money somehow sullied the experience and stifled their creativity and freeness in some way. JW said she won’t take any payment for a book until she has finished it in order to remain free.This is particularly important if you are selling something that is about YOU. You need to be able to do it for YOURSELF and not for someone else. Whether there is control apparent or not – it needs to be about you and how you want to do it – but it’s not all me, me, me.
Emin may have been physically raped as a girl, but she also feels she has raped herself because she has exposed so much of herself and wonders how much of her is really left? She said that you have to see outside yourself to be able to make work about yourself – and to do so, you have to be cold towards yourself.
Winterson spoke about personal work and the belief that it is somehow ‘reduced’ “because that’s what women do” – talk about themselves. As if being a woman and creating personal work means it is less valid because we are able to express our feelings (better)? She hoped that her and Emin had helped to change those beliefs. Emin said that by being included in the current school curriculum that she felt that this was proof that things were changing.
Emin had been to see the Munch exhibition at the Tate Modern that day. She said that his work was in the first person, was personal and emotional and that the exhibition was on in the capital while the Olympics were on was a brilliant sign of progress in her opinion.
Many things that are written about Emin are often passing comments that then become the headline. Hearing her speak, that is easy to believe. She is smaller than I expected and spoke far more gently that I had seen when interviewed. She was extremely warm, eloquent, interested and quite charming.
When asked what gave them ‘value’ as artists (visual and written) JW said that all of us are insecure, but you must have a sense of your worth/value that comes from doing the work. Your value comes from doing the work – because you are doing your work for YOU. I would definitely agree with that. Emin said that education and learning gives her value.
Emin is her own muse. She discussed how it is entirely different for her to step outside of herself and look at her than have someone else looking at her.
Louise Bourgeois collaborated with Emin who regards her as a “sort of artist grandmother”. Bourgeois sent Emin a large quantity of prints and told her she could do what she liked with them – cut them up, stitch them anything. Emin admits to being to frightened to do anything with them for sometime. She wanted them to look like a cohesive work – not something clearly done by two or in two stages. She recalled that when she sent the prints back to Bourgeois, her assistant showed them to her and she clapped as each was held up. Emin is the only artist Bourgeois has ever collaborated with (other collaborations included architects etc., but no other artists). Emin likened working with her to “holding hands with history”.
When asked about creative blocks, JW said she felt they were usually about something else other than creativity. For Emin they were often caused by depression. In these slumps she finds she often watches back-to-back episodes (such as CSI) until she pulls out of not wanting to make work. She wonders why she can’t work anymore… (Winterson suggested it was because she was watching all that CSI!) but she has found that these dips are usually when a big sea of change happens in her work.
Emin wants to make quality art and finds that means it isn’t a 9-5 job that she does in her studio. She needs to get stimulation from many sources (such as exhibition visits and things away from the actual work) to stay excited. She believes it is vital to “relax and enjoy the moment” in order get simulation. She likens art to having a lover.
JW believes that “art is about the whole experience” – not the fragmented. She finds that art has a therapeutic purpose for her. Emin said she felt reading had the same purpose for her – and loved getting lost in a book.
After the event I asked Emin if she had created any specific writing or work about depression (having earlier mentioned it). She said there was quite a lot of writing about that in Strangeland – so I am now reading this.
The Wide Open School programme states: