Head & Heart: Tracey Emin interview

Tracey Emin. Portrait by Melanie Matthieu

Tracey Emin’s famous bed is the central work in the show “Privat”, at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle, which sets out to explore the disappearance of privacy from our everyday lives. It marks the middle of the exhibition and is placed after works by such sharers of intimacy as Mark Morrisroe and Nan Goldin, and before a new generation of artists who cull what others share on social media and stream it into their work. But what does privacy and the need to share emotions mean to Emin herself?

Interview by Hili Perlson

Sleek: How do you guard your privacy?
Emin: I don’t have a Facebook account. The studio tweets, but nothing personal. And I write a lot of letters. I write a lot to my friends. I send a lot of physical letters. 

When we made this issue of Sleek, we were talking about how it seems “uncool” to show emotions in art works now…
It’s actually quite super cool! If you want to be really, really cool right now, you put the emotion in your work. Edvard Munch is now on view at Tate Modern, and it’s packed! This wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. There’s a big change in what people have been responsive to and what they want to look at. People are tired of cynicism and unhappiness, they just actually want to synch into something that they can actually feel. 

Were you angry when you made “My Bed”?
No, I was sad. When you’re sad you can’t be angry, because sadness is overbearing. It’s good to be angry, then at least you go and smash things up, when you’re sad you just go… [she folds in]. 

I heard you read your poem in Miami last year during a salon talk at Art Basel Miami Beach about poetry and art…
I was so happy in Miami, in fact I was so happy that I couldn’t write anything – I thought, oh I’ll write something there because I was there for a week. I write every day, you know! But I had such a good time, enjoying myself so much, I didn’t have time to write! 

Does writing for you necessarily comes from sadness, too? Suffering, doubting?
All of the above, but also loving as well – when I’m in love with someone I write to them all the time. And it comes from an emotional reaction. So that explains the Miami poem. People who know me thought it was really funny. I just read Thomas Mann’s “The Black Swan”, and it really upset me. To the point where I was crying for three days, literally. Because I’m getting old. I’ll be 50 soon, and I just felt so old when I finished the book. She dies happy in the end, delusional in a sense, and it made me wonder how delusional I am about my life. I identified with the actual swan, the snarling black swan. 

Because it was angry. And the only angry character in the book is the swan. I’m angry because I’m lonely. I’m really fucking lonely [laughs]. 

Your new work includes more drawings. What else is different since the bed?
I don’t smoke any more. I don’t have sex any more, I don’t drink booze any more. I don’t stain my sheets any more, I don’t take contraception, I don’t use condoms anymore, I don’t have my period anymore, what else don’t I do that’s in that bed? Hmmm. Many, many things… I make drawings of flowers and birds. You know, you can do a drawing of a puppy and you can write a love poem, and both can become really intimate. Just because it is what it looks like or seems naïve, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t got some heightened influence behind it. 

Does the emotional rollercoaster of menopause go into your work now?
All the work that I’ve been making is about seeing myself from the outside. The work is always coming from farther out, and now it’s over here somewhere [points above her head] looking down on me. And that’s to do with going through menopause, and that’s why I identified with the “The Black Swan” – it’s not a book for a woman of my age to read. You should read it when you’re in your twenties, and misunderstand it completely.

In some African tribes postmenopausal women are at risk of being considered witches…
I think that was the case with me since the age of 13! It isn’t something that just hit me now. But yeah, there is a stigma about it. Especially because I don’t look 50. I don’t behave it. Even my doctor told me I’m just too young for menopause. But I am, and it’s getting unbearable.  

Does being lonely bother you a lot?
It’s a situation I am sometimes really happy with. A couple of weeks ago in New York, I was sitting alone and a man asked me if I wanted to join him. I said, “Thanks, I’m happy where I am.” And he said, “I know, you look really happy, that’s why I asked.” It almost made me join him. Sometimes I just need a hug, or when everything’s a bit too much I want to share it with someone. I’ve been on my own for years and years now. If I could just be completely content to know I’ll never have sex again, I’ll never be with anyone again, that would be amazing. But it’s hard. 

So sex for you is always connected to emotions?
Yes. I can go and sleep with someone tonight if I wanted to shag. I can shag someone on the plane. That’s not hard, is it? But some people do just live like that and then suddenly they meet someone. I’m not like that. I’m much more, I don’t know, romantic I suppose. I went to a tarot card reader in New York, and she said that someone has set a curse on me, but before I was born, when my mum was pregnant. 

How unfair!
I know! She said the curse is that I’ll never love. But, she said – it was actually good – she said I’ve done so many good deeds in the last few years that I’ve worked the curse off. And by January, it’s completely over! 


Taken from Sleek 36 “The Head & Heart Issue”


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