‘I Dream of Being Obscure’: Tracey Emin On Her New Show At Lehmann Maupin

You were here like the ground underneath my feet, 2016. COURTESY LEHMANN MAUPIN

Tracey Emin, You were here like the ground underneath my feet, 2016.


Tracey Emin has had what you might call an on-again, off-again relationship with painting. After having an abortion in 1990, she stopped painting entirely and destroyed all of the art she had created in graduate school. Of her painting cessation, the YBA artist told me, “The idea of me being in control of the essence of my creativity was too difficult. Weirdly enough, now that I’m far too old to have children, and now that I’m actually single and single-minded, it’s come back to me again.”

Her new exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in New York, titled “Stone Love,” runs concurrent with another show at the same gallery in Hong Kong, “I Cried Because I Loved You.” While both shows explore the idea of what it means to be fulfilled by love, Emin describes “Stone Love” as less ambiguous—it is her own love story, but without an ending. The show features new paintings, as well as embroidery, works on paper, and Emin’s signature text-based neon works and bronze sculptures. The figurative works are uniformly defined by hurried strokes, which translate into expressionist likenesses that are modeled after Emin’s body, but do not represent self-portraits. “If I don’t show my face, it’s not a portrait of me—it’s a feeling that I have that people can relate to,” Emin explained.

Visitors might initially mistake the title of the show as a reference to Emin’s recent nuptials, during which she, wearing her father’s funeral shroud, married a stone located on her studio property in the South of France. “Somewhere on a hill facing the sea, there is a very beautiful ancient stone, and it’s not going anywhere. It will be there, waiting for me,” she told the Art Newspaper at the time. Instead, “Stone Love” is a reference to the David Bowie song “Soul Love,” a song that she says is “so fitting to how my love life is right now.”

Emin is perhaps best known for two uncommonly intimate works she created in the 1990s: Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995), a tent displaying the names of every person Emin had literally slept with, and My Bed (1998), a replication of her messy, unmade bed as it appeared during a particular period of depression, the latter of which was nominated for the Turner Prize. I recently spoke with Emin over the phone to discuss how her relationship with love and intimacy has changed over the past two decades.


Tracey Emin, Just Let Me Love You, 2016.


ARTnews: Do you see a major change in your work from the ’90s to the present?

Tracey Emin: No, I think I’ve gone back to the ’80s. I’ve gone full circle, because when I was a student I was making a lot of figurative paintings and I’ve always used myself figuratively in my drawings. But I haven’t painted since the ’80s. Well, I painted, but I didn’t show anyone. Now what I’m really interested in is working with my hands all the time, and being completely in—or out of—control. [laughs] Depending on what the case may be.

Why didn’t you show those paintings before?

After I became pregnant in 1990, I stopped painting. I wouldn’t paint. The next painting I did was Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made [1996], which was also the last painting I ever made. I couldn’t [paint]; all of my paintings just made me feel really guilty and weird and strange, because of the abortion. I couldn’t come to terms with that.

Do you think it’s because of this guilt that women sometimes feel about the fact that they’re supposed to have kids and they’re supposed to have a family life, and you felt like you weren’t conforming to that?

No, I don’t think so. I think I felt guilty because I’d had an abortion. I shouldn’t have felt guilty, but I did. I knew that if I had been a successful artist at that time, or financially solvent, I might’ve had a child. But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t. I know I made the right decision, partly because of my success now.

It’s interesting, because you’re probably one of the most recognized women artists working right now—

Literally recognized. I’ve never been recognized in New York, but I’m actually recognized in the street now, which is quite a strange thing. I am literally recognized here. [laughs]

Do you feel like different audiences around the world react differently to your work?

I guess they do. I have a show on in Hong Kong at the moment, and [opening that show] was crazy. It was like people were waiting for it. It was a very strange reaction. In New York, everyone’s too cool for school. New York is the home of modernism and New York really understands it. America has a place for modern art and contemporary art, whereas China really doesn’t. It seems like they’re wild and excited for it in China, while in America it’s like, “Yeah. That’s what contemporary art is. That’s what modern art is.”

Just waiting for you, 2015. COURTESY LEHMANN MAUPIN

Tracey Emin, Just waiting for you, 2015.


We have a lot going on. It feels like artists have to tread this balance between being someone like Jeff Koons, an actual celebrity whom the art world kind of disdains, or being a more obscure artist that garners a lot of art world respect.

It’s really funny because I dream of being obscure. I fantasize about it. [laughs] It’s too late. I’ve gone down the non-obscure route, and I’m not suddenly going to become pious and hide in the back of my cave. I’m not that kind of artist, and that’s not my audience either. A lot of people who like my work are young people between the ages of 15 and 25. Those people aren’t looking for a cave-dwelling obscure artist. They’re looking for someone they can identify with, and the person they identify with is the person who’s pounding the streets. It’s been kind of a hindrance for me—the popularity thing, or the mainstream thing, whatever—for years.

There are so few women artists that are household names right now, compared to their male counterparts. What do you think it is that makes you famous?

I think it’s because, as an artist, I’m uncompromising while also being very feminine. [I don’t] take on the male history. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true. I also have an exceptional appreciation for the battles of older generations of women.

Do you feel like women understand your work more than men do?

I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a massive gay following. Massive. I think a lot of the people who have an understanding of my work have an understanding of guttural emotional experiences and cathartic moments within their own life, and so they identify it within my work. It’s spelled out for them; there’s no great mystery.

Regarding your fascination with intimacy and love, I was wondering if your new work reflects a cognitive dissonance or disenchantment between the notion of love that people are taught when they’re young and the reality of love that people learn through experience?

No, I don’t think it [reflects] disenchantment at all. One of my friends said to me that the kind of love that I believed in and the kind of love that I went towards is the kind of love that only exists in books. I had been talking about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I was saying that I want a lover like that. They said, “Then you have to be a character in a book.” And I said, “No, because D. H. Lawrence was a real person, and he actually wrote those words.”

That’s so rare in a classic book. More often than not you have characters like Anna Karenina throwing themselves under a train.

Why do you have to throw yourself under the train? That’s the other thing. You can actually say, “That love did not work for me. That was the wrong kind of love.” I’m on this journey. My love is my soul mate. I might miss them by ten years, I might miss them by one hundred years. I might see them every day and never know they’re there. Or they just may be, for the strangest reason, incompatible. But their soul will still be there.

Do you think everyone has a single soul mate for their entire life, or do you think it changes within your lifetime?

Well, if your soul changes or your soul moves, or if your beliefs move—a lot of people associate the soul with belief. So, if you were to really change your beliefs, then maybe your soul could actually change too. Personally, I’ve had the same old soul for a long, long time so that bit of me is still holding on. I never used to have any regrets, ever. Then I started regretting that I never smoked. Then I regretted this, and I regretted that, and then I regretted virtually everyone I’ve ever slept with. So there you go. [laughs]

I sort of wished I’d become a nun or something. I wish I’d never slept with anyone. I wished I’d saved myself. God knows what I’d be saving myself for. But if I had, I wouldn’t be able to have the ideas that I’ve had, and I wouldn’t be able to think these things now. It’s very easy to look back on your life and say, “I would’ve done things differently.” Of course you would have. But it’s also fun to do that, and there’s no reason why you can’t do things differently in the future.

Kneeling for you, 2015. COURTESY LEHMANN MAUPIN

Tracey Emin, Kneeling for you, 2015.


You’ve said that you’ve had more trouble with romantic relationships than you’ve had with friendships. What do you think makes friendships easier, in your opinion?

I’ve got really fantastic friends, ones I’ve been friends with all my life. I think it’s because friends don’t take each other….I don’t know, actually, because I haven’t been in a relationship for such a long time—seven years, or something. I don’t know what it is with friendships….But I don’t think it’s just [a question] of friendships versus lovers. I think it’s just me, the way I am. I love too much.

But doesn’t that become an issue with friendships as well?

[If so,] then that person isn’t your friend.

But, there’s also a courting period with friends, during which you’re both interested in each other but you’re not quite friends yet. If one person comes on too strong, it can scare the other person away.

But if it’s the right friendship, even if that part’s not good, then they’ll come back. I think they’re both complicated. Look, there are a lot of lovers who have bad sex and then after that they don’t see each other any more. They associate failure together with bad sex, for example. With friendship, you don’t have to do that. There isn’t another element besides friendship and trust. Also, with friendship, you know immediately if someone breaks the trust.

You’ve said that you can only make art when you’re feeling passionate, whether that passion manifests as a positive or negative emotion. But I was wondering, is it easier to make art when you’re feeling happy? I feel like sadness and anger are useless emotions, whereas happiness is a creative emotion, because it involves imagining a future for yourself.

It isn’t just emotional energy. Recently, I really felt like doing giant paintings—well, not giant ones, but ten-foot by eight-foot paintings. But I actually haven’t had the physical strength to do it, which makes me feel trapped and physically useless, or whatever. If I’m happy, though, I can get loads of strength from that, and I can surprise myself. When I was younger—I mean 19 or 20—I think I needed this angst-ridden sort of lonely poet moment to make any work. My historical role models were these angst-ridden, lonely poet types. Now that I’m older, I see my art as the most positive thing in my life. If I do a good painting, it’s better than the best X I’ve ever had.

If you weren’t a good artist, how would you direct that energy?

I don’t think I’d be OK. My mum always says that if I hadn’t been an artist I’d probably be dead. I left school at 13. After that, I did nothing else but art. That’s all I’ve ever done.

Did you go straight to art school after you left regular school?

No, I went to art school when I was 20, which was really late. I did all kinds of things in the meantime. First, I worked at this shoe shop on Oxford Street. I did what people did—I tried to earn money. Then I realized I was pretty useless at that. No one could tell me what to do, so I wouldn’t do it. I also realized I didn’t want to do anything for money. I didn’t care. I’d rather have no money, nothing. So, all I did was concentrate on art.

Stone Love installation view. COURTESY LEHMANN MAUPIN

Tracey Emin, “Stone Love,” 2016, installation view, at Lehmann Maupin.


Do you think you have an obsessive personality? 

[laughs] Yeah, totally. I’m also like that in my relationships. I’m monogamous. I’m very loyal. I love writing, for example, but it’s an extension of my art. I never thought, “Should I do this? Or could I do this? Or maybe I should go into that.” I’ve only ever done art.

In your case, do you think you had lots of natural talent, or do you think your success has come more from hard work?

I think I was one of those talented people, but I mucked around a lot. You know at school, when [teachers] go, “If she worked harder, she could do very well”? I was always mucking around with my life, always coasting. I can’t believe how different my attitude towards my work is compared to, say, my attitude ten or fifteen years ago. I can’t believe how serious I take it all and how passionate I am now. I’ve become more intense. Before, it was just what I did and I was lucky that I had talent and everything was good and cool, whatever. Whereas now, I know this is it. I don’t take success for granted. The more it goes on, the more grateful I am for my situation, and the more I look after it.

What do you tell younger artists when they ask you for advice?

It depends. If they’re not at art school, I tell them to get into art school. If they’re at art school and they haven’t got any money, I tell them to get a job doing something they like. If they like clothes, get a job in a clothes shop. If they like shoes, get a job in a shoe shop. If they like books, get a job in a bookshop. If they like cooking, get a job in a restaurant. I tell them to be close to what they enjoy to get money, and not to just do something to get money. Learn something by it. I tell them to go to drawing classes, and if they smoke, I tell them to stop smoking.

You used to smoke, didn’t you?

Yeah, I started when I was 13 and used to smoke about fifty a day until I was 40. I stopped when I was pregnant and started again two years later. That’s when I had money though. When I didn’t have money I just smoked as many as I could buy.

If you’re really dedicated to your art, don’t spend the money on cigarettes. Spend the money on paint. Spend the money on film. Spend the money on books. Spend the money on going to see exhibitions. Artists will ask me how to get a good gallery, and I say, “Well, why don’t you start making some good art? Then we’ll discuss it.” The next bit of advice is: go to every gallery. Go to their openings. See what the gallerist is like. See which other artists they show. Do you fit into that situation? Or is it just a vanity [desire] because it’s a good gallery? Your gallery should be your mirror; it has to really suit you.

Which poets do you like?

I like lots of esoteric 13th-century Middle Eastern poetry. I buy a lot of it.

Like Rumi?

Yeah. I also like the Wasteland, by T. S. Eliot. My taste is a real mixture. I like William Blake, and the Romantic poets.

Words really matter to me. I think some poetry can make you cry. You can feel it. It tremors. This is especially true for me if it’s about nature as well. I’ve said this about using my body as a template for my work. Some friends of mine went to visit Courbet’s waterfall, but I couldn’t go. I was in my studio in London and I was like, “Ugh, God,” because they were sending me pictures and I was like, “God, this is so beautiful. I should have gone. I’m stuck in my studio, and I really want to be close to nature.” Then I thought, “What am I talking about? I am nature. My body is made of the same stuff.” And I realized then, at that moment, that that is why I used my body in my art.


Tracey Emin, Untitled (TBC), 2016.


Do you have pets or plants or things like that in your home?

I have a cat. His name is Docket. He’s nearly 16, and he’s my little soul mate. I really, really love him. I have a studio and a house in the South of France. I’ve got 40 acres of land there, and a lot of it is a nature reserve. There’s lots of animals. There’s little deer, there’s wild boar, foxes and fox cubs—loads of different kinds of animals. When I go out walking it’s like being in my own little safari. This time of year there must be about 30 different kinds of wild flowers, and then there are these really fantastic volcanic rocks, and it’s really beautiful. When I’m out there working, I’m so happy. The last time I was there, a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t see anyone for weeks. I was on top of a hill, and I didn’t go down the hill for weeks. I didn’t get dressed for a week—I just worked and was feral. I love it.

How do you feel when you go back to London?

For me, London is quite suffocating. It’s home, but it’s very difficult for me sometimes. I feel very suppressed, and sometimes I feel quite trapped there.

I read somewhere that you like Hong Kong and Miami. Do you like them differently than you like your home in France?

Oh, totally differently. There’s no comparison. I also love Istanbul and New York. I love cities that are by the water. I like Sydney.

You don’t like to be landlocked?

No, it’s not just that. I like beach cities. Cities that are by the water that have beaches.

You’ve said poetry is like figuration, and I was wondering if you were influenced by text-based artists, such as Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger or John Baldessari?

I have two pieces of text-based art. One is by Ed Ruscha, and one is by Jenny Holzer, which is quite interesting. I haven’t been influenced by them, though; I just really like what they do, in different ways. They’re very conceptual and cool. Their works comes from a different place than mine does.

Your work is more literal.


How is this show different from your Hong Kong show that’s on view concurrently?

It’s really different. This show is much more graphic, and there are bronzes in this show as well. This show actually tells a very clear story.

When did you start working on the pieces in this show?  

It’s really hard to say with me, because I’m making work all the time, and then I kind of curate from my works. I could say that all the works were done in the last year. But I’ve worked really hard over the last two years; I haven’t stopped working since my White Cube show [in 2014]. And then, from now through next year, I’m going on sabbatical. I’m going to be really quiet.

Stone Love installation view. COURTESY LEHMANN MAUPIN

Tracey Emin, “Stone Love,” 2016, installation view, at Lehmann Maupin.


What do you want to do during your sabbatical? 

I want to learn to ride a horse. I mean, I ride sometimes but I actually want to have a lot of lessons so I can be more confident doing it. Also, read. I’ve got a whole list of books that I want to read. And, of course, paint and draw, without doing any charity work, without doing any appointments, without doing any meetings. In my agenda, there’s a line all the way through it from June 16 until June 16, 2017, the following year.

It partly has to do with being a woman of my age. I should have had some time off anyway, but I didn’t. I need to charge my batteries up and reevaluate.

I feel like most people are actually workaholics, these days.

I’ve done three shows—well, one show which was in Hong Kong but in two galleries, White Cube and Lehmann Maupin—and I did a show last June in Rome. I also did a show in Vienna with Egon Schiele, so this is my fifth show within a year and a bit. I need to have a rest. I’ve built myself up, like a crescendo. I knew I was going to be taking this year off. It’s like a lightbulb—right before it goes off it has this flare, and this body of work is the flare.

I noticed that a lot of the titles of the works in this show include the word “you,” but the subjects are pictured alone.  

From where I come from, in my dialect, “you” is “me.” You is the first person. But of course, it’s a double entendre; you can read it however you wish.

That’s interesting. I thought it made the works seem kind of sad, in a way.

[laughs] It is sad.

I was also wondering why, in the paintings, many of the women’s faces are crossed out?

Because it’s always my face, and it’s not about me, is it? It’s about everybody. It’s not about “this is how I look”; it’s about “this is how I feel.”

I read that Egon Schiele and Francis Bacon served as influences for the works in this show, but I wonder if there was some Rodin or Lucien Freud as well?

Oh, not Francis Bacon. I chose Francis Bacon to show alongside my bed at Tate, because I like the juxtaposition, but he’s not an influence on me. I love his work, though. I’d love to be able to paint like he does. Fucking amazing. I get jealous of some of his paintings. But Egon Schiele is. He was an influence on me when I was really young. Also, Edvard Munch.

Not Lucien Freud, really. He goes into the same category as Francis Bacon, but yes, definitely Rodin. When you see this show, you’re definitely going to say, “She’s been looking at too much Rodin.” But I don’t mind; I’m happy with that.


Tracey Emin, Resting, 2015.


My last question is about David Bowie. I know you were friends with him, but how did he come to be the inspiration for this show, especially the title?

The show is called “Stone Love.” People who know Bowie know the lyrics come from the song “Soul Love.” The chorus in particular is just so apt. I’m going to put the chorus in the catalogue for the beginning of the show.

It’s so sad and coincidental that he died. Do you feel like his death makes this show more symbolic, in a way?

Yeah. I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t call it “Stone Love,” and maybe I shouldn’t put it in the catalogue, but I was thinking of doing this before he died. The other thing is, he would’ve come and seen the show, and I would have written to him and said, “Can I use the chorus, is that OK?” But I think, considering the way he believed in things, he’d be quite happy about this. [laughs] You know, it’s like, how much in life is a coincidence?

How did you meet him?

I met him at a restaurant in London in 1997. He came over to my table and said, “Hello. Sorry to interrupt. My name’s David Bowie.” [laughs] But that’s not really how I met David Bowie. I met David Bowie when I was about eleven, you know? Listening to the lyrics of his songs. He said to me, “I very much like your work,” and I said, “The feeling’s mutual.”

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