Photograph: Courtesy of the Artist
As she recovers from a brutal summer of cancer treatment, Tracey Emin takes us round her new show – and imagines spending the next 30 years painting in her pyjamas to the sound of birdsongStuart Jeffries
Monday 9 November 2020
Photograph: Instagram/White CubeShe blames years of smoking: “Carbon monoxide travels into the bladder. It’s one of the biggest cancer killers, but hardly anybody knows about it.” She has now quit the elite coterie of committed Brit art smokers that includes Maggi Hambling, who never appears in photographs without fag in hand, and David Hockney, who sent Emin a get well card. “When I said I’d given up smoking, he called me a coward. And Maggi’s a hardcore anarchist. I’m not as hardcore as that.” Personally, I doubt that last point.
Emin is wearing walking boots beneath a tweed jacket and dress: they look like a hopeful investment in a future that, at one point this year, she didn’t expect to experience. Earlier today, prospective buyers visited her long-time home in Spitalfields, just across the street from Gilbert and George’s house. She’s moving into a Georgian property with huge windows across town in Fitzroy Square. So you’re going posh? “I am! I thought I’d never leave the East End. But this house – the light is amazing. I can imagine painting in my pyjamas and, because it’s pedestrianised, I’ll be able to hear the birdsong.”It feels like a new beginning. “I always thought I’d need a partner. I don’t. I just need myself to be happy. I need myself to do this, nobody else.” Men, she admits, including former lovers Billy Childish, Carl Freedman and Mat Collishaw, helped her artistic development. “Billy made me use oil paints but he also pushed me into realising how to be an artist – in being creative in everything you do and very disciplined.” White Cube gallerist Jay Jopling, discovering Emin was an obsessive letter-writer, encouraged her to do her first text-based works.
“I do paint like that,” she concedes. “I’m lost in a world of love.”Emin spent a lot of time going through the archives at the Munch Museum in Oslo to select works for the show. One day, she pulled out a drawer of watercolours. As a Norwegian curator translated the poem that inspired these works, she found herself crying, her tears very nearly dropping onto the work. “I could have destroyed it! Or made it into the ultimate collaboration.”
Photograph: Tracey Emin, copyright the artistNeither My Bed nor Insomnia will be exhibited in London but both will be shown when the exhibition transfers to Oslo. Missing, too, from the RA show is a bronze sculpture I’d really been looking forward to seeing, just because of its title. There Was So Much More of Me was due to be installed outside the RA’s Burlington Gardens entrance, but roadworks have made that impossible. Shame: I’d love to have seen the crouching Emin’s bronze buttocks enlivening Mayfair. Emin knows that works in the show will be seen in the context of her cancer, but anyone thinking that the title of that sculpture is a reference to her body now would be mistaken. “It’s inevitable,” she says, “ but I did all these works before I got sick.”