Tracey Emin is sitting on the edge of her couch placed in the middle of her ground floor studio. Surrounding us are canvases mounted on the walls, tables overflowing with bottles of paint, an old CD player, baskets holding art supplies scattered around the room. The first thing I ask her is advice for aspiring artists, particularly young students. “Be a big student,” she says. “Don’t try to be a big artist, because you’re not.”
Her advice is relatively simple: work hard. “It’s your only chance. It’s not a game. It’s education. Learn as much as possible and make as many mistakes as possible, because that’s the correct environment.” Emin herself studied printing at Maidstone Art College and painting at Royal College of Art. Outside of college, she finds importance in a part- time job. “If you like books, get a job in a bookshop. If you like clothes, get a job in a clothes shop. Somehow that feeds into your everyday life and finances you, rather than getting a part time job that you hate.” When I ask her about women artists in particular, she touches on the prevailing sexism within the art world. “You’re never going to get paid the same. Your work is never going to be worth the same.” If you want to be a mother, she says, “You’re going to have to accept that your career is going to take a lot longer to get off the ground”. Talking of motherhood, does she see a family in her future? “I don’t think I’ll ever be in another relationship unless I have 100% support in what I do,” she says. Emin’s previous relationships reportedly include fellow artist Mat Collishaw, Billy Childish, and Carl Freedman. Now, however, she seems content in a relationship within herself and her work. “I am the priority. My work is the priority. That’s it. So I’m not holding my breath.”
Emin has a soft, gentle voice, but speaks firmly and with confidence. She has her hair pulled back and is wearing a Nike vest, leggings, and trainers with bright pink socks. I ask her if she has any advice for artists who have little time and resource but pursue art as a hobby, to which she fires back, “Tough shit. You don’t deserve to be an artist. You’re doing another course, end of story. Don’t do your course and then double. You can’t.” So if art is your hobby are you not an artist? “Yeah, it makes you someone who enjoys recreationally painting. But you haven’t had the training, you haven’t been doing the discipline, you’re not learning to draw, you’re not learning how to paint.” She tells me that when she was in college, it was important for her to stay at college until closing to make the most of the facilities and have a few extra hours to work alone.
Tracey herself is preparing for two upcoming shows in New York and Hong Kong, while being in over 16 exhibitions this past year. “I’m taking this year off, cause I want to have all the work before the show,” (referring to her show in Brussels after the first two upcoming).“I’ve got a year of just making the work and and not doing any other shows, doing nothing. I want to have all the work before the show, instead of feeling like, it’s happening, it’s happening, and then, [she elaborately claps her hands together], it’s like sex. It’s like an ejaculation and a big come [claps hands again]. The shows there, and I just finished the work in time. I don’t want it to be like that. I actually want to be able to have a really good time in bed, make loads of work, and then share it. That’s what I want to do. I need to change my priorities around.”
I tell her how much I love her studio, which is a spacious three storey building in Spitalfields, with offices for her staff, her working studio, another working area and bedroom upstairs, and a gorgeous rooftop. She asks me if I have seen the pool, which is a basement-turned-spa with a heated pool, massage chairs, and showers. She tells me that she went for a swim this morning. Emin also has homes in New York, France, and Miami. “I love being in France, that’s where I’m happiest, my house there.” She says she feels different influences depending on her surroundings, but her main artistic influences are Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch. “The next show that I’m working on, a lot of the influence in it will be from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Literature really is an influence.” Tracey’s memoir, Strangeland, has been published in multiple languages, and is one of my personal favourite books. “When I read books that I really like, I visualize them as I’m reading them, I see the pictures.”
So, what is art to Tracey Emin? “An artist isn’t about making pictures. It’s about changing people’s perceptions and vision of what they look at and how they feel. Art is something that has to be close to nature, and it makes you stop, and it makes you think, and it makes you feel something. It rests you.”