ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Tracey Emin - 2017 - Glued Fragility [EN, interview]
Fifteen minutes with Tracey Emin
Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels is currently hosting a solo show with drawings and sculptures by Tracey Emin (b. 1963). The new venue features a wall sculpture of thin, elegant neons, a video and two series of drawings about loss. Some of them seem to say something about a lost child or the death of a mother, others about a deceased lover. The theme of loss and inaccessibility continues in the main gallery, where drawings, paintings, a photograph, a neon artwork and a monumental bronze are on show. The title of the exhibition, ‘The Memory of your Touch’, was inspired by the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which a woman tells how at night she thinks of her late husband coming and lying up against her so that she can sleep. Some drawings are touching and very beautiful. It is a beautiful, personal exhibition and at no point does it come across as openly autobiographical or exhibitionist in any way.
I am allowed exactly fifteen minutes with Emin. She is soft spoken. She comes across as fragile, though you know instinctively she won’t be steamrollered. She appears broken, exhausted and tender but she is not constrained. I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet her.
- Your large sculpture reminds me of a mermaid.
Tracey Emin: On the back it looks like a gigantic dick with enormous balls. But that was not the intention.
- A sailor who hears a siren singing will perish. A mermaid symbolizes inaccessible love. Your exhibition is about loss. Were you abandoned as a child?
- Have you ever had a miscarriage or given up a child for adoption?
- I find some of the drawings very poignant. Partly because you don’t know if they refer to the loss of a child, a lover, your mother or yourself. It is as if they want to bring themselves into existence, but are wounded.
Emin: Thank you.
- Last year you showed your famous bed in a round room at Tate Britain along with paintings by Bacon. Why Bacon?
Emin: Bacon’s work is emotionally charged; you can draw links with his personal life…
- You mean events like George Dyer’s suicide?
Emin: People think he was a scatterbrain because his studio looked so chaotic. But I think his work shows great discipline. He wanted to get a grip on things. One of the paintings I chose is of a dog. To me it manifests real discipline.
- Bacon was also a gambler. Gamblers are people who imagine they want to win something, but actually organize a loss.
Emin: I tried to put the same thought down on paper yesterday evening, but I was not as successful as you now. You are right. If I plan something, I immediately try and anticipate the eventual loss.
- I was struck mainly by the sculptural quality of your bed. It is a wonderful sculpture. Each object is in exactly the right position.
Emin: Thank you.
- I imagine you put the work together yourself?
Emin: Always. It is kept by Tate Britain. All the parts are in separate bags and labelled, for example, ‘cigarette butt with lipstick’. Whenever I put the work together, I am filmed so that they will still be able to set it up when I’m dead. Initially when people saw the work they were shocked. These days they are moved. The work seems to be gaining visibility.
- Perhaps we would also like to see Flaubert’s or Virginia Woolf’s unmade bed?
Emin: There are any number of beds in the history of art, but they have all been painted. This is the first real bed… Did you find the drawings distressing?
- They are about grief, but they were made by someone who has survived grief. I find that hopeful.
Emin: People always ask me what I think of success. But they don’t see that my success is a condition for communicating. I have to be able to make work to survive. I am now a middle-aged woman. I am tired. Without my work I would be lost. My work is the glue. Without glue I would fall apart.
- I don’t believe you.
Emin: You want a bet? We could do a little experiment, but you wouldn’t like the outcome.
- One-and-a-half years ago you bought a painting by a Belgian painter.
Emin: Yes, by Walter Swennen. How do you know that?
- The painting is of a translucent ghost. Swennen probably started painting because he wanted to be noticed by his mother. She attached more importance to his dead sister than to her living children. He himself felt like a ghost, like something translucent. Do you have that too? Do you also try and become visible by making work?
Emin: No, I’m visible enough. But if I don’t work, if I don’t write, draw or paint, I don’t exist, it’s as simple as that. I have to work so as not to crumble.
Montagne de Miel, 1 September 2017