Tracey Emin's unmade bed back on show in Britain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 6:01am
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She was drunk. She was foul-mouthed. And somehow she had stumbled on to a live television programme among a group of art critics, all male.

"I wasn't even aware I was on television," says Tracey Emin, 18 years after a spectacular performance in a TV debate following the 1997 Turner Prize made her a celebrity.

As Waldemar Januszczak and Roger Scruton tried to argue about conceptual art, Emin declared: "Don't you understand? I want to be free. Get this f***ing mic off."

Today, as we sip tea in her Spitalfields studio, Emin claims she had no idea where she even was that night. She'd severely broken her finger and was on strong medication, which mixed badly with the booze at the Turner Prize dinner.

I haven’t had sex for five years. More. It’s like a memory or something

"I just remembered that I'd been somewhere having a few drinks. I was pretty shocked the next day. I was in a greasy spoon having a hangover breakfast with Mat [Collishaw, the artist and her former boyfriend] and opened up The Guardian …"

That was the launch into British national consciousness of Mad Tracey from Margate, a hard-drinking bohemian from the wrong side of the tracks who became at once a hate figure and sacred monster. When she exhibited her bed at the 1999 Turner Prize, littered with ashtrays and condoms, it was hard to even see it as a work of art. It just seemed another stunt by Emin, as sensational and superficial as getting drunk on television.

It would be an understatement to say she's having the last laugh. Earlier this month My Bed, lent by Count Christian Duerckheim, who bought it for £2.54 million (HK$29 million) at Christie's last year, has gone back on view at Tate Britain. It has endured and lives on as the defining work of 1990s British art.

Damien Hirst's shark shrivelled and Rachel Whiteread's House was demolished. When future generations want to know what was so different about British art at the end of the 20th century, it's Emin's bed they will look at.

That's not all. "I've got this Vienna show coming up in a couple of weeks with Egon Schiele," says Emin.

Schiele has been Emin's hero since she was 15 and found out that David Bowie's poses on the album covers for Lodger and Heroes are based on paintings by this intense and desperately beautiful Austrian artist, who died in 1918 at the age of 28. Now she is about to exhibit her own sensual paintings and drawings alongside his. "It's like a dream come true …"

Tracey Emin is growing into an old mistress, even a national treasure, enshrined at the Tate, pushing into the pantheon with the great (male) artists of the past. I say "old" because she keeps describing herself that way. Showing me a huge pink near-abstract nude painting of herself - it is very powerful - she says she originally wrote the word "old" on it. People said it wasn't true, so she removed it. But she regrets doing so.

All the drawings and paintings of her having sex that dominate the studio and are at the heart of her current work are, she explains, memories of a time that's gone: resurrections of a vanished fire. No wonder they are so haunting. "I haven't had sex for five years. More. It's something gone. It's like a memory or something," she says. "It's trying to remember what things were like."

Why has Emin, of all unlikely people, emerged as one of the most genuinely respected artists of her generation? Not everyone would agree with that, of course. But there are very obvious reasons why the artist who seemed to be drinking herself to hell has lasted the course while contemporaries, including Hirst, have made fools of themselves and lost all credibility.

One is that, as her generation gets older and tires of producing fabricated ready-mades, Emin actually has the skill to do something else. Her ready-mades were always hand-made anyway - from her tent with the names of everyone she ever slept with stitched into it, to rickety wooden fairground structures recalling her seaside childhood. Behind this cascade of conceptualism, she's a trained figurative artist who studied painting at the Royal College of Art. "I hated it but learned a lot about painting," she says.

So when Emin draws and daubs, it has a lot more force than when Hirst tries to prove himself as a painter. "Damien didn't study painting … He's too young for the comeback tour. He should have had his show at Tate Modern in 10 years."

Emin is steeped in serious modern art. She wants to compare notes on the new Picasso museum in Paris. She talks about Francis Bacon and comes back to Schiele. She has a provocative theory about him: "One thing that really interests me about Schiele is that his drawings are so obviously traced from photographs. The foreshortening is perfect. It would never be perfect. Even Picasso's isn't perfect."

She also reveals her deep admiration for David Hockney and recalls a dinner in LA a couple of years ago. She was so quiet, someone asked if she was shy. "I was so in awe of the man. I think that most art looks best without people. But David Hockney's looked so great with all those happy people in his Royal Academy exhibition. He's very brave in his candidness."

What sets Emin apart is the totally convincing way that her craft skills and conceptualism stitch together. Her unmade bed and sensual drawings are all of a piece. They are linked by a common subject. For her art is, infamously, all about her. Today she sees that as almost a tragic condition: "It's just me and it always has been me. I think looking in the mirror when you're alone and you're 50 is very different from when you're 30."

As an artist the very narcissism that critics once berated her for gives her something precious: an ever-changing subject that is universal. Everyone has a life. Emin's, with its triumphs and sorrows, is not just of interest to her. Everyone can find some kind of mirror in it. She remorselessly chronicles getting older, being lonely, for the same reason that she told of her abortion - because it is true.

Emin forces you to accept that you live in a real solid world, not some virtual superhighway. Her acute, visceral eye for life itself is surely what we look for in the great artists. Courbet, Goya and her beloved Schiele all make you feel more alive, for better and worse. So does she.

My Bed looks today like a deeply honest archaeological excavation of a moment in someone's life - a messy, unhappy time, preserved forever through its relics. The bed that was never made again. But it's clear how her nudes today are doing very much the same thing: an artist can express a lust for life with tampons and pillows, or with paint.

The woman who set TV screens alive with a drunken outburst all those years ago was the real thing. An artist to her core, prepared to sacrifice everything for her work. As she says, she had no choice - this is the only life she's cut out for. "I can't use a till, I can't add up. I couldn't work behind a bar. I might be witty, but I'd be slow."

The Guardian