Tracey Emin in Hong Kong: exclusive preview reveals why she married a stone, why she wishes she was a Roman
The notorious British artist has her media preview for her first ever Hong Kong show, and reveals more about the influence of love and relationships in her work
The instructions were clear: if media wanted to partake in the Q&A with British artist Tracey Emin, they’d have to go see her work in both the Lehmann Maupin and White Cube galleries first.
It is the first time Emin has exhibited her work in two galleries in a solo show called I Cried Because I Love You in Hong Kong – or rather, as the press release states, “Greater China” – and coincides with Art Basel from Tuesday to Saturday.
At the first gallery in Pedder Building, about 20 journalists showed up, many in the requisite arty outfit – skinny trousers and pointy shoes – and invariably in black.
There is a sequence to the pieces that were inspired by a large stone just outside Emin’s studio in the south of France. She apparently had a wedding ceremony to marry the rock – but more on that later.
The series of paintings, drawings and embroideries reveal intimate relationships in various poses, some looking like fast sketches of a female body, the face deliberately covered up in paint strokes in gouache on paper, others large canvasses that seem like random brush strokes in acrylic. There is a handwritten message declaring her love for someone, and the title of the show lit up in neon.
When I asked Alexandra Dugdale, director at Lehmann Maupin and Irene Bradbury of White Cube how the art work was divided into the two galleries, they immediately replied that it was Emin herself who made the decision.
— Nancy Dell'olio (@nancydellolio) March 21, 2016
“She was here in January last year – she’s been to Hong Kong before – and was very clear about which pieces went where,” Bradbury replied.
“We’ve watched the development of the work and we went to see her in her studio in the south of France last July,” added Dugdale.
Another journalist asked about the marriage to the stone. “It’s a metaphor, and at first you see a figure in front of the stone, and then a couple embracing,” said Bradbury. “It’s about the desire to be with someone, and later you see the stone tangled with two lovers.”
Ah. It all started to come together.
Much is made of this show because it is apparently the last one Emin will present before she goes on a year-long sabbatical when she will exclusively focus on her work and take an extended rest.
In the small function room in the Four Seasons Hong Kong are rows of chairs and at the front of the room is a chair with a side table decorated with a small bouquet of white flowers, microphones and a big green glass bottle of Perrier. Chilled.
More journalists stream in, many of whom did not go to the press preview, but definitely had the arty look – including one young man with extremely oversized glasses and a shirt tied around his waist.
Emin was scheduled to start the press conference at 11.30am sharp. But at 11.27am, Bradbury came in to say it would be another five minutes. We waited pretty much in silence.
At 11.43am, Emin walked in, in a black short-sleeved dress with a heart-shaped neckline, nylons and black heels with rosettes on them.
She apologised for being late and asked if we had seen the show in order – and when we replied yes, she then sat down. “If your questions are good, I’m going to say what I want to say because I’d rather do it that way, if that’s OK?” Emin added.
She explained the title of the show – she found the sentence scrawled on a piece of paper, but felt it had sad connotations. However the more she thought about it, she felt it could be positive, how one could love someone so much that it hurts, an impossible love, not unrequited love.
When asked about her marriage to the stone, Emin says the story may sound pretentious and stupid, but she recalls finding a small box and in it was a ring with an ant on it. “I put it on my finger and suddenly realised it’s superstitious to put a wedding ring on your finger unless you are getting married, otherwise you have to throw the ring away,” she said.
But because she liked the ring so much, she decided instead she needed to marry someone – and why not the rock? She put on some white pyjamas and had her own ceremony, taking pictures to document the moment.
“I thought the stone is so majestic and beautiful, I really do love the stone,” she says. “And then I thought about the way I love, how I pour love into things and people, whatever it is, passionately, but not expecting it to be returned either. I just accept that’s the way it is, it’s just me who gives. The stone becomes a metaphor for my feeling.”
When asked where she’d like to go for her sabbatical, Emin said, laughing, that she’d spend her honeymoon "in Tibet”, adding, “Not sure if that’s the right answer.”
Emin also talked about ageing, how she gets physically tired more easily, and that even though she’s been in Hong Kong for 10 days holed up in her hotel room in the Four Seasons Hong Kong (except for a lunch with David Tang), she still has jetlag.
Someone asked if she liked teaching at the Royal College of Art and she said no. “I don’t like it. There are some students that have enthusiasm that excites me, but there are quite a few that feel entitled.
“When I was a student there I made the most of it, going in 12 hours a day, on weekends. All I did was go to college to be a student. I tell the students to stop trying to be a good artist. You’re not. You’re a student. Concentrate on being a good student and learn as much as possible.”
She was asked what she thought about gender stereotypes, and replied she hasn’t married, nor had children or a sexual preference. “I would have liked to possibly have been a Roman man, maybe 3,000 years ago with my wife, and my entourage with really attractive boys, it would have suited me really well. But I’m stuck in the 21st century as a woman with hips and big breasts. We don’t have to be defined by literally where we are. We can transcend many things if we have the heart to.”
And before the allotted time was up, Emin posed for a few photographs, even a few pictures with some journalists before disappearing back to her room.