Tracey Emin's art is so famously confessional, so wincingly personal, that actually interviewing her seems slightly redundant. What is there to say? Everything's already out there - the bed, the tent stitched with names of sleeping partners, the (many) depictions of masturbation, the rape, the abortions. Nothing feels hidden: her entrance into the Great British Consciousness is generally agreed to have been the occasion in 1997 when she appeared, noisily drunk, on a live television show to discuss that year's Turner Prize, which had just been awarded to Gillian Wearing. (Wearing's work was titled 60 Minutes Silence; this aural irony was not lost on viewers.)
Emin later wrote a piece about that night titled "My Booze Heaven". It starts with Wearing (or Wobbly, as Emin, who likes nicknames, calls her) ringing the morning after to say, with commendable generosity, that the highlight of her evening was Emin's performance. Emin, having no memory of the event, thinks this is a hilarious wind-up until she reads about her behaviour in The Guardian newspaper. The account, contained in her 2005 autobiography, Strangeland, is - like much of that book - vivid, funny, poignant. In another essay, titled "New Year in July", she imagines herself as a proud mother with the hangover from hell: "I'd be phoning round every friend, every bar, and asking the same question, 'Oh hi, Tracey here. Yes, Tracey Emin. This is a little embarrassing but I don't suppose I left my baby at your place last night?'"
She's now 52, she rarely drinks and she doesn't have children. Anyone who's seen - or read the transcript of - her 2001 video, Conversation with My Mum, will know that her mother, Pamela Cashin, spent decades worrying about her daughter's fertility. "Because I think you're one of those people in life that don't need children around you," Cashin explains. "I wouldn't see it as a joy for you … I've gone through the years absolutely hoping that you'd never get pregnant." Cashin herself, having got pregnant by a Turkish-Cypriot married man, had booked in for an abortion and only at the last minute decided to keep the baby. She'd no idea she was carrying two - Tracey and her brother, Paul. (The conversation is sufficiently raw that you find yourself nodding when Cashin comments, at one point, "Actually, this is terrible, I hope nobody listens to this"; but it turns out she's concerned people will be able to calculate her age.)
Perhaps the twin experience, as she's lived it, has contributed to a sense that Emin is having an ongoing conversation with someone within herself. She and her brother spoke their own language until they were five and shared a room until they were 12. Strangeland conveys their claustrophobic dependency; there's an extraordinary scene, straight out of Jane Eyre, in which Paul sets their joint childhood bed alight, as well as hints of sexual exploration and violence. Later, when he goes to prison - for fraud - she writes him "long, mad letters" that go unanswered: "But I didn't mind, it was like I was writing for the both of us."
As a result, she seems to have grown up with an internal landscape simultaneously policed by a good cop and a bad cop. In The Interview, a video she did in 1999, the year My Bed was nominated for the Turner Prize, she sneers at herself: "I think your whole existence is a lie because I think you're evading the truth." In her 2001 video The Bailiff, Tracey 1 yells menacingly at a Tracey 2 trapped inside a locked wardrobe: "I think you understand what fear is. I think you know exactly what fear is …"
Those days seem to have gone. She's a professor of drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts. In Britain's 2012 New Year Honours list, Emin was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to visual arts; true, the sound of rattling eyeballs could be heard from some artistic quarters but she has, indisputably, raised public awareness of British art. Now her first exhibition in Hong Kong opens this week. It's called "I Cried Because I Love You".
Most unusually, it, too, is bifurcated, being shown by two galleries - White Cube and Lehmann Maupin - although Emin sees this as a sign of wholeness, not division. "It's about me being able to not have to define myself with a gallery, within a space, within a country," she tells the curator (and former boyfriend) Carl Freedman, in the exhibition catalogue. Of her past, she says, "I was not leading myself. Now I'm definitely leading myself … I can't believe how much I've fooled around. I just cannot believe I was like that."
EMIN'S STUDIO IS IN AN AREA of east London called Tenter Ground. Normally, I'd hesitate to be so specific but people I mention her to - most of whom haven't set eyes on her works - seem surprisingly knowledgeable about the geography of her life, including the recent tussle she's been having over planning permission in the area. She's not (yet) a national treasure but she's certainly a national presence.
Tenter Ground is where the Huguenots of 17th-century London dried newly woven silk on wooden frames called tenters. The nervousness involved in such unpredictable proceedings has given rise to the expression "on tenterhooks". By the end of our interview, I'll know how the Huguenots felt.
The day started with the cancellation of this magazine's photo shoot, and the polite air of surprise among her helpful young assistants when I arrive doesn't bode well. Some checking ensues while I loiter in the hallway, next to an odd cluster of small chairs under a row of posters. One shows Emin in the bath, nipples soapily gleaming; another, from a 2002 show in Oxford, plaintively asks, "Have you seen Tracey?"
After a while, someone takes me into the - mysteriously hot - main studio and brings tea. A photo of Emin, topless in black tights, is taped to a wall and a pile of nude selfies lies exposed on a table. A black-and-white photo of a couple having what looks like 1970s-sex-manual sex is taped to another wall; alongside are several large canvases in which their joyless, muscular exertion has been transmuted into something more ethereal, a blue flash of pure vigour. They're waiting to be transported to New York for her next Lehmann Maupin show, in May. There are more little chairs; on one of them - a tiny, child-sized seat - four stuffed toy lambs are swaddled within a towel.
She arrives 45 minutes late, smaller and younger-looking than expected, a woman expressing apology in a high-pitched girl's voice with a distinctive lopsided smile. Within about two minutes this has curled into a frown when I mention (having had plenty of time to ponder this) that I'm interested in what she said - in a 2012 interview - about how women artists create work in an environment "like a sewing bee" whereas men's studios are like "the f***ing Sistine Chapel or something". The lynx eyes narrow.
"Please don't do the Hong Kong thing on me and give me information from 20 years ago that I said," she says, tetchily. "Please keep it up to speed."
Slightly flummoxed (the Hong Kong thing?), I say: Exactly - so how's the studio now? And she explains that she has seamstresses (for her various tapestries) and people in the office but that no one makes her work for her. Then she adds, "You know, what I said about the sewing-bee thing? My studio is predominantly female and has a really gentle attitude, it's not like a big, oooh-aaah, macho, working thing - it's very soft and easy and whatever. If you think of successful artists throughout history that have a working studio with staff, it's more like a factory. I don't have a factory, I have a house."
In fact, she has two studios: one in London, one in France. The latter residence provided inspiration for some work in the Hong Kong exhibition featuring, as it does, a big stone in the garden. Reader, she married it. She told Freedman about this event when he went to France for the catalogue interview.
"It was totally by accident, the whole thing wasn't intentional," she begins. But I'm a bit confused. Is she talking about the day she's telling Freedman? Or the day of her wedding to the stone? "Noooo," she cries in frustration (rightly so, I listened to the tape afterwards and sounded like a moron). "I was on my own."
There's a pause, and the distinct feeling that upon this rocky moment hangs the future of our encounter.
"The whole thing with the stone is - it's a big f***ing stone, right. It's in my garden, it's very nice and very impressive and I like it a lot. [Sigh.] The other thing about the stone is that it could be quite monstrous and scary. Instead I saw it as a protection thing as opposed to a fearful thing. The other thing with the stone is it's not going anywhere. Even if there's the biggest f***ing tsunami in the whole f***ing world, the stone will probably still stay there."
After a longish silence, I suggest it signifies stability.
"Yeah. And I recognise it. Maybe it's not a person. But maybe it's an anchor for me, something I can identify with. No matter how mad my life might be or what may happen that stone is stability and comfort."
Rather touched by this, I murmur (as a placatory offering) that, yes, someone in one of the galleries told me how important France was to her; a sudden hush and further eye-narrowing heralds another tricky juncture.
"Are you interviewing me or are you interviewing other people?" Other people? "Other people in reference to me." Well, no. "Brilliant. So what's your question?"
This is probably not the moment to share that I interviewed one of her former boyfriends, the artist and writer Billy Childish, a couple of years ago in his Kent studio. He and Emin met at nearby Medway College of Design in the early 1980s. "Cruel relationship, destruction, resurrection of the soul, void, still friends with him today," is how she summed up that relationship in her 1997 work Tracey Emin's CV: Cunt Vernacular, although it seems to have gone downhill since then. (He'd refrained from comment when we met.) When she found out he'd married someone else, she jumped into Margate harbour. She's on record about his influence but the crucial difference is that Childish never left Kent whereas Emin has, very obviously, flung herself into society's mainstream.
Such pressures have made her French retreat increasingly important.
"I can't speak hardly any French - enough to be polite," she says. "In France what's happening is within me. I don't have a social life there at all, whereas in London, every day, every night, every lunchtime, you could be doing something."
Couldn't she say no? "But if you've got something like … men's fashion week. I know it sounds pathetic but I've been working for GQ magazine for 15 years now, I'm really good friends with Dylan Jones [the editor] and when Dylan has a really important event, I want to go. There's this mutual kind of thing, it's not simple."
I looked up that relationship afterwards and found photos of a private dinner party Jones and Emin had hosted for the men's 2014 London spring/summer collections plus coverage of the 2013 inaugural Serpentine Gallery GQ Art Award (winner: Ms T. Emin) so I could see what she meant. And two days after this interview, there she was in the British newspapers as a guest at the Rupert Murdoch-Jerry Hall wedding. (The bride is a fan.)
Anyway, she's now decided to go to the other extreme, say no to absolutely everything and take a year's sabbatical in France - "a whole year just to work". This comes up after I ask her about the Hong Kong exhibition. After a little barney about the catalogue (she asks if I've seen it, I say yes, then scrupulously add that it was sent to me online, to which she states, crossly, "So you haven't seen it"), she says it's really difficult to talk about the show, apart from the fact that the colours in the work at Lehmann Maupin are darker than those at White Cube.
"It's out of my studio. I'm working on the New York show now and I won't be thinking about Hong Kong until I'm actually in Hong Kong hanging the show. What I'm really thinking about is the middle of May - no shows, no charity work, no telephone, no interviews, no photographs, no meetings for a year."
The odd thing is that she does talk, at great length, about one aspect of the Hong Kong show: the title.
"This is really important," she says, vehemently. "In Chinese, the title says 'I Cried Only Because I Love You'. It's translated so wrong, I don't know how or why but it's so wrong. The title is 'I Cried Because I Love You'. David Tang told me and he would know. I'm really upset about that."
The analysis goes on for so long, up and down prepositional byways ("It should be 'so', 'if', 'but' - not 'only'"), it reminds me of a distinction she makes in the catalogue between a stone and a rock. (A stone "is here forever"; a rock "has been made by things that cut it away".) Obviously, I understand the sensitivity when one's talking about one's husband but it's more than that. From her early days, words - and especially names - have held a terrific visual and incantatory force; hence the embroideries, the infamous tent, her neon handwritten phrases, one of which ("I felt you and I knew you loved me") shines pinkly above the west doors of Liverpool Cathedral. In 2007, Toby Forward, canon precentor of the cathedral, mused on this artistic contribution: "The Psalmist asks the question, 'What is man, that thou art mindful of him?' … Tracey's work travels the same ground, her journey is the same journey … Her question, though phrased rather more directly, is the same question: WHO THE F*** ARE YOU."
Indeed. Let's just say it's been an unpredictable journey. Last autumn, My Bed went back on show at Tate Britain, in London, 16 years after its British unveiling. (Its first-ever public appearance was actually in Tokyo; Emin insists Japanese viewers were more shocked by the dirty slippers than the used condoms, tampon applicator, blood-stained sheets, etc.) As it happens, it's the Tate's artwork of the month so I went to see it a couple of times and attended a curatorial talk.
In the catalogue for the Hong Kong exhibition, Emin states that the Tate's "full of people queuing to see the bed". I wouldn't exactly put it that way but there was certainly a persistent trickle; and about a dozen of us gathered for the short lecture. When I tell Emin that the curator told us about her visit to the staff, she gives one of her skewed smiles - half up, half down, a visual manifestation of an emotion that could jump either way. She says, "And I had a go at them because someone misunderstood something I said."
But the curator didn't mention that. What she said was that Emin cried. "Yeah, I was crying because I couldn't believe I was standing there 16 years later, it was weird." I doubt that she cried because she loved it. Even as an outsider, you look at that dismaying bed and think, "What on Earth was going on in that young woman's life?" The most impressive artwork, by far, is the one she's created of herself ever since.
When I decide, to mutual relief, that the interview's ended, she immediately says, "Cool. I'm so sorry I was late", and good-cop Tracey takes over. We do a tour of her beautiful, high-windowed building. I ask her where the toy lambs came from and she says, "Sainsbury's [the actual supermarket, not the art-loving family] - they were in this little basket last Bank Holiday Tuesday, a pound each, no one wanted them so I bought them, they're sweet, aren't they?" At the bottom of one of the staircases, there's a cradle with another toy stuffed into it and a Janet and John reading book.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the swimming pool in her basement. (This explains the stupendous heat in the studio upstairs.) She swims about four times a week; her costume's drying on a nearby rack. And that's the image that lingers outside in Tenter Ground - Emin, who grew up by the seaside, ferociously thrashing through the private pool her art bought, churning things up, alone.
"I Cried Because I Love You" opens on Tuesday, at Lehmann Maupin, 4/F, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, and at White Cube, 50 Connaught Road, Central, and will continue until May 21.