Patricia Karvelas and Tracey Emin CBE RA for the Live and In Conversation After-Hours event for NGV Triennial at the The Capitol theatre. Photo: Michael Pham

A Conversation with Tracey Emin

An interview with Patricia Karvelas

Born in 1963 in London, Tracey Emin CBE RA’s multi-disciplinary practice is powerful and diverse. In this transcript extract from a live conversation, she delves into her career and work with Australian journalist Patricia Karvelas.

“Well, I think people realised that what I was saying thirty years ago or twenty years ago actually was important. I wasn’t moaning, I wasn’t whining, I was talking about my experience and channelling it through to everybody else. I was just using myself as a life model.”

– Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin <em>This is exactly how I feel right now</em> 2016, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Andrew and Judy Rogers, and NGV Foundation, 2023<br/>
&copy; Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2022.

PATRICIA KARVELAS Tracey, could you set the scene of your path to becoming one of the world’s leading contemporary artists.
TRACEY EMIN My background, I think, is very different from a lot of other people’s and people who go to art school. I first left school when I was thirteen, then went back when I was fifteen for legal reasons. I left school for good literally when I was fifteen and packed a bag with two David Bowie albums and some clothes and went straight to London. I immediately fell in with quite a creative scene and creative people. It was a different energy. I wasn’t at school knuckling down, trying to get my exams to get into university. It never crossed my mind even. And it’s a long story, the bit in between, so I don’t want to bore you all with it, but I eventually got into Maidstone College of Art to do a degree in fine art printmaking.

PK You’re often described as a confessional artist. How do you reflect on that word?
TE I always used to say to people, ‘You don’t say that Van Gogh was confessional. You don’t say Rembrandt was confessional.’ If you go out through history, there were a lot of men that were expressing themselves and their emotions, their feelings, their inner drive, whatever and no one would’ve called them confessional.

Often men say, ‘Oh, she’s confessing’ as if I’m throwing up, as if I’m spilling the beans. I wasn’t spilling the beans, I was talking about, say, how it feels to have an abortion, and I was making work about that, which I thought was really important thirty years ago and it’s important now. The women who had abortions were made to feel ashamed of it.

No one was talking about it. So, thirty years ago, I made a film and talked and made work about abortion, how it feels, not morally whether it’s wrong or whether it’s right. For that, I was branded confessional.

Nobody saw it and said, ‘Oh, she’s making art about a really important subject’. But they do now because they’ve finally caught up.

PK Do you think they’ve really caught up?
TE I think now when I say something no one is accusing me of being confessional. They go, ‘Oh, it’s so good that she’s talking about it’. If everybody just keeps putting things under the carpet and hiding these things because they don’t want to admit that they’re happening in the world, nothing changes, and everything will remain the same. And I wanted to make art that changed things, that made a difference.

PK You’ve recently been through cancer, you’re now in a new phase with this, but it’s been a really difficult time. You talk about the fact that you thought you were going to die and that you accepted it?
TE Death looks after itself, it’s unavoidable. It happens to us all. There is nothing I could do to prevent it, but I decided I could do something about the living, and my attitude changed overnight. I just suddenly became much happier and decided to really enjoy my days and enjoy my thoughts. It was in the middle of lockdown, so I couldn’t see anybody, but I was much happier. It’s like when someone says, ‘Oh, come on, smile’. You go, ‘Huh?’ And then you do actually smile and laugh and you do feel good. It was like someone saying to me, ‘Come on live, come on live’. And then I thought, ‘All right, just a little bit. Okay’.

Now that I survived all the surgery and everything, it’s brilliant. Not everybody gets a second chance but I did. And I think that whoever they are, they said, ‘She’s not that bad. She’s fucked up quite a bit, she’s been a bit stupid, but actually, she’s not a bad person. Let’s give her one more go and see what she does’.

So, in the last three years, I’ve worked so hard at doing the right thing. Being in the right place at the right time, my life has become so much better and so much more enlightening and fun and eventful and focused on art. That’s my priority. Art again has come to save me, pick me up, cradle me, and I feel very happy because of it.

PK On that note, I want to talk to you about legacy. Do you think about your legacy?
TE I think about it every day. When I thought I was going to die, I decided to update my will with the idea of doing a foundation and [leaving a] legacy. And I’m really proud and happy to say that we finally got the Tracey Emin Foundation ticked off for charity status. Part of it is the Tracey Emin Artist Residency, where we have ten residencies every year and a half for people all over the world.

PK So did that process of writing that will and preparing for the worst actually mean you are living your legacy in life now?
TE Once you set it up and put stuff into that foundation, you can never get it back. So, when they found out I was probably going to live, people said, ‘You sure you want to do the foundation and sink everything into it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, because I’ll enjoy it now’. I don’t want any more clothes. I don’t want any more cars. I don’t want any more of anything. I want to be happy and I want to do what makes me happy. I love art. So if I can make more art in the world or make an environment where more art can be made, that makes me really happy.

The ancient Egyptians spent all their life getting ready for their death because they knew the journey afterwards was much greater and bigger than this one. That is what I’m doing now. I’m getting everything in place ready for when I leave. It’s like building my pyramid, but I’m saying this metaphorically, building everything I need around me to make me happy to go to the next world. And that’s why I’m really not afraid [of dying]. I’ve learned something amazing through all this illness and experience, and that’s that life gets better. You just have to live it and not be afraid and definitely not be afraid to change things.

PK You mentioned that in the last three years you’ve been really prolific, so what’s the next three years for you?
TE Oh, the next three years are quite brilliant. They include all the shows that I haven’t been doing because I was ill. But it’s not the shows that I’m excited about. That’s having a career in the arts. What I’m excited about is all the work and the journeys I’m going to go on while I’m doing it. Honestly, when I got off the plane in Sydney, I was really chuffed with myself. I thought, fucking hell, I made it back to Australia again. I didn’t think I was going to do that. Three years ago, I thought I was going to die, and here I am in Australia. Art takes you on an adventure. Art takes you to another realm, to another place. I’m amazed by this audience tonight. I was worried that no one was going to come. Anyway, if you think about the art that you make and the journey that it takes you on, that’s what I’m looking forward to.

PK I heard you say somewhere that your legacy would be text. Do you still feel that way?
TE Tell you what, I write a column every week for the free London newspaper, the Evening Standard and at the beginning it was brilliant. Now it’s like the worst homework in the world. I can write a thousand words without even thinking about it, but now every Thursday morning, I’m like this frightened rabbit. I can’t move.

PK It’s the deadline.
TE Yeah, it’s the deadline. Whereas with art, any deadline, bang, bang, bang, I don’t even need it, I just do it. I’m doing it anyway. But since I’ve had the deadline with the writing, I’m writing less. I don’t even do Instagram anymore because I can’t write.

When I first started my career, I felt like there was no room for me in art because I was so expressive, because I was a figurative painter and in the ’90s every thing was polished Perspex. I just thought, ‘Oh, everyone thinks my work’s embarrassing. You know what? I’m just going to close shop’. It seemed like Gerhard Richter had sewn it all up. Sigmar Polke had got there in the end and there was just no more room for another painter. So I just thought, ‘I’m not going to compete with that lot. It’s impossible’. Now thirty years later, I’m so happy painting because I think when I was younger, I was painting for a different reason. I was painting because I was learning. I was painting because that was art, but now I paint because that is me. It’s an inherent part of my stuff. The fluidity, it’s like another entity comes out of me. It’s like a haunting, it’s like a banshee. It’s like the full moon, whirling dervish. That’s what goes on in my studio, and that releases me and makes me feel good. It makes me feel whole and it frightens me and scares me.

When I was thirty or thirty-five, I was so blinkered by the bright lights and all the other stuff that I didn’t hone in on this spiritual ascension to do with my own creativity. It was like an external thing and now it’s an internal thing which connects to everything. Especially after my cancer, it’s even stronger and even better.

PK I want to talk about some of the work in the NGV Triennial. A major body of work is on display at NGV International now and will be joining the NGV Collection. This includes a five-metre-high text-based neon Love poem for CF, 2007, the remarkable painting, The execution, 2018, and a series of gouache paintings and bronze sculptures. How do you think about them?
TE The thinking, it’s not a process. It’s not contrived. It’s not like, ‘Hmm, I’ve got a show coming up, I’m going to make three small sculptures’. It’s more like, ‘I really don’t want to paint today’, and I’ll just sit there and Harry [Weller, Creative Director, Tracey Emin Studio] will whack a lump of clay in front of me and suddenly I’ll make, say, two figures together and then just go, ‘Oh God, that’s shit and then smash it down’. And then when I smash it down, I go, ‘Oh wow, that looks good. That looks like a big boulder, or this and that’. So it’s a real creative process. It’s like organic. It’s soothing for me, and I hate to say this, it’s cathartic, my whole process of art making is cathartic. It’s like I’m healing something. In the ’90s and ’80s this was a really bad thing to say because men didn’t like that kind of attitude. Those very successful male artists wanted it to all be about control and not the art taking take control. But I’m really happy for the art to take control. With the small bronzes, I’m not thinking about what I’m making, I’m just making. And of course I’m making myself. So the little figures, the bodies, are me.

PK How would you describe it now, the attitude to your work now?
TE Well, I think people realised that what I was saying thirty years ago or twenty years ago actually was important. I wasn’t moaning, I wasn’t whining, I was talking about my experience and channelling it through to everybody else. I was just using myself as a life model. I didn’t have this classic A-level education. My education was about living. So I now think all those experiences, good or bad, that is my background, that is my legacy to use and to work with and to share. And often, this is hard for me, but people will come up to me and I’ll get little note and it says, ‘You changed my life by talking about your abortion. I had an abortion and I never got over it, but seeing your work helped me.’ It’s bigger than art, isn’t it? It’s brilliant.

When I was younger, I thought that artists had no responsibility. In fact, I thought they had to be completely irresponsible. Now that I’m much older, I think that we as artists have a responsibility for our work. It’s like giving birth. It’s a journey. Where it’s going, we can’t control that, but we can definitely control how we make it and how it’s presented and we can launch it like a ship.

Patricia Karvelas is an Australian radio presenter, current affairs journalist and political correspondent. 

Tracey Emin CBE RA currently lives and works between London, the south of France and Margate, England.

This is an extract of a live conversation that was delivered as part of the 2023 NGV Triennial opening week program and first published in NGV Magazine, Mar–Apr 2024 edition.

These works were purchased with funds generously donated by Jo Horgan AM and Peter Wetenhall, Andrew and Judy Rogers, NGV Foundation, Professor AGL Shaw AO Bequest, Suzanne Dawbarn Bequest, M.G. Chapman Bequest, and The Nigel Peck AM and Patricia Peck Fund.