"Like a fucking dog when the truth is hard to bear; I waved goodbye to my mum at the school gates."
I've read these words aloud on more than one occasion. This is the title of a story from Tracey Emin's book Strangeland. At the time, I wanted to share it with everybody I met. I don't know the exact date of when it was written. I'm under the impression that it was written as a diary entry by the teenage Tracey. I wouldn't be surprised if it was written yesterday. I was so impressed by this book that I'd like to recommend it as required reading for young people everywhere; the loneliness, the fragility, the disappointment and honesty, the clarity of all of it.
Suggested reading: "Like a fucking dog when the truth is hard to bear"; "Nayland Rock"; "Why I never became a dancer" – Hades, read the whole book for God's sake. She's a teenage Charles Bukowski, a Sam Shepard, giving Margate the distinction that Marty Scorsese gives to Little Italy. The cradle and site of adolescent crimes, unconscious acts, and brutal truths that form who we are and the scenes that made Tracey an artist.
Strangeland, published a couple of years back, was the beginning of my friendship and affection for Tracey and her work. I had seen a small object that shouted "Fuck Modern Painting!" at a friend's house, and thought: is that work addressing me? Later, I asked Tracey and she said it wasn't, and it made me feel more comfortable to let her visit my studio when she arrived in New York.
As a practising artist myself, I have spent a lot of time looking at other people's work, at students' work, too, and I've always found myself saying: make it personal. The battle between personal and generic is the battle between good and bad. Tracey's need to be honest supersedes all decisions in her life and art. The crystalline presentation of the most intimate and private emotions are what she wants to share with us. Sometimes not easy to stomach, and at the same time precious, prismatic tears, poignant with loss, broken lines charting broken hearts, and brokenness tied back together, like a bundle of sticks supporting the weight of our disasters and victories as we pull ourselves together in the rain of our time here, in and out of love.
I think of her towers, shacks, boardwalks, her rollercoaster, ramshackle, pointing up to the sky out of junk.
I've always thought there's no personal language, just a personal selection – and that goes for materials, too. So in many cases, an artist is not the first to work with that material, but artists do make the materials their own, and as William Carlos Williams says, "the truth is in things". And Tracey Emin's selection of what to present carries alchemic truth and magic.
Artists claim materials, and once you've seen a work by that artist made of those materials you can never look at those materials again without seeing that artist. When I look at the Madrid sky, I say to myself: Goya. If I see an unmade bed with a bunch of stuff around it, I think of Tracey.
Paint becomes menstrual blood, and body fluids, and bleating cries of muffled marks, and leftover marks and stains and traces that don't let us escape the violence that God and gravity have laid on us. Delicate and blatant, in your face, but never behind your back, she is a communicator, needy for communication about things that must be shown, searching for a form, whether it be sewn cloth, paint on canvas, wood, plant, human, animal, drawings on paper, found things strung together leaning towards the divine light. There's no lying in her.
Tracey Emin – 20 Years, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from tomorrow to 9 November. Tickets £6 (£4 conc) 0131-624 6200; www.nationalgalleries.org