Tracey Emin announces her arrival at her studio with a tentative miaow. She's greeted with a chirpy chorus of hellos from her all-female team, who are sitting around on the floor tearing up squares of flowery fabric and quietly tidying spools and bobbins.
Above their heads hangs a photograph from the The Last Thing I Said To You Is Don't Leave Me Here series, in which the artist is crouched, naked and on all fours, in the Whitstable beach hut she bought in the Nineties with her friend and fellow artist, Sarah Lucas.
An assistant shuffles up with an urgent question about cerise thread. Emin listens patiently and then asks her politely for a pot of redbush tea. She's a bit late, she explains, because she's just back from a few days at her new second home in France and her cat, Docket – possibly the most famous feline in contemporary art – has been following her around the house and didn't want her to leave. "I love him. I love him like I never would have thought it was possible to love something so much," she says, with alarming intensity.
We go upstairs, past a tailor's dummy jauntily crowned with a leopard-print Stetson, past a bookcase lined with jokey postcards, one with the maxim "My favourite drink is the next one", past a black-and-white head shot of Emin above which the words 'The Boss' are painted in a girly pink swirl. At the top stands one of Emin's assistants, proudly modelling the latest T-shirt for her online shop. It's white with one of Emin's drawings – of a monkey in a space suit and the words "we have lift off" – on it.
Emin cocks her head to one side and says, deadly serious: "Now we need to see how it looks on someone with bigger boobs..." She gives one of her funny little lopsided smiles and disappears into a side office to have a lengthy conversation about taking the battered black cowboy boots under her arm to the cobblers.
It all seems very orderly, calm and nice here, I say, when she re-emerges. You should hear the conversations they usually have, snorts Emin. Last week, she tells me, a rift formed when they debated which you would choose if you could only have kissing or sex for the rest of your life. "I chose sex," says Emin firmly. "With all the sensible people." She pads down the corridor to her room in her trademark massive trainers. "It's a bit quieter," she explains.
Inside, we're greeted by a very large white screen upon which is displayed Emin's newest work, Those Who Suffer Love, an animated series of her reclining nude/masturbation drawings – all splayed legs and high heels – flickering away in a high-speed frenzy. We stand and look it at it for a while in silence until a tray of tea with antique flowery tea cups and two mismatched teapots arrives. Emin sits down in the half-light with her back to the projection and starts talking enthusiastically about a film she once made of an old dog lying in the sun in Cyprus. "We don't have to leave this on", she says suddenly, leaping off the sofa and going to fiddle with the projector. "How do I turn it off? Julia! Juliaaa...", she whines, her voice just rising in panic. "Which button do I press? That green one? You look nice. Can I have some boiled eggs? Two. Yeah, please."
It's a world of contradictions, Eminland. Feminine and ballsy; genteel and in your face; chaotic and neat; funny and serious. She's about to open a new show at White Cube and this animation will be its centrepiece. Apart from that, there will be some big embroideries, neon poems and lots of drawings. Does she ever feel under pressure to come up with a new idea? "What – you mean like the animation film? That's totally new. This is what I do. What is there I don't do anyway?" she demands, then relents. "Some days I wake up and I feel like I've got no friends – today no one loves me. Then other days I wake up and think, 'do you know what? I might have a party and invite all my friends... but I've got too many friends.' It's exactly the same with art: some days I'm full of ideas and feel really creative. And other days there's nothing. Nothing. I feel terrible. I feel like I'm going to die, like I'm not me."
She has no fixed way of working, flitting between here and her painting studio. Sometimes she'll listen to music – "anything from Scissor Sisters to Robbie Williams" – playing the same CD obsessively over and over again as she draws and draws. Sometimes, she might just "play dominoes for two days or something." The Tower Drawings which she exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2007 were done in one frantic burst of creativity, between 11am and 2am. "Someone said to me that it was big mistake to tell the press that. But after that I couldn't do any drawings for three months. That was it. All my drawings gone in a day."
She still has a fraught relationship with the press, particularly when they criticise the way she speaks (she has a soft, occasionally child-like voice – but far from babyish) and her dentistry (her teeth rotted thanks to a childhood diet of orange squash and biscuits and then fell out: she now has false ones at the front). "I think it's a class problem," she says loftily of one critic in particular who branded her a "phoney". "He doesn't understand that people with my accent can actually have an extremely high IQ. So high, actually, they didn't need to go to school. They didn't go to school and yet they excelled in one thing. It's like a genius strand of autism. I'm a fantastic artist. I'm extremely successful. As a woman, if I was a tennis player, I would be in the top 10 seeds in the world. This is what critics should be looking at."
It annoys her when people assume an uncomplicated relationship between her art and her life, though it can sometimes be difficult to divide the two. This is after all, the artist who most famously embroidered a tent with the names of everyone she had ever slept with (including her aborted foetuses) and exhibited her unmade, filthy bed, complete with used condoms and dirty underwear. Then there are her drawings, beautifully, viscerally executed and, more often than not, accompanied by raw, misspelt expressions of her emotional state in a nervy, spidery scrawl. Tracey Emin is, and always has been, the subject of her art and in return, art has been her lifelong "friend", perhaps even her salvation. "But haven't people got the intelligence to divide it?" she asks. "No-one said that about Van Gogh or Egon Schiele or Andy Warhol."
She is a perfectionist, trashing her own work if it doesn't come up to standard. For the new animation she did around 150 drawings but was suddenly unhappy with the last batch and removed them all. "It was 30 seconds long, now it's 23. The last 50 [drawings] were just wrong. I couldn't even draw the figure anymore. It was gone." If she's unhappy with the installation of a show she can't leave it up and come back to it in the morning: she'd rather dismantle the whole thing. "In case I die and it's left like that. And then people see it and say that it looks really awful. I'd come back as a ghost and think, 'I knew I shouldn't have fucking left it that like that.'" A bit like always wearing clean underwear in case you get knocked over by a bus? "Exactly!" she says. "I make my bed every day. There is an order to my life which I am really, really strict about."
Tracey Emin in bed-making shock! Could it be that the most terrible of the YBA enfants terrible is leaving her wild ways behind? Certainly, over the last couple of years, she has had the most extraordinary run of solemn accolades heaped upon her. She was made a Royal Academician in 2007 and curated her own "shocking" selection at the Summer Exhibition last year (her room included one of her own nudes, Mat Collishaw's copulating zebra-and-woman couple and Israeli photographer Sigalit Landau's naked woman doing the hula hoop with a barbed wire ring). She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and was given a 20-year retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery. Along the way, she picked up honorary degrees from Kent University, London Metropolitan University and her alma mater, the Royal College of Art. Not bad for someone who left school at 13 without any O-levels. Her work now features on the school syllabus. "It's quite good because every September they go out and buy my book. It's sweet", she grins. "But I'm 45. If I'm not on the school syllabus by now, if people don't know my name, it's kind of a bit sad isn't it?" It feels dangerously like Emin is becoming part of the establishment, from enfant terrible to eminence grise. "The establishment has caught up with me", she agrees. "But just because it's caught up, don't think I'm not still running. Because I am."
She even partied with the Conservative Party recently at a dinner for creatives hosted by the shadow arts minister, Ed Vaizey. "And I had a really good time," she says mischievously. She's hugely disappointed in the cuts the arts have suffered under Labour and is worried about the "diabolically appalling" tax laws for artists. All very grown-up. Today, looking healthy and brown, her hair pulled neatly back from her face, in jeans and an expensive-looking blue shirt held together with a safety pin, you might even describe Emin as mellow.
The weekly columns she writes for The Independent these days are definitely more meditative than her early hedonistic tales of partying with Ronnie Wood, holidays with Kate Moss and passing out in J Sheekey, or on her kitchen floor. She tells me that her favourite thing to do is lie in bed early on a winter morning listening to Radio 3. To relax, she swims, plays dominoes or Brick Breaker on her BlackBerry, fusses over Docket and goes for long walks. She shakes her head. "The bits of me that I really hate with all my heart, the bits of me that still behave like some demented, spoilt, deranged, psychotic 14-year old – let's call her the cider drinker in me – when I'm 80, I'll still have her in me... And it still comes out. When I've been out partying and drunk too much, and decide to go on the dancefloor and put a tablecloth on my head and scream like a banshee and miaow uncontrollably, or whatever."
These occasional breakouts must be, at least partly, the result of a hair-raising schedule. She is now booked up with big shows – in New York, Rome, London's Hayward Gallery, Sydney and Margate – until at least 2011. "It's a very privileged position to be in, but I really would like to have a year where it was just fuzzy." She dreams of being able to spend a day painting when she feels like it, or going to visit her Auntie Joyce in Gloucestershire. "My main worry is time", she says. "I really want to take a year off and be completely unavailable. I think it's because I'm not having children. I know from speaking to my friends, once they've got that child in their arms," she cradles her boiled egg and Ryvita gently, "Nothing else matters. Everything else fades off into the background. I haven't had that experience in my life. And I never will. I'd really like to have that feeling for me, now."
Children – or the lack thereof – have been a constant, painful, thread throughout Emin's life and work. She has had two abortions: in one horrifying anecdote she recalls telling the father that she was pregnant, only for him to pat her on the stomach and say: "We are going to kill you." When she was 40, she wondered about doing it on her own. "The idea of IVF, getting pregnant, nine months without sex, then probably after that no sex – I don't know if I want to make these sacrifices. Obviously I didn't. I really wanted to be in love and have a baby. I didn't want to have to go off on my own." Now she says, sadly, it's "too late", having spent Christmas in hospital, "really ill". "Now that I know I can't, I feel at peace with it. Whereas before I kept thinking I should try. But I've never met anyone who wants to have children with me." Her current boyfriend, Scott, a photographer, has a young son who lives in Scotland. Emin has met him but doesn't really have a relationship with him. "When he's older," she murmurs.
Is she scared of getting old? "I'm 46 in a month. I look in the mirror, naked, and I don't like what I see. I've put weight on and my skin's gone. There's no girl left, no girl, it's all woman", she says softly. "And I'm getting to become an older woman."
Tracey Karima Emin was born in 1963. She and her twin brother, Paul, were brought up by their mother. Their father, Enver, a Turkish Cypriot businessman, set them up in Margate's Hotel International and divided his time between them and his "other" family (he had a wife and children living elsewhere). When Tracey was seven, Enver fell on hard times and she, Paul and her mother were left to squat in the hotel grounds. Aged 13, Emin simply stopped going to school and embarked on a teenage odyssey of sex, drink and fish 'n' chips.
At 17, after some wilderness years selling shoes and working in sex shops, she was living in a DHSS shelter in Margate and the job centre gave her the choice between working in a toy train factory or at Butlin's. She decided to train to be a Redcoat – Tracey Emin a Redcoat! Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know – but when she got there she was told she couldn't be a performer without O-levels, and that she'd be washing up in a basement kitchen.
She walked out and applied to Medway College of Design and The Place for dance. She got interviews at both. "But I didn't have the money to go to both and Medway was half the train fare. Also I smoked and I thought, 'smoking and dancing? Do I really want to be a dancer? Nah. I'll go for the art'."
Before that, she'd never really thought about being an artist. There was a lot of "feminine creativity" in her family; she spent her childhood making houses out of cardboard boxes with matchbox televisions and cookers and bottle-top pots and pans. Having secured her place at Medway, her lack of qualifications scuppered her once again and she was forced to enrol on a Fashion BTEC instead. She was "terrible" at it and received a row of four noughts for her first assessment, with her teacher telling her: "Let's face it, ducks, some of us have got it and some of us haven't. And you just haven't."
This "terribly cruel and heartless" quote is now reproduced (in her "exceptionally nice handwriting") as the frontispiece to her mammoth new book, 1,000 Drawings, a collection spanning the years 1988-2008. The comment spurred her on: she bought herself some glasses and, thanks to a train strike which prevented her from going into college, she worked non-stop in her bedroom, drawing her feet and shoes repeatedly. At college, she worked diligently as the "lowest of the low" in the student factory, sweeping up scraps, making tea and hand-stitching labels.
All the time she was building up a portfolio under her own steam and one night heard Joe Strummer on the radio talking about the Sir John Cass School of Art where you could go for £1 a year, without O-levels. She got a place by pretending to be a cleaner living in Lewisham (within the catchment area) and bilking her train fare from Rochester every day. A "horrific" interview at St Martin's followed, then another at Maidstone College of Art for which she wore a dress she'd made the night before from her landlady's curtains. From Maidstone she went to the Royal College of Art – which she didn't enjoy: she destroyed most of her work from that period. "Not because I didn't think it was good but because I had nowhere to put it. When I did that I was so desperate, so broke, the future was so bleak. I'd just had an abortion. All this stuff, all this art, this baggage I was carrying around had no future, nowhere to go... It was better that it was destroyed, really." Living on £12 a week in Waterloo, she enrolled on a part-time philosophy degree and did some youth tutoring for Southwark Council. The two things "sorted her out" and eventually she found her way back to art.
The rest is YBA history – the letters she sent out asking people to invest in her "creative potential", the shop she set up with Sarah Lucas selling ashtrays with pictures of Damien Hirst stuck on the bottom, the sweary, lairy Turner Prize meltdown live on television... She still sees the old gang, particularly Lucas and Collishaw, her boyfriend of six years until 2003. "We're all very supportive of each other's work still. We just don't live in each other's pockets or sleep in each other's beds", she says. "We have our own lives. Anyway, Sarah and Abigail [Lane] and that lot all moved to the country," she pulls a face.
She was appalled by the reaction to the Momart fire, which saw her tent among hundreds of other YBA works, go up in flames. "I thought, 'that's a seminal piece of art that's gone down in history and it's just been burned down and you're making jokes about it on Radio 4?' It was an embarrassment for Britain to be laughing at its own culture like that. I couldn't understand it."
There's a well-known self-portrait of Emin, sitting on the floor with piles of money flowing out from between her legs and being scooped back in. It's called I've Got It All. So, has she? "The fact that I like to going to nice restaurants like Scott's or Mark Hix's, it's my lifestyle that I really work for. One of my favourite things is when I walk into a restaurant and the maitre d' says, 'hi, Tracey, how are you? I've got the table you like'. I think, 'Brilliant! Life is so cosy. I'm going to have some oysters. I'm really happy.' I work for that. I'm not flash about anything."
Her website is currently displaying the message: "If you collect Tracey Emin's work and you have a pool, she would like to hear from you." Her idea is to emulate the film The Swimmer, using her collectors' pools. "I'd like to have a photo of me, standing next to the piece of art they own and then a photo of me in their pool." She used to think her collectors were mainly women and gay men, "but then the man in the street stops me and says, 'I really love you, but my girlfriend hates you'. It isn't cut and dried."
I wonder if Emin has thought about the legacy she'd like to leave as an artist. Without missing a beat she tells me that the immense 8,000ft studio she's building near Spitalfields will be a Tracey Emin museum. "It will be left just however it is when I die."
For now, she's obsessed with streamlining her life by the time she's 50. "I'm now achieving two wow factors in my life", she tells me proudly. The first is her new studio. The second is her house on the south coast of France, with 32 acres of land. She's busily choosing paints and antique furniture – and learning French. "To speak it is exceptionally difficult with my accent. A bientot, matey!" she says comically. "It sounds so stupid. But I passed my driving test a few years ago, something I thought I'd never be able to do, ever. It's not impossible is it? If I start now, by the time I'm 60 I could be this old lady living in France, speaking French."
Not just yet, Tracey. On the way out, she hands me an invitation to her show. It has one of her nudes on the front. "There you go. It looks like a frog." She giggles dirtily to herself and wanders back upstairs to the studio.
Tracey Emin: 1,000 Drawings is published by Rizzoli New York in June (£40); Those Who Suffer Love, White Cube Mason's Yard, London SW1, 29 May to 4 July (www.whitecube.com)
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