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Tracey Emin: Her life in art

An anxious, exhausted but delirious Tracey Emin says her new show at the Hayward Gallery is the culmination of everything she's ever worked for

It's 7am. My eyes are open but the rest of me can't move. My body feels like it's being crushed, my bones slowly ground down through some giant mincing machine. I am very tired. It's just four days until the opening of my show at London's Hayward Gallery.

It isn't just the installation and the physical work that's so exhausting, it's all the decision-making: moving this here and moving that there; changing that a fraction; praying to God that this is going to stand up OK; keeping fingers crossed that none of the neon lights has hairline fractures; hoping that X and Y come back from the framers on time; looking at a piece of work I haven't seen for 10 years and trying to remember how it fits together.

There are more than 170 works in the show, and some of those can have up to eight components (or more). At a rough guess there could be more than 500 pieces to hang. All of these works are in crates and, as they are unpacked, the crates start to disappear from the gallery. It's a slow process, though, and for a long time you are looking at what appears to be a strange metropolis – a wooden city within the gallery. It's only now, after two and a half weeks of installation, that my show is starting to reveal itself to me.

Along with the physical exhaustion there are two other extreme emotions: anxiety and excitement. Neither of these helps when it comes to sleep. One minute, I'm deliriously happy, like a bride about to be walked down the aisle; the next, I'm wondering whether I'm making the biggest mistake of my life.

This show at the Hayward is the biggest moment of my life – everything I've worked for, everything I believe in, everything that's ever mattered to me, is going into this show. It was four years ago that Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery, asked me whether I would like to do a show. I said yes immediately. In fact, I jumped up and down, and said: "Yes, yes, yes." Unlike my usual response to requests to do shows, I didn't have to say: "I'll come and see the space, and we'll discuss it," because I know the Hayward Gallery inside-out.

I lived in Waterloo for 10 years in my tiny co-op flat. With it, I got a free pass to the gallery. I'd often spend hours roaming around, getting to understand the space. I'd visit almost every show and without actually judging the work, would try to understand how the space had been used to its advantage, depending on the artist.

I also started to understand that the space was not masculine, as people presume, but instead very feminine. All the galleries have a different atmosphere; the Hayward's staircases are round, and there are many corners and secret viewing places.

Not everything is obvious, either. A number of the galleries are square and even though the ceilings are very high, the squareness makes them feel comfortable and cosy. Also the Hayward Gallery has terraces that give amazing views across London. To me, this means I'm home.

But exhibiting at home leads to another set of problems: I'm exposed to more criticism and judgement, and there is a higher level of expectation. This is where the deep anxiety comes in. I don't want to be slagged off as I walk through the village square.

Sometimes, to relax in my studio, or wherever I am – the kitchen – I play music really, really loud and I dance like a banshee. And when I'm alone, I dance with the furniture, I dance with the walls – nothing is really inanimate, everything has meaning, everything has soul, nothing is static.

It was during one of these moments, as I whirled my way around to the Marc Bolan song "Planet Queen", that the title for my show hit me: Love Is What You Want.

It's from the chorus: "Love is what you want, flying saucer take me away". I really relate to the flying saucer part. Sometimes I just want to be lifted, or hurled, and for everything to be OK. I've never run away, I've always faced things head-on. There is a lot of responsibility to being an artist and as I get older, that responsibility comes at more of a cost. That's why this show is so precious to me and means so much.

The defining image for the show is a still-image taken from some film footage shot in 2000. I'm running around the streets of east London, naked, flying a Union Jack above me. I wanted an image for the show that was very British, but also something that would represent my kind of Britain.

My show opens at the same time as the Southbank Centre's celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. Britain has always celebrated culture and the arts, and I feel very proud to be part of a country that, in terms of its creativity, has come a really, really long way. I just hope that over the past 20 years, I have too!

Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want is at Hayward Gallery to 29 August (www.haywardgallery.org.uk; 0844 875 0073)

Reader offer

How to buy an exclusive edition of 'She Lay Down' (2011) and 'Laying with the Olive Trees' by Tracey Emin.

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