Visual Arts: A Tart for her Art ...

Tracey Emin tells autobiographical stories through her artwork. Intimate, funny tales full of bedroom banter and bare-faced cheek. By Matthew Collings

Tracey Emin is an artist. She's one of the stars of today's wave of fashionable, no longer quite so young British artists (she was 34 this year), led by Damien Hirst. But her art comes from the opposite direction to Hirst's. He drags up jarring, unfathomable sights from the cold heart of advertising culture. Whereas she does something we'd almost forgotten art could do. She tells stories. Harrowing, heartbreaking, funny and ironic stories describing her childhood in Margate, her teenage drunkenness and night-clubbing and promiscuity, her rape and abortions, and her struggle to escape the past through art.

She goes around with a shopping bag with EMIN embroidered on the side in big letters. She's an obsessive egotist, and her appearance plays a part in her work. She looks like an Expressionist painting, with an angular face, which she got from her mother, who is English, and the dark eyes of her Turkish-Cypriot father. But the main focus is her mouth, which is beautiful and ugly at the same time, wide but wonky with uneven teeth. Out of it comes an amazing cartoon of a working-class accent, all "yoofs" and "moufs" and "innits".

That's the voice you hear in her film, Why I Never Became a Dancer, where she describes the excitement of dancing as a 17-year-old to "The Hustle" and "Young Hearts Run Free" at a competition in a Margate disco. And then the nightmare of all the boys she'd slept with chanting "Slag! Slag!" and driving her off the floor.

When Tracey Emin reads in art galleries from her limited-edition book, Exploration of the Soul, her audiences listen with rapt attention, caught by the whole thing - her looks and the powerfully expressive delivery and accent, as much as the words themselves and the scenes they graphically describe, their mixture of blackness and humour.

"I didn't mind it when Paul head-butted me and knocked my two front teeth out," she reads. "As I never laughed much anyway..."

The book describes her childhood from the moment of conception to the time she was raped in an alley when she was 13. It was a strange life. Her parents were married, but not to each other. The night she and her twin brother Paul were conceived was meant to be the lovers' last night together. When she was growing up, her mother worked all the time in the hotel her lover had set the family up in. He visited them on his business trips to England, away from his other family in Cyprus. And when his business failed, the hotel folded and the father didn't turn up so much, and the mother had to work even harder. The twins were close as children but grew apart as they got older. Tracey got into sex and Paul got into scrapes with the law.

She once challenged a journalist to put himself in her position. "You're a slag from Margate with big tits and a gold chain," she said. "What do you do?"

That is, what do you do if you are those things but also a bit tragically gloomy and dark and difficult, with a quirky, off-beat, creative sensibility. Do you go mad? She did for a while, after her second abortion. Commit suicide? She tried that, too. She jumped off the harbour wall in Margate at night when she was drunk, fully clothed, and felt herself sink to the bottom and then rise up slowly to the surface again.

"I felt nothing," she says. "Actually I did feel something. I felt very tiny."

She realised she was a survivor and that she'd better get on with things. She'd ducked out of school at an early age but she managed to get into Maidstone College of Art and she faithfully followed the Life room exercises there - drawing the model in five seconds, watching figures move across the room and then closing her eyes and trying to draw their bodies from memory, drawing her own hand. She learnt print-making and did a lot of wild oil paintings of distorted bodies writhing in bedrooms.

Her favourite art was by Edvard Munch and Byzantine painting. But when she got taken on by the Royal College of Art in London, she found there wasn't much interest in that kind of thing. It was considered a bit corny. One day she found there wasn't any storage space there either, and as there certainly wasn't any room for all her paintings from Maidstone in her tiny squat, she took them out into the Royal College courtyard and smashed them up with a hammer, screaming and crying while she did it. It took all day and when she'd finished her hands were bleeding.

It was the time of her emotional suicide, as she calls it. She'd just had her second abortion, no one cared about her painting, she didn't believe in it herself any more. Everything was black. She lay around drinking and got the idea that she'd better reinvent herself again, this time as something more than just a painter. She managed to achieve her aim through two things. One was her natural determination. From the room where she lived with all her cardboard boxes full of childhood memorabilia, she started writing round to everyone she knew, asking them to invest in her creativity by sending her pounds l0. Amazingly, she got 80 replies with the money. The other was her chance encounter with the artist Sarah Lucas. They met in a gallery in south London, became friends and opened up a shop in Bethnal Green where they sold funny bits of punky art bric-a-brac. There were ashtrays with Damien Hirst's face on them, T-shirts with the words "Complete Arsehole" roughly hand-painted on them, and bits of cut- up blanket, which they called Rothko security blankets. They lived on Guinness and curries, and then finally put a sign up that said "Shop Closed, Gone to Mexico". When Emin came back she was asked to put on a show at the White Cube gallery in the West End.

She was confused by the offer. It was her first exhibition but she was convinced that it would also be her last, so she gave it the ironic title "My Major Retrospective". She sifted through all the junk in her boxes and began to build an exhibition of her life story out of what she found - diary writings, letters to former boyfriends and relatives, letters to her brother Paul in prison, a letter she'd written to her Uncle Colin who'd died in a road accident, the packet of Benson and Hedges cigarettes he'd been clutching at the moment of death, and the funny little childhood dolls and trolls she'd never thrown away.

She covered one wall of the gallery with these things and on another showed postage-stamp-size photos of all her art school paintings, each one mounted on a piece of material cut from the last bit of canvas she'd ever bought. The final element in the exhibition was an embroidered quilt with the names of members of her family on it, and messages to them, like "I Love You Plum", to her grandmother.

It was an intensely emotional exhibition, a blast of warm humanism in an art world that had got used to cool cerebralism as the norm. Not everyone liked it. When someone reveals so much about themselves so straightforwardly, it can be embarrassing. But, afterwards, the art world started treating her like an artist instead of a freak. From her outsider position, she'd become a brilliant observer and monitor of human feeling, an inspired tapper into the things that people really care about.

Since then she has been in a stream of exhibitions and the subject of numerous magazine profiles. Naturally, she's a gift to journalists. They only have to mention the title of the tent she showed once - Everyone I Have Ever Slept With - to make the reader sit up. In fact, the tent really is a remarkable work. Instead of merely sensational, the effect is rather intimate and loving. There are about one hundred names embroidered on it - all the embroideries reveal her experience as a painter and a skilful colourist. The felt letters range from small to very large. Lovers are in there - Margate lads, luminaries of the London art world, and Wild Billy Childish, the rocker who was secretly married to someone else while he was living with her - but also innocent childhood friends, family members, and Foetus No 1 and Foetus No 2.

Emin has done her readings at the Festival Hall, in Habitat, in New York and, once, in a desert in the American mid-West. She took up drawing again, making pictures with a fluent, effortless line of her own body and of remembered Margate scenes: the clocktower; the ferris wheel; the neon lighting that reads Dreamland. And recently she even did a few paintings in a gallery in Sweden for an exhibition called "Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made". Visitors could watch her working through a lens in the gallery door that revealed a tiny, distorted, entirely naked figure with a lot of brushes and paints.

Two years ago she raised some money to open a museum to herself in a former minicab office in Waterloo Road in London. The museum is a kind of open studio, which can be visited by the general public on Thursdays and Fridays. A sign on the door in coloured letters reads, "The Tracey Emin Museum, A Good Place To Grow".

Tracey Emin's exhibition 'I Need Art Like I Need God' opens 16 April, South London Gallery, London SE5 (0171-703 6120)

The Tracey Emin Museum re-opens at the end of April with a series of live performances, 221 Waterloo Road, London SE1 (0171-261 1116)

Tom Lubbock's review of the George Grosz exhibition will appear in tomorrow's Independent

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