Tracey Emin: Growing up is hard to do

Tracey Emin's new film about the pressures facing teenage girls has been accused of condoning suicide. Not so, she tells Julia Stuart. Its message, drawn from her own traumatic adolescence, is that even messy lives can have happy endings
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Being told off by Tracey Emin isn't what it used to be. When I happened to call her on her mobile phone about two years ago - an act she considers to be an invasion of privacy - it was such a stinging experience I never risked it again. Until now. Admittedly there are threats to tell the editor and report me to the Press Complaints Commission, but they are delivered in such sweet tones that either she has given the dressing-down to journalists so often her delivery has lost its edge, or Mad Tracey from Margate has mellowed.

Being told off by Tracey Emin isn't what it used to be. When I happened to call her on her mobile phone about two years ago - an act she considers to be an invasion of privacy - it was such a stinging experience I never risked it again. Until now. Admittedly there are threats to tell the editor and report me to the Press Complaints Commission, but they are delivered in such sweet tones that either she has given the dressing-down to journalists so often her delivery has lost its edge, or Mad Tracey from Margate has mellowed.

Indeed, half-an-hour later the phone rings. "It's Tracey," says the tiny voice on the end. Yes, I could come to talk to her "because it's very important and people have to understand". That evening, the premiere of her first feature film, Top Spot, is to take place as part of the London Film Festival. However, it has just been given an adult-only 18 certificate, thus barring the precise age group for which Emin has made the film. She is spectacularly narked.

The door to her studio, a former clothing warehouse in the East End of London, is opened by one of her endlessly cheery assistants. On the office windowsill, in between the kitsch cat figurines (Emin is nuts about cats, particularly her own, called Docket) is a small statue of a topless woman. The card propped up against it wishes her a happy birthday from Elton and David.

I am taken upstairs to a vast whitewashed open space with polished floorboards. To the left the floor and worktables are covered with Emin's ongoing work - expanses of material bearing words cut out in brightly coloured felt. "Its [sic] not bad art" reads one. "Fantastic Tracey" reads another.

The corner to the right has been made into an elegant sitting area. Perched on a French antique green sofa, next to a table bearing a fresh pot of tea, two china cups and saucers and a tray with a picture of a cat on it, is Emin with her hair up, looking like a graceful Frida Kahlo, without the eyebrows.

Emin says she had wanted to make Top Spot - a coming-of-age film about six schoolgirls set in her hometown of Margate - for years but had simply never got round to it. Then, the British director Michael Winterbottom saw Sometimes The Dress Is Worth More Money Than The Money, one of Emin's short films. He was so struck by it, he decided to give whoever had made it some development money for a feature film. Top Spot was subsequently commissioned by the BBC, which put £116,000 into the pot. (Emin says the BBC originally promised £500,000 but the amount kept coming down until she eventually put in some cash herself). She refuses to say precisely how much the project cost. "It was incredibly low budget."

Adverts were placed in magazines to find actresses over the age of 16 to play the 14- and 15-year-olds. Forty-five hopefuls came to the open auditions held at Emin's studio. "They had to say 'fuck you, you're the cunt' really aggressively to the camera," says Emin, 41, who is dressed in wide black trousers, a tight, patterned jumper and grey scarf. Non-smokers who said they were prepared to smoke on camera if requested were eliminated from the selection. Emin wanted those with the backbone to refuse such a request. Four of those eventually chosen had never heard of her work. Filming took place in Margate and Egypt between June and September last year. There was no script. "Every day I told the girls what to say and how to say it," says Emin. "They were really a lot of fun. Because I was so unhappy when I was an adolescent it was very nice to work with girls who were quite centred."

Like all of Emin's work, the film is heavily autobiographical. "I wanted to work through some things and I wanted to make something that I thought would be of some use [to others]." The title refers to the Margate nightclub that Emin left one night when she was 13, and was then raped nearby. In the film, one of the girls is seen lying in an alley, her torn tights yanked down. In another scene, Emin asks off camera whether she told the police. "No," the girl replies. "Did you tell your mother?" Emin asks. "Yes." "And what did your mother do?" "She cleaned my coat," comes the answer, a line that produced tittering in the audience at the premiere. One presumes they wouldn't have laughed had they known that it was, in fact, a reference to the bloodstain on the new coat Emin had been wearing during the assault which took her virginity.

But the scene which is causing Emin's current despair is that in which one of the girls commits suicide following a miscarriage. The audience sees her lying dead in red bath water, her wrist slashed and a bloodied razorblade on the side. The British Board of Film Classification decided that 15- to 18-year-olds, who would have been able to see the film under a lower rating, were particularly vulnerable to notions of suicide, and the scene was therefore deemed "inappropriate" for that age group.

Emin, who is appealing against the decision, believes it's personal. "I think it's stupid," says the artist, who has made at least one attempt to kill herself, including, at the age of 20, throwing herself into the sea. "Girls aren't going to run off and commit suicide. What they're going to do is run off and get a camera and make a film. That's the message." (Emin appears in the last scene hotfooting it in high heels towards a helicopter in which she escapes from Margate. A bomber plane then appears on the horizon and starts pounding the Kent town. Emin would, in fact, have preferred a tidal wave, but couldn't afford the special effects).

"I haven't made suicide look glamorous at all. If I had a teenage daughter I would never let her read The Bell Jar. I think [people who are suicidal] would think 'that looks really horrible, I don't want to be there'. Certain things can push people to certain limits; what I'm saying is that it didn't push me. I'm here, thanks, and by the end of the film you can see that. The moral behind the story is just persevere, just keep going, just be strong and it's going to be all right."

Emin was born in Margate in 1963. Her father, a Turkish Cypriot, already had a wife and family in London when he met Emin's mother, Pam, but instead of divorcing, simply maintained two households. Emin and her twin, Paul, lived in the hotel her parents ran, but it went bust when she was seven, and mother and father split up. She avoided boys for six months after the rape, and then, for a period, became promiscuous. She left school with no O-levels, but eventually enrolled at the Sir John Cass School of Art in the East End. From there, she won a place at Maidstone College of Art, got a first, and went to the Royal College of Art. When she left, she had a relationship that resulted in two abortions. The first, in 1990, was particularly traumatic. Returning to hospital the following week because she felt so ill, a foetus slithered down her thigh as she got out of the cab. It was a twin that had been missed by the doctors. Emin destroyed all her work and gave up art altogether.

She was eventually brought back to it when she met Sarah Lucas. The pair became instant friends and took over a shop in Bethnal Green where they made and sold T-shirts. In 1993 the art dealer Jay Jopling offered Emin an exhibition at his fashionable gallery, White Cube. Thinking it would be her first and last, she called it My Major Retrospective. Then, in 1995, she produced her famous tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95. Two years later she made an unforgettably drunken appearance on Channel 4 when she swore at guests and walked out of a discussion on the Turner Prize saying she was going to call her mum. (She thought she was at a boring dinner party at the time).

She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 for work that included the notorious exhibit My Bed, the site of a three-day breakdown that included bloody knickers and used condoms. She cried in private after the prize went to Steve McQueen, but no doubt found some consolation when her bed was bought by Charles Saatchi for £150,000. Her success was formally acknowledged in September this year when a room at Tate Britain was dedicated to her work, making her only the ninth artist, along with Constable, Turner and Francis Bacon, to be so honoured. She currently has shows in Italy and Istanbul, there is a joint exhibit with David Hockney in Chile in two weeks' time, and she is also representing Britain at the Seville Biennial. And she has just launched a new line of luggage for Longchamp.

But it is not enough - or perhaps too much - for some. When her tent and beach hut were destroyed by fire at the Momart warehouse in East London in May, Emin was outraged by the public sniggering that followed. "The majority of the British public have no respect for what me and my peers do," she said at the time.

"A lot of people are really derogatory about my work and say it's just art that something like a teenage girl would make. Well, yeah, it is because I'm still stuck in a teenage world, part of me is still there. I'm still dealing with those issues and a lot of people always are.

"I look back at that time in my life and think about how it could be different, and my consolation is that I'm an incredibly successful artist. And all those people who said I couldn't because of this, and I couldn't because of that, I've proved them wrong.

"And all the people that are going to be derogatory about my film, hey, have they had a film at Leicester Square Odeon? No, they probably haven't. So it's about triumph over adversity. That's why teenage girls should see it. Yesterday I got a phone call from Bristol from a group of teenage single mothers. They want me to go and give a talk, no money in it, and I said 'yeah, of course I would'."

She has no plans to make more feature films and is currently working on a "stupid [short] film about my leg" inspired by a recent fall that resulted in her not being able to walk for six weeks.

But despite the continual carping from critics, Emin says she is much happier than she used to be. She hasn't had a suicidal thought for two years, and is learning not to spiral down into depression at each knock. "I'm trying to address the things about my personality that really annoy me. I've stopped smoking, which is fantastic. I drink too much, I swear too much. I am too much, that's the main thing. I would like to be just a little bit calmer.

"Actually, I don't drink too much, I can't take my drink, which is a completely different situation. But I'm fun. I love my friends and I love my social life and all that kind of thing. I have this wild side of me, this debauched wild side, that's when I'm going out to a party, everything is in context. But I'm trying to get everything in order at the moment as much as possible because clarity equals harmony, and the more clarity I have the more harmony and the more fun I have in my life. I'm in a good place. I'm not waiting to arrive, I'm here and I quite like where it is, it's quite good."

She and Docket live in a splendid 450-year-old Huguenot house in the East End. They shared it for six years with the artist Mat Collishaw before he and Emin split up in 2003. She says she hasn't had sex for at least a year. "Sex is easy. If I want sex I could have sex this afternoon, it's not a problem. But that's not what I want. I want love. I can see a difference. When I was 14 maybe I couldn't."

Does she think she will find love again? "Oh yes!" she says with gusto. But until she does, Tracey Emin's bed will be for her alone.

'Top Spot' opens in cinemas nationwide on 3 December. It will be screened by BBC3 in December or January

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