The Will Self interview: Tracey Emin, A slave to truth

Tracey Emin is famous - notorious even - for her unflinching honesty in art and in life. In their first two encounters, she publicly and humiliatingly upbraided Will Self. Come the third round, he'd learnt his lesson...
IN LIFE there are many different ways of getting to know someone - which is perhaps why the notional importance of first impressions is just that. There are people who insinuate themselves into your life, skulking away when you approach, tailing you from the front; and there are others who ram-raid their way into your psyche and have a rummage around to see if there's anything they can use. But these aren't the only polarities, as the intense singularity with which Tracey Emin has penetrated my life bears testimony.

Our first encounter was in 1995 at a weekend symposium, organised by a gallery owner in Amsterdam, intended to introduce the new wave of British artists - visual, literary, performing - to their Dutch counterparts. I can't imagine what induced me to attend this event - it's exactly the kind of thing I abhor. If I weren't in the business myself, I'd never go near a cultural happening of any sort.

I'd had a crappy journey over, taking the Sally Line to Zeebrugge, then driving my Noddy car Citroen Diane through more low country than anyone should endure. After insisting on what had to be a hurried and testy lunch with my Dutch publisher, we went to the gallery so I could deliver my contribution, some jawing on London, JG Ballard and my rather nerdy enthusiasm for the interface between real and fictional topographies. The gallery was long and thin, as were the audience, all of whom were straight from central casting when the request was made for timeless, existentialist inhabitants of the inner city.

I felt a certain tension in the air as I paced around the end of the avant-garde gully. It's always pretty difficult getting English satire across to the Dutch, because they have a tendency to conflate irony and slapstick. But this wasn't just the tension born of misconception, there was definitely trouble brewing, a few mutterings, then an imprecation - Jesus! I reeled internally, I'm going to be heckled.

But I wasn't - instead I was soundly, nakedly, publicly dressed down by a knock-jawed, dark, wrecked beauty of a termagant, who spat invective at me from a mouthful of teeth gone akimbo: "Who the hell d'jew think you are anyway, Mister Will Self, swanning in here like a fucking prima donna and pushing things all around just so as you can talk this bollocks..." I think was the general tenor of her critique, although doubtless Tracey would dispute it. It went on for quite a while - I think we exchanged opinions with some frankness - but in truth this was one of those episodes in my life that I've heartily repressed, ducked in the fluid deep-end of the psyche.

Tracey hasn't. She reminded me of it when I went to see her for this piece. And a strange thing happened; not only did I fully recall the incident - which I'd blanked - but I also realised that she had been completely justified in censuring me four years earlier. I had been behaving like a prima donna. I had swanned in to do my bit with every intention of swanning straight off again - even though I knew damn well that anarchic gigs like these demand the most rigid social conduct. It also transpired that Tracey's own performance slot had been jerked about in order to cope with my - wilfully - late arrival.

She had me bang to rights. I thought I was behaving with icy politeness by not tearing her limb from limb; I now realise that it was Tracey who had the justification for this sort of behaviour - and that she'd been, relatively speaking, very restrained. For the rest of the weekend I made sure that our paths didn't cross, and I vowed that the next time we met it would be me who delivered the devastating character critique.

It wasn't. It was Tracey once more who got the drop on me. I had been commissioned to write and present a new cultural talk show for Channel 4, and against my better judgement agreed to do it. In truth, presenting television, rather than appearing on it as an interviewee, is to my mind wholly destructive of an artist's integrity. It requires of you that you amend your discourse in the most fundamental of ways - that you speak falsely. Now I hadn't wanted Tracey to be on the show, because of the history we already had, but the producers were keen. Then, a few days before we were due to record, Tracey appeared on live television at the Tate Gallery, in the wake of her unsuccessful nomination for the Turner Prize, and drunkenly and gloriously upbraided a posse of art luminaries including Roger Scruton, the philosopher, and David Sylvester, the critic. She was smoking, she was swigging, and she had an injured hand strapped into a splint. She looked like Edith Sitwell on acid.

Now Tracey was really generating what they call in the industry "video heat". Channel 4 were so delighted with the clip of Tracey's bibulous burblings at the Turner prize ceremony that they aired it several more times, gaining themselves a fine from the ITC. At the time everyone seemed to think it was a marvellously subversive act, squarely within the anti-traditionalism that Tracey and the rest of the Brit-Art pack were espousing. My producers were now desperate to have her on. I wasn't so sure - when I'd caught glimpses of Tracey in the intervening couple of years since the Amsterdam incident I'd thought her a sad-looking figure. At openings and parties she appeared anorexic as well as pissed. I didn't like the idea of using a broadcast slot to present a pathology; what little I'd seen of her art I was inclined to dismiss as self-indulgent, poorly crafted and conceptually embarrassing.

In the green room at Horseferry Road everything seemed to be going swimmingly. Tracey still had her injured hand strapped up and she was supping away, but she was by no means drunk. Instead of obeying the conventions of the talk show, waiting for the slot to become vacant before inserting a carefully crafted apercu, Tracey broke in on us, berated us, trenchantly exposed the very nullity and irrelevance of the cultural context we were in. It was virtuoso stuff - and once again hit home.Of this she said to me: "We were all getting on really well. I was chatting away to Martin Amis and that Susie Orbach woman, and then we went into the studio and there were all these lights and cameras, and you all began talking in this really false way, just totally unreal..."

In the wake of the recording everyone was extremely sympathetic - to me. The wounded Tracey limped off into the night. She'd done me a favour - exposing exactly what it was I feared about doing this kind of work. She'd activated my conscience - no wonder I loathed the sight of her.

On a chilly February afternoon in the East End of London it looks as if it's Tracey who can't stand the sight of me; or rather, for some minutes after she's swung open the heavy metal door of her new industrial-unit- cum-studio-cum-loft-apartment, it looks as if she can't understand the sight of me: "Um, oh, right - you bin 'ere long?" The echt Essex tones are moistened and damped down from last night's fun; she's in a kimono- style dressing gown, looking thin but not emaciated. Her new building is between Brick Lane and Commercial Road, at the very core of the Whitechapel artists' community. Tracey's boyfriend, the artist Mat Collishaw, has an adjacent space. It's an enormous gaff, a commercial unit - iron pillars, concrete floors - of about 90 square feet. Only a small bedroom and a toilet are sectioned off. There's a kitchen alcove at one end and huge, filthy windows range along both sides; implanted in them are rusty, furred extractor fans.

Light irradiates the waste of space, and Tracey's just- arrived, boxed and stacked possessions appear suitably anonymous. I recognised her grandmother's chair - one of her memento mori, which has been rendered art with a few appliqued words - set on a square of carpet. Next to it is a wooden truckle which contains a training manual for learner drivers, a video of Tony Hancock and a feng shui instructional tape. While the new tenant clomped around, making tea and adjusting to the toxic vision of a day viewed through the bottom of a glass darkly, she threw out bite-sized updates: "...Only bin 'ere 16 hours...", "...drinking last night with Mat's brothers..." "...Very convivial - but I came back 'ere at 11 so as I wouldn't wake up my first day in the new place pissed..." "...But then they came back as well..." "...Wouldn't have done an interview today if it wasn't you..." "...But it was nice drinking..."

Nice drinking - if you can get it. I suppose Tracey can get it now - or at least some of it. I know that she's spoken out vehemently about her stuff being secondarily sold to the egregious collector Charles Saatchi, but I also know that her dealer, the formidably charming Jay Jopling, is as commercially astute in his clients' interests as he is supportive of their aspirations, perversions and emotional totality. Of Tracey he's said to me: "She's great - just talk to her; there's so much more to her than you can imagine."

Is there? I suppose so - and after all there's so much about Tracey that I don't have to imagine, because as well as making a guest cameo appearance in my own life, she has, since her artistic conversion in 1992, made it her sole business to interfuse her art and her life in order to create a form of intimate, public, confessional discourse. She is the Janeycam of the art world; a tableau vivant of drinking, fucking, feuding, emoting, aborting and contriving, all of which is to be carried out in the eye of the lens. Thus we know plenty about her queered Margate upbringing; her Turkish-Cypriot, serial-begetting father (she has 11 half- siblings); her delinquent twin brother; her underage sex; her relationships (with among others the homespun nihilist Billy Childish); her abortions (two); and her rape (one).

"I couldn't go on doing art unless it meant something to me emotionally," she told me, "so I began making things out of bits of me." The works that have resulted are curiously diverse. Ordinary things stuck about with slogans, short poems, the names of lovers - the blankets, tents and other life-furnishings. And less ordinary things - like the fag packet her Uncle Colin was holding when he was decapitated in a car crash. She draws with a crazed yet poised line that wavers somewhere between that of Egon Schiele and Dennis Nilsen; and the drawings are usually of herself masturbating. She paints as well, most notably at a 1996 installation event in Sweden, where she extemporised in oils for a week, whilst nude and imprisoned within the gallery.

She also gives a lot of interviews and is wholly unash-amed of admitting to the pleasure that notoriety gives her. Further than that, the notoriety is, in and of itself, part of the work in hand. It's a closed loop, the Emin universe; and it revolves entirely around Emin. This, in a sense, makes her the perfect interview subject. Indeed, it's possible that if her work is to have any lasting impact it can only be in conjunction with encounters such as these; just as the work of Joseph Beuys (which Tracey's closely resembles) could only be viewed in the context of his own exaggeratedly didactic approach to the business of being an artist. With Beuys gone, there's just a collection of his tedious possessions, laid out in glass cases, and the ghost of his pedagogy.

Where Beuys used dialectics, Emin employs her sexuality. Indeed, she is arguably as much of a sex worker as any catwalk model or streetwalker, so vividly is her sexuality and her employment conjoined. In the Emin sex world there is a lot of violence and a lot of tenderness; much abandonment - and little retention. And in the flesh she is very quiet, supremely unaffected, intensely vulnerable and deeply unsexy. Just like a working girl who isn't working. I can imagine crawling into her infamous tent with her, and just lying there holding hands, possibly drinking a can of cider.

Settled down at a table on upright chairs, Tracey sipped her tea wrapped up in a synthetic blanket, patterned so as to appear like Dalmatian fur. Cruella de Ville - not. Our conversation was calm and circumambulatory, wandering from art to drink to sex to driving and back again. The shadows lengthened across the studio floor. Occasionally her mobile phone played its cretinous serenade and she hastened to it. She was very easy to be with, very relaxing. But did she think she could go on doing this kind of thing indefinitely? "No, four more years. Four years and I hope I'll have got it all out of me." And then what? She wants to write fictions, and began to tell me one oneiric example, but it was too dreamy to make much sense. She was understandably reserved about her current relationship, but says that she's in love "today - and that's what matters. Now." She has a terror of anything less than this intensity, of ending up with mere affection "like a dog".

She was ambivalent about the idea of having children, and emphatic that she couldn't "get them out". "They're too big," she proclaimed, "and it's too small." One of the few new purchases she'd made for the new home were a couple of tiny chairs which stand marooned in the mid-distance. Set sinisterly beside them are two small pairs of shoes. I remarked that they appeared to be for two absent children - and, predictably referring to those abortions again, she said that they were. But the question of children is of course one of permanence; and that is something Tracey Emin seems unwilling to counsel. She spoke lovingly of being drunk because it "gives you an agenda - all you've gotta do is walk across the room". In an interview with Waldemar Januszczak last year she'd said she was giving up drinking (even though she was swigging beer at the time), and to me she says the same thing: "That's why I'm learning to drive - 'cause you can't drink and drive." I wasn't altogether convinced that this was a credible therapy.

Tracey doesn't do drugs - but the oblivion alcohol provides, the relief from her self-confessedly intense accidie and anomie, is as much part of her art/life chimera as the sex. She said to me, "I've never felt happier, more wanted, more supported..." and yet there was that hangover, tangibly weighing down her thin shoulders. Although she speaks with equal warmth of relationships with her family, there's still a miasma that clings around her, cloaking her far more than any Dalmatian fur. When I asked her if she was worried that she might lose herself, like a psychic moth frazzled by the combined glare of her own honesty and public scrutiny, she calmly said: "I woke up two years ago and realised I had murdered myself."

As it is to love, so it is to the oeuvre, which is seen by Tracey as essentially decoupled from the rest of the culture; there is no room for any canon here, although when pushed she concedes to reading Warhol when she was young - getting "the point" of him. Her discussion of her working methods is, perforce, as pedestrian as they are - you really can't say that much interesting about applique. The paradox is that in creating these most nakedly "personal" of art-works, Tracey has produced remarkably artefactual work. The now famous "shop" she ran with her close friend, the sculptor Sarah Lucas, is the concomitant of this.

When I left, Tracey gave me a copy of her book, Exploration of the Soul. Although one of an unillustrated edition, there are only a few tens of copies of this fearlessly exculpatory account of her own early sexual experiences. She wrote in the dedication, "I wanted this to be the truth." And certainly there is a painful honesty in these tense jottings. Is she a good writer? I don't know - there's too little here for me to form a judgement. She told me proudly that it was worth "a few hundred quid", and then worried - with a laugh - that I might think she was trying to bribe me into saying nice things about her.

As I threaded my way between the fruit stalls and the schmutter shops on Brick Lane I mused on this. No artist needs to have anybody say anything "nice" about them - least of all by a critic. But Tracey's art - if it is art at all - is all about these kinds of vulnerabilities. In amongst the hard-drinking, hard-living, but essentially playful denizens of the contemporary London avant-garde, Emin has found a kind of refuge. It's as if with Damien and Sarah and Angus and Mat and Jay and Sam she has encountered some of the half-siblings she's never met. Yet the very freewheeling character of this environment is also a mark of its transitoriness. Tracey had said she was going to do this art for four more years; might she as well have said four more minutes?

I was grateful to her for pointing out my character defects - she does it with aplomb. I'll be interested to see her whenever she next appears, but to repay her own honesty what can I say about this life that is her work? That it seems peculiarly autistic in its suburban solipsism? That it seems astonishing that this particular traumatised individual should be given so much time and liberty to do what so many others do in the art therapy sessions of mental hospitals? Perhaps both of these things. On the other hand Tracey's art- life also seems to be an amazing act of chutzpah: damn it all! She's pulled it off.

And anyway, perhaps this is all the fag end of this century has to offer in the way of creation: autodestructive, autobiographical musings. Only time will tell, Tracey, only time will tell.