Visual Arts: As Tracey Emin said to David Bowie: `Come into my tent'

Tracey Emin is one of the artistic Sensations about to go on show at the Royal Academy. David Bowie, pop star turned art writer, went to talk to her on behalf of `Modern Painters' magazine. Between them they offer an A to M (or is it an N to Z?) of Young British Art.

David Bowie: I think there are a lot of your particular generation who are now getting what we in the rock industry call a backlash. There's a feeling that you sit on your laurels, you haven't got much more to give apart from the first statement, the first shock or whatever, that there is no real ambition or desire among the YBAs to make art. It's more about going to parties and being seen.

Tracey Emin: I think that comes through ignorance, because if people knew how hard we worked... This YBA thing is stupid. I'm a 34-year-old woman. And I haven't actually ever sacrificed anything in my life, but I've worked really hard at what I believe in. It's not a whim. It isn't just a little bit of a fashion thing. And when my work ceases to have currency, I'm not gonna stop doing it... At the moment I'd like to have a radio show. I don't see art as just a visual thing... If I did a radio show I would actually say how the format of the radio show is and the show would be more like a kind of sound piece...

DB: So how does only knowing half the alphabet feel? Which half do you prefer anyway?

TE: Well, I do know the whole alphabet except I can't actually put it in the right order... I didn't read [a book] until I was 17. And then from 17 I read a book a week until 1989, and the last major bulk reading that I did was esoterics, and then after that I stopped reading, basically. But I read occasionally.

DB: 1989 - would that be the period when you really started to discover your own style of work?

TE: No, 1989-90 was when I was pregnant and had an abortion and I stopped everything. I stopped art. I stopped reading. I stopped living. I smashed all my paintings up in 1988, and then I just threw a load in the skip in 1989, and then I destroyed everything in 1990.

DB: And when did you start working within an autobiographical genre?

TE: I've always worked in an autobiographical way.

DB: OK, but when it became more literary, like using your writing in your work.

TE: When I realised that I had some value, you mean? Well first of all, I've always written. I've always kept a diary since I was 14. I'm a prolific letter writer, the most obsessive letter writer, and in 1992 I did a philosophy course for two years, and that really sorted out a lot of things in my head regarding contemporary art, because previously all I could think about was like Edvard Munch and Byzantine frescos, Giotto and early Renaissance. My head had stopped working. There was nothing artistically that filled it up, and then after doing the modern philosophy course it kinda opened up a part of my mind which hadn't been explored before... it opened up a big space and I realised that anything could be art. It's the conviction and the belief behind what you do, the essence of where it's coming from so it's more like a conceptual idea, even though I don't make conceptual looking work...

DB: I saw a recent statistic that suggested that as many people go to galleries and art museums as go to rock shows and clubs.

TE: Yes, but also with art it's such a recent thing - Britain's more literary based, but now it's becoming visually based as well. It's becoming more aesthetic with everything from furniture to fashion to nice looking, for example.

DB: I don't agree with you there. We are not primarily a literary-based nation. I think that it's a cliche that's been thrown around far too much. I think we're incredibly visually aware, actually. We always have been. I think that the history of British painting is extraordinary. Every century a great fist of brilliance has thrust through the old 16th-century repression. Always there has been a great painter... [On painting] Titian, who had parties and everything, was quite a socialite, but he had a serious approach to painting and doing a good job. Not so much about expressing himself or...

TE: Yes, but I've got friends who do that. They get up, they go to the studio, they do their work but they...

DB: They do extraordinarily accomplished paintings.

TE: Yes, and they go home again. But it's not like that for me, and never has been. Basically, I don't think there's any point in making something which has already been made before.

DB: You put a high value on originality.

TE: Yeah.

DB: Why?

TE: Because it's the moment of something.

DB: Is a more traditional artist not creating another kind of moment in his own work?

TE: For themselves, yeah, but not for the rest of the world.

DB: That's very general isn't it, because there is a world that also appreciates that kind of work, no?... more people flock to see a Turner or Vermeer show than say a Gilbert and George.

TE: The thing is that if you've got a message and you want it to be heard, you have to find a way of communicating which excites people, and for me it just wouldn't be worth doing what I did if I just re-created something which was done 50... I can paint really good Edvard Munch paintings. I can do really good Heckel woodcuts 'cause I did it as a student. But I'm not a student any more - well, we're all a student of life if you want to put it like that - but for me I have to be excited about what I'm doing, I have to re-invent, re-create.

DB: You sound a little bit dismissive of artists who don't work in what would be called the original.

TE: I'm sure a lot of them are a lot more dismissive towards me... I had to come to terms with my failure as an artist. And the artist I was trying to be was that traditional-type artist, and I was just crap at it. I had find a way for myself. So what I'm talking about is personal experience... the biggest influence in my life is my life, like my experience - not what I do from day to day but how I make sense of the world or whatever.

DB: Fame in a frame.

TE: Fame in a frame.

DB: Because, what your work is becoming, whether you like it or not, is a celebration of personality, because of its autobiographical hub, and because of its literary pursuit. Your work has been dragged out of the library, almost out of the area of memorabilia and autobiography into an art context or gallery-showing context, which is quite interesting. It doesn't have what some critics would call deeper context, it has a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of honesty to it...

TE: There are people who spend all of their lives in the New Forest painting horses. They're not artists. They're picture makers. It's more like a craft, or a trade, or whatever, it's an industry of sorts.

`Sensation' opens on Thursday at the Royal Academy, London W1 (0171-300 8000). To 28 Dec

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