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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

    £50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

    Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

    £45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Professional Services Firm - Oxford

    £21000 - £24000 per annum + 21 days holidays: Ashdown Group: Technical Support...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor