Maid of Margate

All that effing and blinding. All that dirty washing aired in public. Tracey Emin is famous for bringing her saucy seaside ways into the rarefied world of art. But behind all that bluster, says Karen Wright, she's just a little sweatheart who needs someone to love...
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Tracey Emin is in a mood when I arrive at her East London studio. She is dressed simply in a crisp blue and white striped shirt with a discreet Vivienne Westwood logo on the pocket. With it she wears gold jewellery, a blue denim skirt and matching blue running shoes. Her face, though, is like the weather, sunny but threatening a storm. Over the years I have had experience of both her sweetness and grumpiness and find the initial signs worrying. While she can be beautiful and sexy, with her smile full of overlapping teeth, she is equally capable of a glowering intensity. She apologises for her lateness (she's been catching up on her admin) and when I say, "that's all right, I have time", she snaps back, "but you don't know about the rest of my day".

Tracey Emin is in a mood when I arrive at her East London studio. She is dressed simply in a crisp blue and white striped shirt with a discreet Vivienne Westwood logo on the pocket. With it she wears gold jewellery, a blue denim skirt and matching blue running shoes. Her face, though, is like the weather, sunny but threatening a storm. Over the years I have had experience of both her sweetness and grumpiness and find the initial signs worrying. While she can be beautiful and sexy, with her smile full of overlapping teeth, she is equally capable of a glowering intensity. She apologises for her lateness (she's been catching up on her admin) and when I say, "that's all right, I have time", she snaps back, "but you don't know about the rest of my day".

I am here to talk to her about her new work, which goes on show at the London gallery White Cube later this week. This will be her first show at the gallery for four years and she confesses that it has not been easy to conceive. "It was Valentine's Day and I had a mini nervous breakdown. I forgot I had a cat and even where I lived. I thought I lived in Waterloo and was walking home along the South Bank [she now lives in the East End]. After that I decided I wanted to postpone my show - I wanted to get my head together and to make a whole new body of work, something in line with the way I was thinking. But in the end I just started working and that was that."

She has decided to show, amongst other things, some white-on-white appliquéd blankets which are very different from her colourful signature pieces. This decision, she says, was partly determined by her desire not to give the public what they expect. "Everyone wants coloured, charged blankets from me. Maybe it will be like saying 'Well, that's what you want but that's not what I am going to give you.'"

We are sitting on an old-fashioned three-piece suite, slip-covered in green brocade, sipping tea out of proper cups. Next door, a long, light room is dominated by a work table heaped with piles of cloth and little fabric squares covered in drawings, some with slogans already sewn in place. There is a group of three women huddled together working on one of the pieces. Tracey has been quoted as saying that she wants to be hands-on with her work. Asked about the women working for her on the blankets she flares up.

"Do you know how long it takes," she snaps, "for me to make a blanket on my own, doing all the sewing? It takes eight months, working five days a week eight hours a day, and that's without me getting bored. I love to sew and I just get really pissed off that I don't have the time and I'm jealous of those who do. I have to go off to meeting number nine and they're all sitting there cosy and sewing." Tracey still cuts out all the appliqué letters herself, though, using a range of hand-drawn templates. She mimes the motion of folding and cutting them out for me. I ask what her favourite letters are. "Well, I know my least favourites," she laughs. "G and Q because both are very hard to do."

We peer at photographs of her earlier appliquéd works, one of which incorporated letters made from her friends' clothes. She points out a bit of clothing which once belonged to our mutual friend, Lorcan O'Neill, in the 1997 blanket, Mad Tracey from Margate - everyone's been there. She shows me some photographs of her wearing friends' and ex-boyfriends' clothes. "I was fit then," she says, shamelessly assessing her model's body. "They didn't know that I was going to cut the clothes up and they weren't going to get them back." I find the idea of making a comfort blanket from friends' clothes rather attractive and ask if she still has the piece. "No, I sold it," she says.

Words have always played an important role in Emin's work but she's recently started to deploy them outside her art. She's excited about writing her new weekly column for The Independent and has given up her own daily diary, admitting that she often worried about losing it and it then turning up "out there" in the media. She has also written a book, Strangeland (to be published by Hodder and Stoughton this autumn), which she describes as "not really a novel, it's more like a rite of passage". But words were there in her work right from the beginning, as her dealer Jay Jopling explained when I met him in New York a few days before the interview. He recounted the story of his first meeting with Emin, just after he opened his gallery in St James's in the early Nineties. "It was in a pub and she came up to me and offered to write me four letters for £10. I gave her the tenner and the first letter came. It was about 18 pages long and all about her abortion. The next day another letter, also intense, appeared."

It was on the strength of these letters that he gave her a show in 1994, telling her that the work must reflect their power and make him feel again as he had when he'd first opened them. He still has the letters and remains her dealer.

Tracey's grandmother was the inspiration for her most iconic early work, There's a Lot of Money in Chairs (1994). "My nan, who was 93 at the time, gave me a chair which had belonged to her mum. 'There's a lot of money in chairs,' she told me. What she meant was that people stuff money in them - they hide it down the sides or in the padding. But I took it as a kind of legacy, as an inheritance. Like it had some quality about it that was going to take me somewhere in my life." Tracey went on tour with the chair all over the US, giving a series of readings from a book she had written - called Exploration of the Soul - along the way: "So me and Carl Freedman, my boyfriend at the time, were like Bonnie and Clyde, going across America and selling copies of the book to pay for our whole trip - the tickets, the hotels, everything. It was like my nan had wanted to give us the holiday of a lifetime, to go all over America visiting art galleries and museums. It was brilliant. How many people have experienced that in their lives?"

So the chair became akin to a magic carpet (it is now on display at Tate Britain). Later, the two suitcases she travelled with appeared in her work as a symbol of her often nomadic life. She found one of the cases in a thrift shop when she was 14 and about to leave home. The other is a Samsonite case she brought for a trip to Canada. She had just broken up with Carl and felt enough was enough. "I decided I had to fall in love with myself and for that I had to be the sort of person I would like. And one of the things that person would have was a Samsonite suitcase." In fact, she confesses that she did come back from Canada a new woman, fell in love with the artist Mat Collishaw and never bothered to unpack the suitcase.

The luggage ended up in her most divisive sculpture, My Bed, which was famously displayed in the Turner Prize exhibition of 1999. "The bed came from my head. I woke up after four days of complete abuse and total despair. I got up to get some water and came back and just looked at this room and thought, Ugh - fuck! I closed my eyes and thought 'I could have died in there and people would have just found my body.' But I didn't, so this room actually saved me. There was something beautiful about it, something enchanting, something charming, like a damsel in distress saying 'help me'."

Before it was exhibited in London My Bed travelled to galleries in Japan and New York with audiences' reactions to it changing as it went. Emin once heard a small girl in New York saying "Eeuw, she's dirty!" On the other hand, "the Japanese could understand the shit, the blood, the spunk - everything except the dirty slippers. That was what they found must horrifying." She laughs at the memory of exhibiting her tampons and how people thought they must be sculptures of tampons and not the thing itself: "They just presumed that I had re-created them. It's funny what is acceptable and what is not; what is art, what is not. What people did not accept is that the bed is a formal sculpture in the same style as a Rodin or a Henry Moore. I don't understand why people don't get that. If I had cast it in plaster or bronze people would have accepted it."

If you ask anyone, even art-world folk, "When did Tracey Emin win the Turner prize?", a lot of them will try to remember the year and give you an answer. In fact Steve McQueen won it in 1999, the year she was shortlisted. In fact, she is the most famous artist never to have won the thing. I was there when she rolled up at her studio to attend what everyone had expected would be a celebratory party. Emin was magnificent that night. She made a Hollywood entrance, late, on her father's arm, in a low-cut Vivienne Westwood gown.

Two years earlier I'd been on the panel with Tracey for the notorious live debate televised after the Turner Prize announcement. The theme of the debate was "Is Painting Dead?" I sat on a sofa with the late David Sylvester, at right angles to Tracey, who was in an armchair next to the philosopher Roger Scruton. Just before we went on air, Tracey lifted up her hip flask to take a sip. Scruton slapped her and that was it. She was furious and before anyone could defuse the situation we were live. Tim Marlow was in the chair and started the discussion but all you could hear was Tracey effing and blinding in the background. I was aware of some producers running around the set and then, after a few minutes, Tracey stood up and began to wrestle with her microphone. "I'm leaving!" she announced and did. We were all left in stunned silence. The evening has now become an iconic television moment. In some ways I think she was right to respond the way she did. She is an artist; why should she put up with a right-wing philosopher telling her how to behave?

At times during our conversation, Tracey looks eerily like the self-portrait by Frida Kahlo used in the new poster to announce the Tate's forthcoming show of the Mexican artist's work. It's in the arched eyebrows and swept-up hair. It's an easy parallel to draw further - not least because of the way that both women chronicle their lives in their work. But Emin insists that while she takes the point, the artist she most admires - and fancies - is the American performance artist Bruce Nauman. "He's sexy, so sexy," she says. "But he's also a great role model for other artists because of his dignity, his work and his passion for it." She also loves the veteran American artist Louise Bourgeois and can imagine being like her one day. "When I am old I will stay in a hotel and have wallpaper of all my press cuttings and be surrounded by students."

Unlike Nauman, Tracey does not own a remote New Mexican ranch, but she does concede to ownership of a private space away from her main studio, a place she calls the "baby studio". "It's just where I go on a Sunday to paint with the door locked," she says. She also goes there late at night. "I was in quite a good mood," she says of one such recent excursion. "I thought I would have a glass of wine. Two bottles of wine later, as day dawned with music blaring and me dancing around, I started using purple paint on these huge six foot-square canvases. I had a great time and then I went home." The artist awoke "really nervous" about what she had done. When she finally summoned the nerve to go back to look at the paintings, it was immediately apparent that she had been getting touch with a younger Tracey. "One canvas had a single word, 'MICE', written across it," she says. "The writing style was very immature and very Seventies. I was confronted by this 10-year-old girl's attempt at sophisticated handwriting."

Emin had, in fact, got into trouble for the rawness of her work in her early twenties. As an undergraduate at Maidstone School of Art her work was removed from the degree show, not by the tutors, but at the instigation of the local women's group. "They thought it was anti-feminist because it was drawings of me with my legs wide open, pouring cups of tea and stuff like that. They were saying to me: 'You know men have been doing this from time immemorial, using women as muses in vulnerable positions - and now you are doing it to yourself and we're not having it!'"

Tracey feels that this was just the first instance of what has become a standard misreading of her work. "People think my work is about sex, but actually a lot of it is about faith. I'm not really talking about religion; it is something bigger than that. I think that having faith is so important - and so much of the world doesn't any more." I am surprised at such metaphysical zeal from someone whose life has often been taken as a model of ladette abandonment. "It's about a truth," she says. "But it is not necessarily the truth."

She is increasingly philosophical about the way things go in life. "Sometimes I hate myself or regret the things that I have said or the ways that I have behaved," she says. "But I realise I have to just get on and live with it. I have to understand why these things happen, how they've happened and try not to let them happen again. They say in Turkey that when you learn to love a rose, you learn to love the thorns - and however corny that may sound, that's how I feel. No one is perfect, are they?"

Emin's Turkish roots come through her Turkish-Cypriot father and are central to her biography. Her father kept two families, one of them in Margate, where Emin was born in 1963. Her mother ran an 80-room hotel where she grew up with her twin brother; the pair had a deep psychic connection and even invented their own language. Was her childhood as grim as it is sometimes painted? She demurs. "While my experience of growing up was not brilliant," she says, "I think that Margate actually made it much better. So I thank Margate. And it's a really beautiful place. I grew up with some of the best sunsets in Britain and beautiful skies and the sea and that's really different from having to grow up in some harsh urban environment of the kind I like now. Maybe the reason I like it now is because I have the choice."

Her home town featured in two of Emin's most famous works: the beach hut and the embroidered tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, both of which were consumed in the Momart warehouse fire. More cheerfully, Margate is represented in her new show by a wooden sculpture, inspired by a roller coaster, which will run around the gallery.

Tracey had a dream about her mother's Margate hotel last night: "It had been renovated, and it had been done quite cheaply. But when I looked closely I realised that my mum had painted all the old brown furniture white and she had got bottles of lovely hand-moisturiser and writing paper for the guests. I thought that, even if it had all been done on the cheap, it was quite good. The corridor seemed endless and I wanted to go to the blue room - this place that used to scare me when I was little - but now it had been made into this really cosy, dimly lit bar with a pool table. It was quite salubrious and I thought it was no longer frightening. It was quite sweet what my mum and dad had done. And an amazing dream for me."

Is this a new, softening, sentimental, tender Tracey? My final question: what is she most looking forward to in her life? Her response is instantaneous. "Falling in love," she says. "Falling in love has got to be ahead. You can't spend all your life not being in love, can you?"

'Tracey Emin - When I Think About Sex...': White Cube, London N1 (020 7930 5373), Friday to 25 June. Karen Wright is editor of 'Modern Painters' magazine