Tracey Emin: 'I've yet again become my hardest critic'

My Life In A Column: 'To be unpacking my bed sheets from 10 years ago, the detritus of my being, was like unpacking a ghost'
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The Independent Online

I'm up in Edinburgh. I'm installing my show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It's a big show – a very big show. The title is Tracey Emin: 20 Years. I had a show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam six years ago, titled 10 Years, so really my Edinburgh show could have been called 16 years.

Most people would try and lose years, I've just sort of gained a few, but in a conceptual way it's totally correct that it's 20 years because I feel that's the amount of time that I have been thinking about art seriously, and on a different level. Also I do have work in the show which spans the last 20 years.

It was around 1988 that I realised art wasn't about pictures; it was my new-found love at the time, of early Renaissance icons – I fell in love with the gold. I used to go to the National Gallery, down to the basement and spend hours mystified by the magic of the gold leaf and wooden panels. I loved the way that they were things, entities with presence, not pictures, not things which worked on a single plane but objects which could be held, that somehow seemed to have a soul, more like they possessed parts of people's souls, the people who had looked at them over the years.

It was having these kinds of ideas that made me realise art wasn't about surface, and it seemed from that point that everything became more difficult and more complicated. The disappointments surrounding my own creative process increased a thousandfold.

I remember having tutorials at the Royal College of Art, when I would get very moody and upset while trying to explain the kind of art that I really wanted to make, and how I felt trapped in a process of mannerisms and gestures. I remember screaming at my professor: "Don't you understand? I want to make grown-up art!" I remember the tutors saying: "We would never have the heart to criticise you the way you criticise yourself." But it seemed to me that no matter how hard I worked, I was never going to get to where I wanted to be.

And now, walking around the gallery and looking at my past, my past adventures in the world of art and creativity, my tiny, personal Galileo moments, I've yet again become my hardest critic. All this stuff in all these rooms and I'm responsible for it. I don't just mean the bricks and mortar of it; I mean the responsibility for the idea.

Two days ago I unpacked the bed. The museum was doing a condition report and, as methodical and mechanical as that was, for me it was extremely bizarre. To actually be unpacking my bed sheets from 10 years ago, the stains and detritus of my own being, from more than a decade ago, was like unpacking a ghost – a ghost with a smell, the smell of me that has gone.

To be treating my chair like a hallowed, sacred object, art handlers carrying it in white gloves, and for me to suddenly realise it can still be mine to sit on! All these objects, all these things, these priceless works of art, even though no longer literally belonging to me, are, and always will be, mine.

That's the wonderful thing about having a retrospective, my art feels like old friends coming to visit. And silly as this sounds, as I unpack works in different rooms, I feel the works give each other a nod and a wink, like they are happy to see one another; as though they resonate. Maybe this is a cross between my imagination and sentimentality because for me so much is loaded into the work. When I look at things, I remember what made me make them in the first place, what pushed and punched me into that line of creativity. I thought I would feel very low and confused installing my 20-year retrospective, old and somehow moping around in the past, but instead it's the complete opposite. I'm enjoying seeing my thought process over a long period of time, and no matter how hard I try to stretch my imagination, there's no way I could project myself and imagine what I will be doing in 20 years' time. Just the same as 20 years ago, when I was a student at the Royal College of Art, literally banging my head against the wall, I could never have imagined in a million years that I would be doing what I am today.

When an artist is good they create their own language; it's a language which they can pick up and drop whenever they wish, but it is 100 per cent theirs. This is what I've enjoyed about this installation period. I never realised how much Traceyness I actually make, and I'm very happy to spot and enjoy my influences, too. Munch, Picasso, Schiele, Giotto, Katie Kollwitz, Frida Kahlo and even many other artists where the influence is totally subconscious.

It's fun to see my own little route through art history, but I'm pleased there is still part of a student inside me. There is part of me that will never be satisfied, that will always look and question what I do. I feel good to be my hardest critic. I can see the ups and downs more honestly, more correctly and with more authority than anyone else I know. And that's what keeps me going.