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'

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most