After battling cancer, Tracey Emin returned to her hometown to build a museum and write her legacy
Tracey Emin was talking to me from her bed.
I was also in bed, but I didn’t tell her that, because I didn’t have a very good excuse. Bed rest is imperative for Emin, on the other hand, who, as the rest of the world struggled to survive a pandemic last year, suffered his own battle with bladder cancer. The artist, who is 58, has since been given the green light, but only after undergoing major surgery to remove his bladder, uterus, urethra, parts of his intestines and lymph nodes, as well as the half of her vagina. Emin, whose work has often drawn from autobiographical traumas, is adamant in the face of these realities.
The artist recently returned to her hometown of Margate, but was in London for a doctor’s visit when we spoke. She was planning on heading to the Royal Academy that evening, where she is showing her work in her delayed summer exhibition, and she needed to conserve her energy. After the cancer – if you are lucky enough to have an “after” – there is a recovery, and the grim sequelae of Emin’s surgery include exhaustion, problems with walking, and life with a bag. urostomy which can fill with urine as often as every 20 minutes.
“I have all these illnesses that I have to get over and learn to live with, and that’s what I do,” she said. ” I am getting better. I don’t feel whole, because parts of me were taken away from me, but I was given something else that I didn’t have before.
That something else includes a luxury she never thought she would have again: time. “I am so much better and so much happier and better and more looking forward to the future,” she said. “Now I don’t mind wasting time. I feel happier doing nothing than ever in my life.
After her mother died, Emin felt compelled to return to Margate, the seaside town where a dysfunctional childhood punctuated by trauma led her to drop out of school at age 13. Now she has just completed work on a massive new house and studio complex that has lasted for over four years.
“It’s interesting because it looks like this whole cycle of things. When in your life do you let go? When do you give up? When you come back ? With Margate, I never let go, never, ”she said.
Emin purchased the 30,000 square foot industrial space – the former site of a commercial printing house – in 2016 with gallery owner Carl Freedman, a close friend and longtime ex-boyfriend, who moved his gallery to East London and its printing company in the other half. On Emin’s side, there is a sculpture studio and an adjacent shed which she says exudes a Japanese “Zen” atmosphere. But the main event is the artist’s large paint studio, the design for which Gabriel Chipperfield consulted, and upstairs, “the horseshoe” – where she lives.
Emin said she started the project thinking it would be a cheap repair, but ended up racking up her “heart and soul” (and “a lot more money” than she had. intention to spend).) into it. What exactly was going on didn’t become clear until she was diagnosed with cancer last June, and wasn’t sure if she would see the other side of Christmas.
“I realized what I was doing,” she said. “I was building my museum. And my mausoleum too. So that when I die my work can be shown to Margate exactly as I want it to be seen.
After his death, the space will be transformed into a museum to house his work as well as his vast archive of some 30,000 photographs, 2,000 works on paper, 500 framed drawings, critical essays and catalogs which will form a research library. Completion of the project also means that she finally has a place to hang her eclectic art collection, which she calls “Other People’s Art”, and which covers everything from ceramics to her most recent purchase, a work by artist Lindsey Mendick, based in Margate.
His vision of Margate was informed in part by a visit to Marfa, Texas a few years ago, and what Donald Judd had done there to cement his legacy. (Judd bought a set of disused military buildings to show off his art in a setting other than a museum.) Marfa, there are no mistakes, ”she said. “That’s exactly how he wanted it to be seen.”
Sometimes Emin wondered if she had made a mistake. “Due to my upbringing and growing up in Margate so traumatic and weird, I was really scared of ghosts,” she said. The longest she spent in her hometown as an adult was a two-week stint setting up an exhibit at Turner Contemporary, and that prompted her to collapse.
“But this time, the absolute opposite has happened,” she said. “It was kind of like an exorcism and I felt reborn, and I felt like: I’m home.”
Margate now also feels like a different place, largely due to the influx of the arts that has moved into the city since the Turner Museum of Contemporary Art was established in 2011. “Before Turner, the whole place was boarded up and the streets were paved with dog poop, ”Emin said. While some 18,000 people in Margate still live below the UK poverty line, it is quickly becoming a trendy getaway enclave teeming with cottage industries and vintage shops. Musician Pete Doherty opened a hotel there this year, and Gabriel Chipperfield is in talks to build another with Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover.
“Now I feel really good because I have this amazing and beautiful place to work and live, and I know what will happen to my legacy after I die,” Emin said.
Her contact with death has caused her to rethink how she wants her work to be shown when she is no longer in control of it. “The parts of my career that have failed miserably have all been linked to my work being shown in the wrong context,” she said.
When she thought she was dead, she made a list of artists, places and contexts in which she never wanted her work to be shown. She wouldn’t reveal exactly what it was, but she hinted it wasn’t with her fellow YBAs at all, or even with contemporary artists. Instead, she wants her work to continue the dialogue with the modern masters that she has started in recent years. Next month, she’ll be showing alongside Edvard Munch to usher in the new Munch Museum in Oslo. Meanwhile, her famous tangle of depression leaves My bed was featured alongside works by Francis Bacon, JMW Turner and William Blake, and she collaborated with Louise Bourgeois before her death.
“It’s the right context for my work,” she said.
His phone rang as we spoke. His assistant was texting him from Oslo, where he was settling My bed for the first time without Emin.
“People were like, why is Tracey Emin showing up with Munch? But these people hadn’t even seen my work, ”she said. “They don’t understand what my job is. They are thinking of something that hit the headlines 20 years ago.
Our conversation shifted to my own emotional experience seeing a performance in Margate that associated its unmade bed with Turner’s paintings of soft skies; people couldn’t imagine how the two could relate, but they did. It’s like that with a lot of Emin’s work; there’s a sense of timelessness, which means it may make more sense to stand side-by-side with Käthe Kollwitz or Richard Diebenkorn than with some of today’s high-profile painting stars.
After a forced interruption due to his illness, Emin returned to the studio with vigor. She still makes clay sculptures and sometimes neon lights, but her main focus is painting.
Emin has a complicated history with painting. She studied it at the Royal College of Art, but quit when she got pregnant and the smell of oil paint began to make her sick. After having an abortion, she discovered that she could no longer paint. She continued to do a flurry of work in 1996 as part of her concept piece Exorcism from the last painting I ever did, but did not fully return to showing his painting for another decade after that.
“I deeply regret that I did not continue to paint when I left college,” she said.
She flaunts her dark, sometimes bloody shades of acrylic and scrawled poetry on whitewashed canvases in frenzied bursts.
Over the past year, she has drawn a lot of self-portraits, and recently she came back to the subject of her bed. “It’s really silly because I would never do bed pictures, it’s too cliché, it’s too pastiche,” she said. “But it’s actually coming back, isn’t it?” About coming full circle. I did My bed 23 years ago. I can come back to this subject if I want.
Summoning the energy has been difficult, not only because of her physical limitations, but also because of letting go of old crutches like alcohol, which she hasn’t touched for over a year. “I have to light this fire on my own now, so it’s a bit difficult,” she said.
The experience of the past year has also left her more lucid in other respects. “It’s up to me to show who I am, what I am and what I can do. I don’t rely on other people or institutions or anything, ”she said. “I love it. And it really gives me power. This is where I should show. This is my show, this is my swan song… I do the right thing. And if you know in your life that a lot of times you were doing the wrong thing, and how uncomfortable it made you, and suddenly you’re doing the right thing, it makes you feel so good.
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