No 10 - Summer 1997
Pictures in the mind
Neal Brown interviews Tracey Emin at the beach, Joss Bay, near Margate.
|Tracey Emin is an artist and poet. She has shown her work regularly in the UK and abroad. She has founded the Tracey Emin Museum near Waterloo. Her largest project to date has been her solo show at the South London Gallery entitled I Need Art Like I Need God.|
Did you enjoy poetry as a child, were you aware of poetry?
The only thing which I really liked as a child was Tracey Bombasie Sicklasie Fivefacey Fiefacey Bombasey that’s how you spell Tracey, Beach, Bombeach, Sickleach, fiefeach, fiefeach, bombeach, that’s how you spell beach; sky, bombye, sickle eye, fie fie, fie fie, bombye, that’s how you spell sky. You do it with all sorts of words. Some people can do it immediately and say exactly the same words as you.
OK OK. What poetry have you enjoyed? Who are your influences on your poetic sensibility?
Twelfth and thirteenth century esoteric poetry, from places like Arabia and Persia, Turkey. Because that’s what I’m quite well read in in poetry and I could recite some from memory. I do like things like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull too, poetry that’s crass, corny but true. But I don’t really have any great influences with poetry because I think that poetry is something that comes from inside you, doesn’t it?
How important an Influence was the poet Billy Childish on you?
A big influence, a major influence.
Personality or craft?
When I first met Billy at 17 I was so nihilistic, I didn’t believe in anything or anyone I hated everything I thought the world was a giant big rolling ball of shit and I was stuck on it. Billy was the first person I’d met in my life who was doing what they wanted to do. That was a very subtle and important influence. For a while I emulated him then was able to branch off and take my own direction. I was really in love with him as well.
Do you think there’s a direct traceable influence in the way he goes about making his poetry and the way you go about your art and poetry?
I think that was how we were attracted to each other in the first place, because we were both painfully, brutally and viciously honest. However, Billy was influenced by people like Charles Bukowski, whereas I never was. I was reading Anais Nin when Billy was reading Charles Bukowski. I didn’t read a whole book until I was seventeen.
I just didn’t. I read half a book when I was 13 called Half Day Thursday. It was a Mills and Boon and we had to write a book review at school for a Smiths competition. The school wouldn’t let me enter mine as I hadn’t read any books, but I sent it on directly to Smiths and came second. I wrote about what a bad book this was and I think that’s what put me off. I thought, if this is what reading’s supposed to be I’m not interested.
What else has influenced you, not necessarily as poetry but in your mood, your feelings. For example, you love that Sylvesters song ‘You make me feel mighty real’, don’t you?
That doesn’t really hit me as poetry, that hits me more as rhythm and as a celebration of those words. But Marc Bolan for example conjures up lots of feelings and emotions with his lyrics, Leonard Cohen is actually quite a good poet, Neil Young, Van Morrison is a very good poet, Bob Dylan is an excellent poet.
So when you read your works, how important is the performance in communicating as opposed to just being a written text?
I think it’s important, because when I actually say the words, perform them, people hear my voice when they come to read it for themselves. They are my words, it’s about my voice from within, so it’s quite good that people actually understand the external rhythm. Also sometimes it’s quite powerful. One of the nicest things is when people conjure up pictures in their mind, recognise the places I’m talking about even though they’ve never been there. They imagine them.
You’re very successful in communicating to your audiences. How much of that is your emotional investment in your performance and how much is it your craft of writing?
I think it’s both really. I think if you just sit there and mumble it’s not going to be very good at all, is it? But then again, you can be really clear and coherent and lack all emotion and people just feel they’re being cheated. That’s why with each performance I like to do something new that I’ve never done before so I actually get very nervous and excited by it, and that excitement communicates itself to other people.
You are very successful in moving people emotionally. Does that frighten you, that ability?
The only thing that frightens me is the addiction involved in doing it, because if I don’t get an emotional kick I go and create one somewhere. That’s a pretty bad thing to do. If I don’t get an emotional thrill out of living, then I make something happen. I might scream, for example, to make something happen, or phone someone at two in the morning because I just find the world is somehow dull.
If you describe it like an addiction, then you’ll develop a sort of tolerance for the kind of work you’re doing, and for success, and want greater success. Is that right?
Yeah. Its a horrible answer, isn’t it?
But it’s true.
So what’s going to happen to you?
I’d like to reinvent myself. That’s what I’d like to have happen. But I’m not going to, actually. I’m 34 and I can’t keep doing that every time I get bored. I cant go off every ten years and decide to be someone else. I think I’ll stay with this one and hope that it develops and grows. With the success thing, I’m not actually a tacky person. I’m not into drugs or rock and roll, that’s not what drives me on.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing a series of drawing here in Margate called the sofa drawings, that have lots of text on them.
Would you call that a poetic text?
No, its probably just some manic screaming of my heart. The sofa drawings are about being lonely.
With the works like your big neon piece, what do you call that?
It actually is called a love poem. Poetry can be one like, one line, a sentence. Like with the neon ideas. The one I’m doing now is ‘Fantastic to feel beautiful again’. Just one sentence. In pink neon.
The title of your South London Gallery show was I need art like I need God.’ How do you think people, especially art world people, react when they see that written? What do you think it means to them?
I think first of all they think it means I’m being sarcastic or something. But people that know me really well know that I’m not. Or they think its a jokey thing, some kind of clever idea. It is clever in a way, I suppose, I mean you could change it, you could say, ‘I need God like I need art’, or ‘I need God like I need love’, ‘I need love like I need art’. But it’s the word ‘need’ which is so important, for something which is so sincere and something which is impossible to live without. When I talk about God I’m talking about faith, belief, spirit, the forces which drive you on if you want to carry on existing. I’d love to be able to live without art sometimes, but I can’t.
The wall piece I need art like I need God is called a work of art in the show’s catalogue. Do you think you got that across to people?
I think that even though it was a large text piece, once people saw it on the wall they understood that it was a work of art.
What do you think of artists like Basquiat or Richard Prince, who use text in their work?
I really like Richard Prince’s photographs, but I don’t like his text work with his paintings, so much. I think it’s a clever device. Basquiat is just a free spirit really, his art is a form of true expression in which he just happens to use words as well as images and it works very well.
Are there other artists you can think of who are successfully poetic in their work?
Yeah, Laurence Weaner is really successful, he does text pieces with vinyl and painted letters on walls, Bruce Naumann, he’s very successful and uses tons of text. I also like William Blake, mad, passionate, romantic. It’s not so much artists that use text, or writing, that I’m interested in, I’m actually more into the writers that make art. James Joyce, William Burroughs, two really classic examples. They don’t try to write a book, they try to make a piece of art.
So how do you see the relationship between visual art and poetry?
I think when poetry is very good, when you read the words, you imagine what you’re seeing, you’re given a sense of vision by the words. When visual art is very good you’re given a sense of poetry.
Do you think about making recordings of your written works?
I’m making a tape this month, of me reading out stuff I’ve written, talking about dreams, a diary on a tape. I write in diary form quite a lot. With poetry there’s always rules, like you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’, for example. I just don’t believe it. Poetry comes from the heart, that overwhelming emotion. There’s all different kinds of poetry, I know that, but I’m not talking poetry as in verse, but as true sentiment.
Do you communicate true sentiment to your audience by the quality of your feelings or by your craft as an artist and poet?
I don’t want to be eaten up by thoughts. I’ve got to express them or I’ll be eaten up by them.
I need to be clearer. A lot of people make art as a form of therapy. That means it doesn’t necessarily communicate well to other people, which your art does. Why do you think your art communicates so successfully to other people? It can’t just be because of your sincerity.
Its because of the simplicity of it. It’s a really simple idea which people can easily understand.
It seems to me that your work is distinguished by its absence of sarcasm, irony, parody and that that may allow people to identify with you more strongly.
Its like saying to someone I really love you. If you really mean it you stand by that, don’t you?
There aren’t many people doing that at the moment, are there? People are communicating their arts in a second hand way it seems to me, through the use of various devices, whereas you are very up front.
Well, art has always been a mysterious coded language and I’m just not a coded person, I wear my heart on my sleeve, if you like. What you see is what I am.
I think that’s great and I think that people haven’t taken you at face value, have they?
A lot of people don’t know me, do they?
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