It’s Art, Jim, but as We Know It

David Bowie with Tracey Emin / Modern Painters, Vol. 10 No. 3

October 1997

She came to Dublin did Tracey Emin. We walked around the library at Trinity and loved the smell of old leather. We lined up with ten thousand others to get a ten-second squint at the Book of Kells. A handful of patients from a nearby psychiatric hospital helped create an atmosphere of benign hysteria. One tall skinny gentleman stood by a fifteenth-century harp, alternatively rocking backwards and forwards then revolving slowly all the while intoning his mantra of ‘NAAW-peer-NAAW’.

She came to the gig at the Olympia did Tracey. She rocked backwards and forwards and shimmied like a disco-queen (which she nearly was once). Possibly screaming her manta ‘Write this, Draw this’. If she wanted, she could travel the length and breadth of the land with me and my band. Everyone from stage hands to musicians immediately fall in love with her. She’s so charismatic, she sends off sparks.

We stay at the U2-owned Clarence Hotel on the River Liffey. Iman takes some photos of us looking out to the far side of the water and two small girls throw themselves into the shot.

‘Are you a model?’, asks the smaller one, of Tracey. Tracey laughs. ‘Make your mouth do this’, orders the girl and makes a grimace. Tracey obliges. ‘Naw, you’re no model. Now send me copies of them pictures to me house will ya’, and they nonchalantly wander off picking up their previous conversation. Back inside the hotel, Tracey and I talk.

There is a childlike excitement that at last people will show, in a gallery, all the nooks, crannies and fag-ends of her life. I never knew her before this year, but who I see in front of me now is someone highly charged with solipsistic overdrive. Within 30 minutes of meeting her I have a full run-down on her newest intimate relationships, her hopes and dreams for her personal life as well as proffered opinions on Balthus (‘a dirty old man, a pervert’), my interviews with Damien Hirst (You’re obsessed by him’) and her sponsorship contract with a rather exotic alcohol brand. The latter it seems is extremely important to her as booze is a 24-hour companion to her life.

I love her fractured energy and could sit and listen to her for hours. Although her viewpoints, tastes and interests are standard and unvaryingly those of any eighteen-year-old art student, it slowly dawns on me that she is in fact a 34-year-old woman. Her natural youthfulness is exhilarating. She is also extraordinarily sexy. The elastic lips, famous broken teeth and half-closed eyes, deliver one of the more seductively interesting faces in British art. I think I can look at her face for even longer than I can listen to her talk.

She wants very much to be firmly identified in this modern world, but time and again she reveals a deep fascination with passions from another time – Munch, Schiele, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gioto, narrative painting.

She says her work has been compared to Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. I don’t buy into this at all. If anyone springs to mind it’s William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh. There is little sarcasm, cynicism or even intended irony in her work. It has little of the mystic hippiness of Kiki Smith or the Fuck You diffidence of her best friend Sarah Lucas. It has more of the construct of the self. The dawning of late-eighteen-century self-conciousness, that first realisation of self you find in early nineteenth-century self-portraits. Or maybe, even, a Mary Shelley of Margate.

There’s also the smashed glass-splinter effect echoing the deeply dysfunctional work found at Gugging Hospital in Vienna, the bastion of working ‘Outside’ artists, or at L’art Brut, Lausanne, the Vatican of fringe.

Her little museum in Waterloo is not so much a ’90s absurdity, but more an updated reflection of the nineteenth century, ‘I am’ reverberations of the John Soane house and museum.

A few others, but only a few, also have an ambivalence toward her work. Charles Saatchi, in curating his upcoming ‘Masterworks at the RA’, belatedly acquired a single 1995 Emin piece, her tent with lovers’ names, only a few weeks ago. This doesn’t seem to imply a passion for her work, but rather a need to make up for a full set of Mod-Brit Artists. Amusingly, this piece having acquired an almost iconic status set Charles back considerably more than he is used to shelling out.

Having said all that, there is an earnest and serious folk-story telling quality to her work, that pulls an audience in completely. When I saw a recent show of hers in Toronto, two girls in their early twenties were sitting mesmerised in front of one of Tracey’s video monologues. There were tears running down their cheeks. Now that’s art, Jim, but as we know it.

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