Self‑portraits of my feelings
On a sunny day in August 2022, JENNIFER HIGGIE travelled to the English seaside town of Margate to visit TRACEY EMIN. They talked about the evolution of the artist’s work and how the National Gallery’s recent acquisitions – the monumental sculpture When I sleep and the prints Do not abandon me, which she created alongside the legendary artist Louise Bourgeois – came about.
JENNIFER HIGGIE: When did you first start working in bronze?
TRACEY EMIN: Around 2000, I began making tiny sculptures from plasticine and Play‑Doh and casting them in bronze. I really wanted to make a giant figure but couldn’t work out how to do it. In 2007, I went to New York to meet Louise Bourgeois and became good friends with her long‑term assistant Jerry Gorovoy and his friend Scott Lyon‑Wall. With their encouragement, I worked in a New York foundry for a year learning the lost wax process of metal casting and began building up my sculptures. I got them up to around four feet but I couldn’t work out how to make them bigger. I wasn’t interested at that stage in 3D printing; I wanted the sculptures to have the quality of being touched, of being made by hand. But, after a while, the technology improved; I had a small sculpture blown up big and it was amazing: you could see my fingerprints! With my creative director Harry Weller, I rework and manipulate the upscaled patterns before they are cast in bronze–this can take a couple of years. Louise showed me that moving between making something tiny to going really big was possible; you can work on any scale you like.
JH: When did you first make a giant bronze?
TE: In 2016, the year my mum died. I had planned to have a sabbatical, but my mum was really ill and I was looking after her. I decided to finally make a giant bronze and I did: All I want is you. It’s a beautiful figure of a seated naked woman, with big boobs. I was really happy with it; I felt like I had cracked the code. It had taken me six years to work out how to do it.
'My subject matter was, and is, me; the sculptures are self‑portraits of my feelings. A work doesn’t have to look like me — just feel like me.'
JH: What are the challenges of making a large sculpture from bronze?
TE: The thing about a giant bronze is that you can’t hide it; it’s permanent and will last for thousands of years. You have to be confident.
JH: Did you plan your sculptures with drawings?
TE: No, I started with a piece of clay. Harry and I made wire dolls, in the proportions of my drawings, with long legs and arms and a short body and head. I then covered them in clay and shaped them.
JH: Your nine‑metre‑tall sculpture of a kneeling woman, The mother 2022, has just been installed looking over the water outside the Munch Museum in Oslo. Is the sculpture a homage to your mother?
TE: Yes, and to all mothers. You don’t have to be a mother to appreciate a mother. The mother represents what we came from and what we left, and every day we move further and further away from it. When you mother dies, you have a different relationship to the idea of ‘mother’. It’s the evolution of life and souls and eternity.
JH: What do you consider to be important qualities in a sculpture?
TE: Art has many rooms; there is plenty of space for every approach but, for me, it has to be human, emotional and spiritual. It has to express what I’m feeling. That’s what has to come across. It can’t be all processed. It’s like my neons: each one is in my handwriting. Although The mother is enormous, you can still see the imprint of my hands on its surface and its patina is warm and inviting. Some people don’t like her because they think she’s ugly or old, and it makes you wonder about their relationships with their mothers. You see millions of statues of old men and beautiful young women with pert breasts covered in pineapples and fish scales, but you never see anything celebrating old women.
JH: What was the evolution of your bronze sculpture When I sleep 2018?
TE: It’s a lovely title, isn’t it? [Laughs] It started as a stretched‑out shape and then I curled her up and turned her into a sleeping figure.
'When I’m making a sculpture, I don’t usually know what it’s going to be like until I’ve done it. But When I sleep was inspired by insomnia, which I’ve always had. When I was little, I hardly slept at all, but when my mum died, it went off the Richter scale. And then I was dealing with my cancer and the menopause and anxiety; I was filled with feelings of foreboding and guilt and coming to terms with things I’ve done in my life and trying to put things right. I was so sad: not just about my mum; the loneliness I felt was extraordinary.'
JH: It’s an ambiguous sculpture, a tormented figure who is sleeping.
How would you describe it?
TE: On one level, it’s foetal and, on another, it’s sexual. She also reminds me of figures in palaeolithic graves. It’s a very primal work. When you’re asleep, you’re in a dream state, which is a creative realm, from which you hopefully wake up nourished.
JH: How important are dreams to you?
TE: Really important. There are little dreams and big dreams. The little ones are an accumulation of your day, and the big ones are Jungian, full of archetypes. I have recurring dreams where I’m flying and I’m in a cave and I watch myself being hanged — I wake up just as it’s about to happen. The tsunami dream is a big one. I first had it when I was a little girl. I was standing on a cliff and the sea was roaring towards me, a huge wall of water. I turn to the cliff because I think I have no chance of surviving — I’m a little girl, I’m only eight. But then I turn to
face the wave and it retreats really fast.
JH: What do you think it means?
TE: I see it as different things: not to be afraid of the fear because, if you survive the reality of it, it goes away. If I had turned my back to it, it would have taken me.
JH: It’s a very positive dream.
TE: Not as positive as the dream I had of surfing a giant wave of shit when I was a student at the Royal College of Art. [Laughs] I was on the crest of it, but there was no way I was going to fall in; it was impossible. It was incredible. It was an alchemical dream: the shit turns to gold. It’s like with the tarot: if a negative card presents upside down, it’s good. A sign that everything can be turned around.
JH: You work in so many mediums: painting, sculpture, neon, and drawing. What does each medium give you that another doesn’t?
TE: I hardly make any neons now; maybe one or two a year. Painting and drawing, for me, are about expression and release. I make sculptures when I feel very creative but more myopic, when I need to feel the clay. I think of painting as cathartic and clay as therapeutic.
JH: How did you meet Louise Bourgeois?
TE: I became friends with [the late art critic and curator] Stuart Morgan in 1996. He curated a show that year at Tate and said that, if he had known me when he was planning it, he would have put me in it, next to his friend Louise. He told me that we’d get on well. I’d seen some of her big sculptures and assumed she was the same age as me. When I was found out she was in her 80s, I couldn’t believe it. I had to re‑look at everything.
Over the next few years, I went to New York and really wanted to meet her. I knew she had these tea parties, but I was too shy to find out how to get an invite. Someone there owed me a favour and I said I really want to meet Louise Bourgeois. They said they didn’t think it was possible, but they asked. Amazingly, Jerry Gorovoy said he’d been reading my book Strangeland  to her and she loved it. When I met her for the first time, she asked how long I’d been coming to New York and I said 11 years, and she started shouting at me in French. I didn’t know what was going on and Jerry said: ‘Louise wants to know why you’re only coming to see her now.’ It was good anger! I had taken her a hat as a gift from the Venice Biennale, but she didn’t accept it. Jerry said: ‘Louise only likes berets.’ So, he ended up wearing it. But we got on really well.
JH: Were you a fan of her work?
TE: Yeah! But Louise’s work is so different to mine, it’s so academic and so brainy, so knowledgeable and so well read and not like me at all.
JH: But her approach, like yours, is often very emotional.
TE: Yes, but she also had a great level of restraint about what she did. When you look at her drawings and etchings, they’re all about control, whereas a lot of my work is about being out of control. She could have been a scientist; I could never have been a scientist. But she surrendered herself totally to art, as I’ve given myself to art, and she did it magnificently.
'Yes, but she also had a great level of restraint about what she did. When you look at her drawings and etchings, they’re all about control, whereas a lot of my work is about being out of control. She could have been a scientist; I could never have been a scientist. But she surrendered herself totally to art, as I’ve given myself to art, and she did it magnificently.'
JH: What do you have in common?
TE: A return to the subject, a return to the place, a return to the crime, a return to the scene, a return to the damage, an acknowledgement and a questioning of how and why things happened. Who did this to me? Why did, or do, I feel this way? We won’t let something go until we find out and it doesn’t matter if someone is bored with it, we’re not bored with it, it’s our right and our prerogative to keep delving and to keep finding out about what we’ve witnessed. It’s a kind of internal journey. Louise was damaged by things she saw and felt both as a child and as an adult. She lost her son and, when her husband died, she got rid of his library and turned their house into a studio. In the kitchen, she used her oven to make tiny clay models — never to bake cakes. The whole house is art.
Now I’m doing the same as she did at my age. I didn’t have children or a husband — I had a lot of irreverent stupidity which took over. [Laughs] What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter if it’s looking after children, which is so admirable, or whether it’s my own stupid partying, time‑wasting, drinking, and all of that stuff. It all amounts to where I am now and I’m totally uncompromising. There’s no going back. Louise was the same. She said: ‘This is it; it’s just the art, nothing else.’
A major difference was that she had an attitude to her work that I would like to have a little of but have zero: when it leaves the studio, it’s gone. You can’t bring it back. She was radically cool about that. For her, everything was in the making.
JH: How did your collaboration with her on the series Do not abandon me (2009–10) come about?
TE: The funny thing was, Louise was very old, and she hated collaborating. She told me: ‘Don’t collaborate; it’s a weak thing to do!’ But she had collaborated with the architect Peter Zumthor and the writer Gary Indiana. Jerry and the person she made prints with, Raylene Marasco of Dyenamix, suggested she might like to collaborate with me, and she agreed. She made a set of 16 red, black and blue gouaches of male and female torsos in profile on paper and sent them to me to work on, but I got scared by it all. I saw Louise three or four times while I was procrastinating and would say: ‘I haven’t done it, I haven’t done it!’ And she’d say: ‘Look, don’t worry, do it later’ — and she was 96! She didn’t care how much time it would take. She said to me: ‘You can squash the prints up, you can make them into papier mâché, you can do whatever you want with them, it doesn’t matter’ — so no pressure! [Laughs] And then, one Sunday, the week before I was going to New York to see Louise and Jerry, I went to my studio, laid all her pictures out, inked up a really lovely piece of glass and did the drawings. I didn’t want it to look like a collaboration. I wanted it to look like one person’s work — and it does, you can’t tell what I did or what she did. For example, people assume Louise did the writing, but it was me. And a little drawing everyone thinks I did, she did — it’s such a mixture. On the Monday, I rolled them all up and FedExed them to New York. They arrived the next day and Jerry told me he took them to Louise, who was in bed. As he opened them up one by one, she sat up and clapped. Louise was apparently blown away by how I interpreted her drawings.
JH: Who titled them?
TE: Louise came up with the title Do not abandon me for the whole series, and I came up with the individual titles, which she loved.
JH: Your titles are like tiny poems. A sparrow’s heart, It doesn’t end, Looking for the mother, and others.
TE: Well, my thinking is: how can people remember Untitled 4? [Laughs]
JH: Have you collaborated with any other artists?
TE: Only with Sarah Lucas in 1992, when we opened a shop, which we called Shop. It came out of desperation; there was mass unemployment and streets of boarded‑up shops in East London at the time. In terms of collaboration, it was successful, it was historic, it changed opinions. It was radically political and feminist; we didn’t ask for permission, we paid the rent for six months, and we lived off our creativity. We made everything in the shop — badges, t‑shirts, David Hockney altar pieces, and more — and were open six days a week, from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm and then Saturday all night.
JH: Are there any other artists you’d like to collaborate with?
TE: I will never, ever collaborate with another artist again in my entire life.
JH: Why are you so certain?
TE: I just know. The shop with Sarah and the prints with Louise. That’s enough.
Tracey Emin lives between Margate and London, UK, and the South of France. In 2020, Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: the Loneliness of the Soul was staged at the Royal Academy of Arts, London; it travelled to Munchmuseet, Oslo, Norway. In 2022, she had solo exhibitions I Lay Here For You at Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh, UK; and A Journey from Death, Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate. When I sleep was unveiled in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden in October 2022.
This story was first published in The Annual 2022.