Artist Tracey Emin Explains Why She Married a Rock

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Photo: Richard Young

Tracey Emin is singing part of the chorus from David Bowie’s song “Soul Love.” “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.” Sitting in the Lehmann Maupin gallery, where Stone Love, her new show, just opened, she explains that last summer, as a sort of metaphysical metaphor, she “married” a large stone in the garden of her studio in France. “The words of the song were in my head at the time, and the chorus is fantastic because it expresses exactly how I love,” she says.

By now people should be used to hyper-confessional nature of Tracey Emin’s work, which in the 1990s, when she emerged during Britain’s YBA movement, was famously exhibitionist. Think of her notorious My Bed, (1998) now on permanent display at the Tate — with the bed not just unmade but positively trashed, with condoms, liquor bottles, and panties — or Everyone I Have Every Slept With (1963–1995), a tent appliqued with over 100 names. Since then, her oeuvre has evolved into something more diaristic.

Her latest work is, by comparison, almost demure. The paintings, embroidered calico, cursive neon, and bronze sculptures are all inspired by her recent “wedding” to the French stone. “I am passionate and I really love the stone, and the fact that there isn’t a speck of mutual love in my life doesn’t mean that I have to stop loving,” says Emin, 52. “A lot of my love is projection. And sometimes in the clear light of day I realize that it isn’t real, and other times I am just really happy to be on my own. It’s a metaphor, and it is about women like me, who actually go, ‘You know what? I’m okay on my own. This is how I survive. This is what I do. And I am not going to compromise.’

The nearly 30 pieces are all solitary nudes, except for one bronze couple, appropriately titled The Wedding — Emin’s favorite. The faces in the acrylic canvases are obscured by paint; those in the embroidered calicos are stitched-over. Their titles — such as Just waiting for you — express unabashed yearning. The gouaches mirror the paintings’ somewhat submissive poses, while the neons echo their sentiments: Just let me love you.

It’s the bronze sculptures, also faceless, that are the show-stoppers. Emin began working with bronze about five years ago, not long after she did a print collaboration with Louise Bourgeois. “Jerry Gorovoy, Louise’s assistant, took me to a foundry in New York and encouraged me to start making bronzes. It’s like learning a whole new language, but I love it,” she says. With these, and with my paintings as well, I want it to be more hands-on, more in control, I want it to be me, so even if I make mistakes, they are my mistakes and I want people, when I die, to know, she touched that. That’s really important to me.”

In This is exactly how I feel right now (2016), a headless bronze of a figure on its back, belly bulging, Emin’s gaze on her own aging body is merciless. “If you wake up one day and you are 53, and you actually have a real mirror, you have to say, ‘Fuck me hell,’ things really changed! And you have to really comes to terms with that and understand it. That girl is gone, and she is never coming back. And I think it’s actually more difficult for women who haven’t had children, because you were a girl, and then suddenly you’re old, and there’s nothing in between,” Emin says.

How does her new work relate to her famous past pieces? “If you had another room here, the Bed would work perfectly,” Emin says. “The reason why it is a seminal piece of art is because I took the figure out of the bed, but I still used that subject matter of emotion, power, loss, angst. It could have been a figurative painting of some poetic woman in bed screaming or crying, but it wasn’t, it was actually a bed and that was transformative. The bed is timeless.”

The Bed is also, Emin adds, “a time capsule of all the things that don’t relate to me now. Those contraceptive pills, those condoms, that tiny underwear. There was a belt there that fit around my waist and now I think that belt probably fits around my thigh! Ashtrays and cigarettes, and I don’t smoke anymore. So everything in it is like a capsule of that time. It was fun!”

Does she mind being branded as a former YBA? “People have expectations of me that I can’t match anymore,” says Emin. “I’m not party central like I used to be. I’m okay with it, but I like it when people appreciate all the other work I’ve done in the last 20 years.”