Subodh Gupta, India’s hottest new artist, talks about skulls, milk pails and cow dung

The Times October 10, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

His swaggering, exuberant work has made him India’s most talked-about artist, and the paintings of his wife, Bharti Kher, are also winning wide acclaim

India’s hottest contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta, dubbed the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” — they share an interest in skulls — is telling me that he likes his wife and fellow artist, Bharti Kher, as a friend. Sorry, could you repeat that? “I like Bharti more like my friend than my wife . . .” Kher, who is sitting with us in her husband’s newly built concrete and glass ultra-modern studio, nods her head. Hang on a minute, when you say that you like Bharti more as a friend than you do as a wife . . . ? “Revelation!” Kher cocks her head. “No! No!” Gupta (whose English is a little approximate) exclaims. “You’ve made me confused now. When we talk about art, it’s like a friendship, no? And then domestic work is completely different, and that’s irritating sometimes . . .” OK, but let’s get this straight: you are pleased you married each other? Gupta: “Yeah.” Kher: “Oh, yeah.” Whew, just checking. “Talk about Lost in Translation,” Kher whoops. “Good job I’m here, really!”

This conversation took place during a long, sweltering day in Gurgaon — an hour’s drive southwest of Delhi — where the couple work and live with their two children, Omi, 12, and Lola, 6. Since General Electric opened its call centre there in 1997, shiny high-rise buildings have been sprouting one after the other, transforming what was once a small farming village into one of the most prominent outsourcing hubs. En route to Kher’s studio, we drove past a building site advertising a new five-star Westin; across the way a couple of pigs snuffled in a mound of rubbish, and a cow moseyed past.

While Gupta is the couple’s undoubted superstar — last year his London gallery, Hauser & Wirth, sold two versions of his Mind Shut Down for €1 million each and, as his wife says, there hasn’t been a recent Biennale that hasn’t featured him — Kher’s work is also commanding attention. She was one of the artists featured in the Serpentine Gallery’s recent Indian Highway (along with Gupta) — India having replaced China as the global art flavour of the month, with Charles Saatchi’s forthcoming contemporary Indian show (featuring Gupta again) — and has her own solo debut with Hauser & Wirth in 2010.

Gupta’s work displays a swaggering, rock’n’roll exuberance: his towering mushroom cloud, constructed from his trademark stainless steel pots and pans, at Tate Britain’s Altermodern certainly made an impact. As did his huge skull, Very Hungry God, bought by François Pinault and displayed outside the French billionaire’s Palazzo Grassi, at the 2007 Venice Biennale. This was the same month, June, that Damien Hirst showed his diamond-encrusted, deity-invoking human skull — For the Love of God — at White Cube.

When I ask the Indian artist whose skull was conceived of first, he says that he started work on his project the previous year (where it was exhibited in Paris). Aha, so should we be calling Hirst the Subodh Gupta of England? “I have a lot of respect for him,” he laughs. “Art is in the air. Theme, subject, everything is in the air. It’s just a matter of time who begins first.”

His work, like Kher’s, can be delicate and beautiful, too, but despite its authentic Indian flavour — or occasionally stinging subversion of what we, Westerners, consider to be “authentic Indian” — the effect is sometimes a bit obvious. In his new show, the referential nods are overt: a black bronze bust of Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa; the stack of Puppy boxes, emblazoned with the name Jeff Koons.

Just as Gupta’s staples are the stainless steel tiffin sets, cow dung and milk pails; Kher’s Indian trademark is the bindi, the women’s forehead decoration. She leads me into a room where one of her assistants, a slight woman in a sari, starts to peel away a plastic sheet protecting a huge canvas, every surface covered in brightly coloured swirls of what look like felt spermatozoa. The effect is dazzlingly gorgeous but also odd; like something scientific, maybe sinister, the origins of a mutating virus, perhaps, picked up under the microscope.

On the top floor, there’s a work in progress: a cascade of chairs, some stacked, others fallen; a chintzy tea cup in broken shards, a scattering of pearly teeth, a pair of high-heeled shoes; the sense of a genteel occasion that has gone awry. On a shelf, protected by a glass box, is a tarantula that I last saw resting on the hand of one of Kher’s horn-headed, fibreglass models. She strokes its furry legs and tells me how beautiful she finds it, partly, I suspect, because of its poisonous reputation.

Her parents came to England in 1967, two years after they married. Kher’s mother was 23 when she arrived, pregnant with her first child — and able to speak only Punjabi. Bharti, the middle child, made the reverse trajectory at the same age, barely able to speak a word of Indian, and says it was only then that she realised “what courage it took to just get up and leave everything to start your life again. It made me understand my parents a lot better.”

When Kher was 6, her parents separated amicably and remarried English people: “So we have this quirky, nutty family where we all meet and holiday together.” She recalls loving the flocked wallpaper in her childhood home — “I used to sit there and stroke it” — and her mother’s sari shop in Streatham, South London, where Bharti and her elder sister, Mona, would help every Saturday. The girls would take down roll after roll of material and Kher can still recall the precise sound of the fabric when it was unfurled, and the whip-like rip as they would cut it.

The privately educated Kher sisters were taught by an inspirational art teacher, Martin Shaw, at Greenacre School for Girls in Epsom, Surrey, and both went on to art college: a foundation course at Middlesex, followed by St Martins for Mona and Newcastle for Bharti. What was that like? “Very tough the first year. Newcastle [like Surrey] is also very white. I lived in a small house in Gateshead and on my first night I thought I was going to get mugged on my way home. I have never been so terrified in my life.”

After leaving college, Kher moved in with her father in Hampstead and painted in a studio that he organised for her, next door to his textile-importing office in the West End. But unsatisfied and restless, Kher decided to take off travelling: “I hadn’t been to India since a visit when I was 4, so I thought I should see my grandmother.”

Her plan was to spend some time with her family, meet some artists in Delhi, and return to England when her six-month visa ran out: “But within two weeks of being here, I’d bumped into Subodh.” They fell in love and that was that.

But it wasn’t that straightforward, as Gupta explains when we move from Kher’s workspace to her husband’s impressive studio. We break for a basic but delicious lunch: beetroot and spinach-stained chapatis to dip into bowls of yoghurt and vegetable curry, washed down with a sulphurous-tasting black-salt lime soda.

Kher takes off and her husband resumes their story. Her father, perturbed by the news that his daughter had taken up with “some kind of criminal”, flew in to Delhi and demanded to see him. Gupta recalls: “So he sits down and says, ‘My daughter wears Coco perfume which cost three and a half thousand rupees, so where can you give it to her? It’s unrealistic.’ Then he said, ‘Can you paint?’ I say, ‘Of course I can paint.’ He said, ‘Do you paint very closely or do you go distance sometimes?’ I say, ‘Of course I go distance sometimes.’ He says, ‘Well, you see my daughter very closely and now I am taking her … so you see her from a distance. And if you still like her from a distance, I will bring her back.’ So he just took her and I was suffering with shock, and she was not happy either.”

Fortunately, his beloved’s mother took pity on her pining daughter and paid for her ticket back to India. Years later, Kher had told me, her father turned to her and said, ‘Sometimes, you know, you just meet your soulmate’ and that’s what happened. But then because we were so different, it was: ‘Where is this connection?’, ‘How are you communicating?’ ”

They may both be Indian, but their backgrounds, it is true, could scarcely be more different. Gupta’s tales of his childhood and teenage years are wonderfully rich. He was born (one of six children) in the northeastern state of Bihar, which he describes as the Wild West of India. His father, a railway guard, was a drinker and died in his early forties, when Gupta was 12. His mother, who came from a farming family, sent him off to live with her brother for a few years in a remote village — “Not a single school kid wore shoes, and there is no road to go to school. Sometimes we stop in the field and we sit down and eat green chickpea before we go to school — it comes in my memory like a movie. Fantastic! My kids, when I tell them, will not believe it because they live a very urban lifestyle.”

At night, villagers would water the huge communal roof to cool it down before placing their mattresses. “So all the families, after eating their dinner, would meet on the roof and go to bed. It was good fun — fantastic! — a great memory to have.”

After leaving school, Gupta joined one of the four small theatre groups in Khagaul and worked as an actor for five years. He also designed posters to advertise the plays, which is when it was first suggested that he go to art college. He ended up working as a part-time newspaper designer and illustrator while studying at the College of Art, Patna. The day he was offered a permanent job by the newspaper, he packed it in to try his luck in Delhi, where he was awarded a scholarship by a government-run initiative, and a space to work in the Ghari Studios.

This is where Kher met Gupta, who explains that “most of the artists in India in the generation above us have been through those studios”.

At that time, Gupta was painting typical Indian scenes, but it wasn’t until 1996, and his first residency, that he came into his own. “It was a very peaceful place and I collected my childhood memory to do what I wanted to do. My first installation was called 29 Mornings,” Gupta says. “With 29 stools, where I would eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in one corner of the room there was a bulb and a black wire hanging, and some of that what the spider makes … web.”

Since then, Gupta’s career hasn’t looked back, sparked as it was by that single act of looking backwards. Part of his education was a stint in England in 1999 when, after another residency in the Gasworks Gallery, South London, Gupta was offered four months in a brewery in Kendal: “A fantastic place to be! Countryside, rain, pub, beer — I love it.”

Gupta is at his most fluent when he talks about the rationale behind his art, The relevance of the skull in Indian culture, with the sadhus who “sometimes eat the flesh of the burning human to make them powerful and carry the human skull. You don’t see that anymore so much.” Why he uses the stainless steel utensils, again and again: “The poor, the middle class and the rich use it at home. In this country, how many people have the utensils but they starve because there is no food?”

Kher returns, and I ask her why she thinks there is such interest in India. “In the way that China [was picked up on], people felt that India is a country one needs to look at … The thing is that although these shows are very useful, at the same time, you know, you shoot yourself in the foot.”

Could she explain? “It’s fantastic but no artist is ‘overall’ or ‘generic’. One wants people to go in deeper. You don’t want them to read the synopsis of the book, and then not read the actual book.”

* * *

Common Man, Subodh Gupta at Hauser & Wirth, London W1 (, until October 31

Artists, Women

Paula Rego on her museum to celebrate the brutal world of Portuguese storytelling

The Times September 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The acclaimed artist has been inspired by her country’s rich oral tradition. Now she is determined to keep that heritage alive

Paula Rego is talking about her love of pornography, particularly as penned by Henry Miller: “When I discovered it, I found it really quite wonderful and thought, ‘Gosh, look at that!’ ” Her sooty eyes gleam. “I used to read a lot of it and I just found it, you know . . . naughty.”

Her discovery came when she was renting a studio in Dean Street, Soho, Central London, from a woman: “Not a tart, a lovely girl.” Are you saying that tarts can’t also be lovely girls, I tease her. “No, no, no, no, but she wasn’t a tart and this was in 1959, my dear, long before you were born. [I wish.] One day I looked up and saw this book and took it down and read it and I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake! I’ve never read anything like that in my life’.”

Rego’s thoughts take off like startled birds. Her responses are unpredictable, and she can be tricky to pin down. Her art is a form of storytelling, often ambiguous and mysterious, hinting at sinister emotional or political complications. In her earlier work, particularly, you feel that something unspeakable is about to happen or has just occurred, challenging you to guess the narrative; it’s like a hard-core Vermeer.

One of the more interesting difficulties is that Rego’s interpretation of her own work is markedly different from the way most of us view it. This has been acutely observed by Marco Livingstone in an essay that the artist (as she never calls herself) pressed on me when we parted. The text was commissioned for the catalogue of a new museum devoted to Paula Rego, the Casa das Histórias, which is opening this month in Cascais, in her native Portugal.

“ ‘Darkness? What darkness?’ Rego seems genuinely perplexed whenever she hears comments about her art being disturbing or conveying a harsh or bleak view of human suffering and cruelty,” Livingstone writes. “For her it is clearly simply a case of showing life as it is . . . ”

Ask her about a certain sadomasochistic thread (as I see it) in her work, and Rego is nonplussed. The Policeman’s Daughter, for instance, with the grim-faced daughter’s arm plunged into the black leather boot as she polishes it, suggests repression but also an atmosphere that makes you think she will find a way of getting her own back somehow.

The Family, a year later, in 1988 (the year her husband, Victor Willing, died, after a long decline from multiple sclerosis), depicts a suited man with frightened eyes, rigid on a bed, being undressed by a smiling woman, a young girl pressed up hard against his groin, another young girl by the window, her hands clasped in a prayer, which could also be a strange sort of excitement. There is a sense of complicity between the women that is not altogether benevolent. “That’s not sadomasochistic. They are trying to raise him from the dead,” Rego says. “I was going to call that Lazarus.”

She continues: “First of all, I don’t get a kick out of sadomasochism and I never thought of my pictures as sadomasochistic. I mean, there are very nasty things that happen and tender things that happen. So there is brutality and there is tenderness, there is cruelty and there is tolerance and kindness. There is everything. Most of the things I do are based on Portuguese folk tales, which are not folksy. They were jotted down by anthropologists, at the turn of the century, who would go into the villages and the mountains and take down these stories which are brutal and magic as well. And it is those stories that I have adored and revered all my life. That’s why this museum I am opening in Portugal is called the House of the Stories.”

When I arrive at the Kentish Town studio she has occupied since 1993 — a former North London woodworking business, with its bafflingly inconspicuous doorway and 3,000sq ft divided into two spaces, one for drawing, one for painting — Rego is a model host, offering coffee and apple pie. She is famously mad about clothes, something she inherited from her late mother, and is wearing a fabulous jacket, made out of different slashes of patterned fabric, by the Belgian designer Dries van Noten.

Her hair is sticking up in tousled clumps, which gave her the look of a charming, if slightly wayward, sprite. She wears her make-up in a smoky smudge above and below her eyes, which she closes, for longish periods, or looks at you from under hooded lids. Sometimes, alarmingly, she will bare her jumbled teeth, in a sudden, simian snarl and break into high-pitched laughter, although it’s not quite clear why.

At the end of the hangar-like room we are sitting in is a sort of altarpiece for the Foundling Museum, with a series of stuffed figures in brown uniforms depicting scenes conjured by Rego: the abandoned children in Thomas Coram’s famous school, and the events that led up to their births. “So on the top left-hand side is a rape. Below, on the left, she’s having a baby in the moonlight. Over there, they are throwing babies down into the well. I had a well built, you see. I compose and build these things, and then I draw them. The one on the far right is throwing the baby out of the window. It’s a bit like Michael Jackson but it was before he died, so it doesn’t count.”

On various tables, every surface is covered with curious objects: a bright orange cat, dusty artificial flowers, a frightening pagan-looking doll with a grotesque phallic nose. An anatomical dummy, in tails, is splayed over a sofa and Rego zestfully unzips the fly to show me how “he” can be converted into a “she”. There are rails of clothes, including dresses that belonged to her mother and grandmother, and stacks of plastic drawers crammed full of underwear and stockings.

In the room next door Rego has created another scene; of a classroom, this time, a couple of children fighting on the floor and a desk with the seated figure’s back to us. This is a hated teacher from her own childhood, the artist explains, but the pupil has wreaked her revenge. We walk around the tableau to confront the teacher and find that her “face” is a hideous skull. On the walls are etchings — Rego’s preferred medium — some from her series on female genital mutilation. As we stand in front of one of an African girl, her poignant face shrouded in a white bride’s veil, a boat of star-scattered fabric in front of her, Rego says sadly: “You see, she is carrying the sky in her lap.”

The combination of storytelling — often around women’s bonds and bondage within the family— and the directness of her political comment is more suggestive of a literary tradition, such as the magic realism of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Rego’s abortion pictures — her response to Portugal’s 1997 referendum on the legalisation of abortion — are among her toughest and most confronting to date. (The poll attracted only a 10 per cent turn-out and the vote went against; the decision was overturned only two years ago.) Her art has also been informed by her revolt against the twin oppressions of the Church — “the horrible Catholic Church”, as she puts it — and her memories of the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.

Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, three years after Salazar came to power, where he remained until 1968. When Rego was 16 she was sent to complete her education at an English finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Her mother was appalled when she next saw her daughter. “ ‘What is this?’ she said, when I arrived at the station. ‘You look revolting!’ Quite right, I did,” Rego recalls. “I’d eat all the remains of people’s food from their plates. So she took me to Paris and forced me to eat only meat and no potatoes, and by the time Mum and Dad got back to Portugal I had lost the weight.”

Rego is a manic-depressive and there is mental illness on both sides of her family. Fortunately, none of her three grown-up children — Caroline (married to the sculptor Ron Mueck), Victoria and Nicholas — seems to have inherited the depressive gene. Her father, who was her favourite parent, would withdraw for long periods in silence. When her parents were away on business, the young Rego — an only child — spent alternate weeks, blissfully, with her beloved grandparents, and less blissfully with her mother’s aunt, who was catatonically depressed, barely stirring from her chair.

When I ask her whether her mother also suffered from depression, she roars: “Good God, no!” And then: “She loved shoes.” That’s quite an eccentric non sequitur. “Well, she did love shoes,” Rego says. “In the end we had to put her in a home with nurses. They used to dress her and she always complained when they put brown shoes with black clothes.”

The first psychiatrist Rego saw was Anthony Storr — also an eminent author — who suffered from depression himself. “He was very good and saw me for a while. But then he said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m writing and I don’t have time’, so he sent me to somebody else, who I saw every week since 1973 until about five years ago, when he retired.” I wonder whether she thinks she may have suffered from some form of post-natal depression, as it was possibly years before her depression was recognised and treated. “Oh, good God, no. Having children is nothing. You open your legs and out they come.” And then, marvellously: “I mean, while I was having my daughter, I read Simone de Beauvoir all the way through it.”

She hates the word “creative”. “I’m not a literary person so I can’t explain to you why I don’t like the word. But doing art is disgusting, don’t you see? And creative is something to do with doing art.” You’ve lost me. Why is “doing art” disgusting? “I think it is.” But you’re an artist; that’s what you do! “Yairssss, that’s what I do. But really I do drawing. I like drawing best of all, like when you’re small and . . .” She starts humming as she used to do, a solitary child, sketching away for hours in her playroom.

When we were talking about Rego’s love of pornography — or erotica, more accurately — I asked her whether her discovery had made an impact on her relationship with Willing. (She said, rather primly, not.) When she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, he was already in his third year, although seven years her senior, and newly married. I had also asked her what she remembered most clearly about her time with him, and her reply was a succinct: “Bed.” Oh, was he good in that department? “ ‘Take off your knickers’ was the first thing he said to me.” That’s — ah — an interesting line. “Yes.” So did you? “I obeyed exactly. It was at a Slade party, and I was a virgin.” Crikey. “I know. It was very dramatic and dirty. There was blood everywhere,” she says through a fit of giggles.

Rego became pregnant while Willing was still with his wife — a ballet dancer and childhood sweetheart — and he married Rego in 1959, the year that their second daughter, Victoria, was born. The anxiety of returning pregnant and umarried to Portugal to deliver the news can be divined, decades later, in the rabbit paintings of 1982 — Pregnant Rabbit Telling her Parents and Rabbit and Weeping Cabbage. When Rego explained to her mother that the cabbage represented her, her mother apparently responded happily: “Why, you’ve made me look so young.”

There seem to have been some idyllic years — certainly in the photos from that time the handsome couple positively glow — when the Willings lived with their small children in Rego’s family rural retreat in Ericeira, although Victor Willing was more involved in helping to support his father-in-law’s ailing business than creating (dread word) his own art. But in 1966, when multiple sclerosis was first diagnosed, the struggles began, ending in his death in 1988.

Rego has a long-term companion — Anthony Rudolf, a writer and publisher — who is also one of her models: “He loves sitting; he’s very good.” His name comes up when we are talking about the dangers of love, and she says that their relationship is not like that. “We’re terribly good friends, which is much healthier than being in love. I don’t recommend being in love to anybody.” Why? “It’s much better to have a very good friend who takes you to the theatre. I don’t think being in love is a particularly nice thing.”

She clearly adored her husband. “He was immensely intellectual, he liked talking about philosophers and French poets and that. He was a bloody dish and I think that intellectuals, on the whole, are dishy. He was a dominant person but he also had a kind of delicate, feminine quality. Men were in love with him as well. He was incredibly charming. He really was.”

But Rego can also see that her love was “a form of worship, that came from a long way back, OK? [When he, unlike her, was the rising star in the art world.] I was a mere nothing with him, do you understand? So when he was diagnosed, we didn’t know what the hell it meant. And then it got worse and worse and I thought, ‘I don’t like this at all’. It was horrible and then your life becomes very restricted. But I was always lucky because I had Portuguese au pairs and things like that to help.”

Rego cannot say that she regrets having fallen in love but, anyhow, she doesn’t believe she had any choice in the matter. It was a coup de foudre; an irresistible force. “I did love him — very, very much — and I wouldn’t have known any other way to be because that’s how I was then. I was very young and I admired him enormously. But if you’re young and you fall in love madly, you lose a sense of yourself, as well. And it’s not terribly good for the work. But, yeah, well, it’s life, isn’t it? Life is that.”

We’ve talked for a long time; the photographer has arrived, and EastEnders beckons, one of Rego’s last addictions, now that a heart condition has restricted her alcohol consumption to a daily dose of two flutes of champagne. I check her age before I leave, and get it wrong by a year — “75!” she gasps, as though I’ve mugged her. “Four!” (I’m worried that I’ve hastened her departure) “74!” I’m all for accuracy but does the extra year really bother you so much, at this stage, I ask, intrigued. “Every hour matters, my dear. Every hour.”

Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal, opened yesterday;


On appearances I do my best to look my best. I think that’s terribly important. When you come out of the hairdressers, you do feel better. I like dressing up and going shopping, and I like it very, very much.

On fascism Having been brought up in a Fascist country, you are naturally aware of the injustices and the poverty. Of course, my father kept me well informed as to what went on. So I was politically aware and furious at times. Most of my pictures are political.

On being Victor Willing’s model There’s a wonderful nude of me that disappeared in Belgium — somebody must have bought it, and it’s fabulous. But, you know, Vic was married.

On psychiatry What I wanted was a buzz so that I could get new ideas for pictures.

On Tracey Emin I gave her a tutorial once and it was a disaster. I think we talked about men a lot of the time. So she says.


Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 to Maria, who had studied painting, and José, a wealthy electrical engineer. It was a privileged household, but the family moved to the seaside town of Estoril when Rego was 3 after incipient tuberculosis was diagnosed.

Art and love Her talents developed at an Anglican English school in Portugal. At the Slade in London, where she won prizes, she fell in love with the painter Victor Willing. At 20 she became pregnant with his child and returned to Portugal. He later left his wife to marry her.

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Tracey Emin on a year of living dangerously

The Times July 25, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Endometriosis, tapeworm, and an on-off love affair — the bad girl of Brit Art says she has had a tough time, but is now bouncing back


Tracey Emin is serene. That is not a sentence that comes naturally. She has emerged from her year of living dangerously — nothing to do with wild antics and everything to do with ill health — purged of both her demons and a giant, Gothic-sounding tapeworm.

We meet in Spitalfields, East London, where Emin lives and works. She was a little bit late for our interview and so I had a chance to potter around her studio. This is where her embroidery and appliqué pieces are created and the room resembles a well-stocked children’s day centre. There is a row of orange washing baskets brimming with brightly coloured fabric and a wall of plastic boxes filled with all manner of things, neatly labelled: “Bits and bobs”, “Postcards and diaries” and “Voodoo dolls”.

At the far end of the room is a trio of antique French chairs and a circular table, a glass top protecting an Emin oeuvre/tablecloth of appliquéd letters of the alphabet, and a ridiculously large bean bag on which Emin and her team of seamstresses sprawl, a (literally) laid-back sewing bee, to protect their spines and necks while they work.

A glass door opens on to a small courtyard just large enough to contain a wrought-iron table and a couple of chairs. In the corner, next to several bicycles, is an impressively full rack of wine bottles which, on closer inspection, all bear the same label: Château de Tracy (sic).

The chatelaine arrives, wet hair, gleaming tan, shorts and a fitted pale-blue mannish shirt, revealing a glimpse of a cerise balcony Agent Provocateur bra. An assistant has brought a pot of Earl Grey tea, with a quaint flower-motif cup and saucer, and La Trace decides that she will risk the caffeine — she has become, perforce, a non-wheat, non-dairy purist — to join me in a cuppa as we sit outside.

In her street there are two blue plaques dedicated to Miriam Moses, the first woman mayor of Stepney, and Anna Maria Garthwaite, the designer of Spitalfields Silks. There will, surely, be a third plaque celebrating a woman after Emin has passed on. “Do you think I’m blue plaqueable?” she asks. Well, yes, actually.

In 2007 she was not only chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale (the second woman to have a solo show, after Rachel Whiteread, ten years earlier) but also joined the hallowed ranks of David Hockney, Peter Blake and Anthony Caro when she was made a Royal Academician. She is a patron of the Terence Higgins Trust, regularly donates work for charities such as the Elton John Aids Foundation, and founded her own library for schoolchildren in Uganda last year. Senior politicians on both sides are competing for her support. Forget the blue plaque, can a damehood be far behind?

Emin had been a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party until her recent defection, when she voted for Boris Johnson to be Mayor of London: “I knew that Boris would make a really good mayor. He’s dynamic, he’s interesting, he’s educated, he likes partying, he likes the creative arts … Ken should have been the ideal Mayor of London, because he loves it, but somehow he sold out, and that’s what disappointed me.” (Emin was a vociferous opponent of Livingstone’s enthusiasm for high-rise development, particularly in her own historic neighbourhood.) Gordon Brown, she says, “was fantastic about the Titians. He didn’t muck around with that, he just understood that it was important that those paintings remain here. So obviously he understands that art is important but it doesn’t mean to say that his Cabinet understands that.

“I think Sarah Brown is very interested in the arts, too. In fact, I wish she was Prime Minister!”

Emin was particularly unimpressed by the former Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham: “He doesn’t know anything about art. I went to 11 Downing Street and Burnham made a speech and I said, ‘You can’t give us a glass of red wine and a patronising speech like that and think that everything’s gonna be all right! What are you going to give us? Tax breaks? Are you going to change the law for people donating works? Tell me what you are going to do!’ But he didn’t have a clue.”

This was in marked contrast, she says, to the arts dinner hosted by the Tories in the spring. What was that like? “Brilliant,” she beams, “because there were people like me who don’t vote Tory who were actually being listened to.”

A journalist recently asked her what she thought of David Cameron, to which she replied: “What do you mean? Do I fancy him? Which I thought was really funny.” (We assume, then, that the answer is “No”.) The Tories, it seems, shouldn’t count on Emin joining. “I’m too independent,” she says. “But in some countries people are having their hands cut off because they want to vote, so you do have to choose.”

We last met five years ago in Istanbul, where Emin had a show supported by the British Council, and I notice that she is still wearing the clunky gold necklace that her half-brother, George, gave her, with her grandmother’s wedding ring and the ring that Emin would give her daughter if she had one (now, at 46, she admits, unlikely): “I like the invisible worlds coming together around my neck.”

Her late grandmother, May Dodge, was like a surrogate mother since Emin’s own mother — a single parent after Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot husband, took off — was often absent working various jobs to support Tracey and her twin brother.

Later, crippled by arthritis, her grandmother became bedridden and Emin would visit her in Margate where they would lie on the bed together holding hands — or crocheting — and listen to the radio.

“My nan really liked one particular DJ on Radio Kent. So I went to the trouble to get a photo of him and get him to sign it and of course as soon as I gave her the photo she said: ‘I never thought he’d look like that. That’s not at all what I imagined.’ So that was the end of that.”

I had read that Emin never spent Christmas with her family and wondered why: “Because I’ve got my own house, my own life, and I left home when I was 15, you know. That answers your question.” Well, not really.

Christmas, it transpires, was the most unhappy time for her mother and the children. “We’d be sitting on our own waiting for our Mum to come home because she was always working like the clappers and we were incredibly poor. One Christmas the Salvation Army had to come and give us presents.

“So I always dread it. When Boxing Day comes I think, ‘Yes! I did it again. I managed to get through another Christmas and eat baked beans on toast. Fantastic!’ What’s funny is that I’ve started to invite people round on Christmas Eve. You’d think that everyone would say ‘No’ but it’s weird, from Bianca Jagger to Vivienne [Westwood], a fantastic, eclectic collection of people come and we all go to church for Midnight Mass, and then it’s back to my house, where I’ve got all the fires burning and made soup, and it’s really cosy and nice.”

One year, however, it wasn’t so nice. Her guests were about to arrive when Emin developed the most appalling stomach pains. A few people noted that she wasn’t drinking but their hostess kept on smiling, collapsed the next day and was taken to hospital, where it was discovered that she had endometriosis: “I couldn’t walk because of the terrible pain in my hip from all the swelling.”

This was on the back of tapeworm saga, which is a fascinating tale but not for the fainthearted. Her condition was eventually detected when she was detoxing at an Austrian clinic and the worm was dispatched with the aid of massive and prolonged doses of antibiotics.

During the period that the tapeworm took residency, Emin’s skin deteriorated, her hair fell out and she was permanently bloated. Her parasite also had a sweet tooth, and she found herself — inexplicably — eating pots and pots of jam. When she was in Australia, Emin spent four hours exercising every day in an attempt to get rid of her belly, unaware that it was caused by her tapeworm. That failed, so she gave up drinking for eight months. My God! “Yes, it was horrible. It made me much more quiet and subdued because I was so miserable.”

As soon as the worm was expelled, Emin, being Emin, went out partying every night: “I was on such a high, I was so happy — ‘worm free’,” she sings out to the tune of Born Free. And then — bang — she developed a quadruple whammy of lung, kidney, vaginal and urinary tract infections and was back in hospital. All in all her life was subsumed by illness for six months. As she says, “I had a bit of a year of it last year”.

When we were in Istanbul, Emin talked mysteriously about a man she referred to as her “Roman husband”. “Well, it didn’t work out because he’s gay,” she says, laughing her head off. For the past three and a half years she has been in a relationship with a Scottish portrait photographer, called Scott, whom she met at her favourite pub, the Golden Heart. Scott is one of the reasons why she is so happy, these days, along with her newfound respectability. Last year, however, when Emin took off travelling for four months, her boyfriend went off with someone else.

“He just presumed, ‘Well, if you want to go travelling around the world, you know, you’re obviously not interested in me.’ Which is a fair point.

“That’s what’s persuaded me to buy a place in France. So we’ve got a place together because he lives in Scotland.” (Where his five-year-old son lives with his mother. ) How does that work? “It suits me when I’m busy and it really doesn’t suit me when I’m not. When I haven’t seen him for a long time and he’s really missed me and comes to me, I’m always a bit kind of nonchalant at first — ‘You’re here, are you? Oh . . .’ But it doesn’t take long because it’s a good relationship.”

In the future she is hoping to spend most weekends in the South of France, near Saint-Tropez. Her house, which is “like a Moroccan castle”, is on 32 acres of land, with views of the Alps and the Mediterranean.

Our Trace is a keen gardener and will be tackling the greenhouses next year. The property also has vines, which have been neglected, but Emin intends to bring them back to life.

Her first crate of Château de Tracy was a gift from her friend, the Belgravia art dealer Ivor Braka. It’s a delicious Pouilly-Fumé but Emin can, perhaps, do even better. Except that next time, as Emin — a notoriously bad speller — points out, it will be Château de Tracey with an “e”.

* * *

One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin has just been published by Rizzoli at £40. To buy it for £36, inc p&p, call 0845 2712134

My perfect weekend

Town or country?


Friend or lover?


Owl or lark?

I’m more of a lark than I am an owl, but owls are really cute and fluffy.

Rembrandt or Rothko?


Full English or a fruit salad?

Rice Krispies with soya milk.

Beer or champagne?

Champagne. I never drink beer.

Film or theatre?

Theatre. I last saw an art play at the Victoria Miro gallery in North London.

Builders’ tea or soya latte?

Redbush tea, without milk. I hardly every drink caffeine and never drink coffee.

Celebrity party or quiet night in?

I can quite happily say yes to both of these.

Book or DVD ?

Book — An Education by Lynn Barber.

I couldn’t get through the weekend without . . .

My telephone. It’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week


David Hockney on why iPhones are the future for art

The Times May 09, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

As a major exhibition of new landscapes opens, Britain’s best-loved artist talks about mortality, family, his return to his beloved Bridlington, and why iPhones are the future for art

David Hockney is a very funny man. If he ever wanted to give up the day job — about as likely as Bridlington becoming the new St-Tropez — he would make a superb monologist; Spalding Gray, perhaps, channelled by Alan Bennett.

He may have lived in Los Angeles for the greater part of the last 30 years but his humour, and accent, remain dry and forthrightly northern. His mother, Laura, who died in 1999 at the age of 99, was quite religious, he tells me, and was wont to refer to her late-beckoning mortality thus – “I haven’t been called yet.” Her son would sometimes joke: “Well, stay by the telephone.” He continues: “When I told that story to a friend of mine he said, ‘You might live longer than her, David, because you won’t hear the call’.”

Hockney’s current pair of hearing-aids — he’s been experimenting with them for three decades — are small and neat. They also seem effective. He doesn’t strain to hear but he is still in the habit of going off on curious tangents, or taking a thought and running it into the ground, which may be a legacy of being deaf for so many years.

The last time we met, in 2005, I could not get him off the subject of smoking — he is passionately pro — although we were meant to have been discussing his curation of a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. It still appears to be Hockney’s favourite subject and I have to firmly reroute his conversational drift.

He’s been living in the old guesthouse — with his partner and French assistant — which he bought for his mother in Bridlington, the East Yorkshire seaside resort, for the past three years, with another three to go, while he completes a monumental group of landscape paintings. We are strictly not to interpret this as Hockney coming “home”, since he still views Los Angeles as his base. “There’s a side of England I don’t like at all, I must tell you,” he says. “The meanspiritedness gets me down.” Of English people? “The smoking is one thing,” he says. “It’s outrageous and I won’t stop attacking it anyway.”

What would he say if he met Gordon Brown? “I would not be polite, I’m going to tell you. Four or five years ago Paul Johnson told me that Gordon Brown was talking about making it [England] smoke-free. He didn’t say we’ll make it convenient for anybody. This is Stalinism, practically.”

Is this the only reason you’re cross with him? “Well, I don’t think he’s got any vision.” Do you think David Cameron is any better? “Not much, no. Of course I don’t.” Hockney’s never been one much for politics anyway: “But somebody’s got to decide which way traffic goes and who picks up the rubbish and I’ve left that to other people. I don’t mind the taxes, I’ll pay whatever, but when they begin to affect my life personally, I think, ‘Well, wait a minute, what is this about?’ It isn’t about smoking; it’s about them telling me what’s best for me.”

He’s not even excited about Obama “although Bush was pretty ghastly and I think he [Obama] is rather good. But I’m not political — in fact, I’ve rarely voted, to be honest — and I don’t want to be either. I’ve something else to do.” That “something else” is his work, by which he is more consumed than ever before.

We are talking in a lovely light-filled private gallery, the Kunsthalle Würth, converted from an old brewery in the medieval town of Shwäbisch Hall, near Stuttgart. A handful of English journalists have been flown in, joining a horde of German media people, to look at 70 new works produced by Hockney in the past couple of years. It is the largest and most comprehensive museum exhibition of the artist’s Yorkshire landscapes to be shown to the public for the first time.

At the morning press conference, before our interview, Hockney anticipates the obvious question — so why Shwäbisch Hall? — although no one has been tactless enough to ask it. “Why did I do this exhibition? I’ll be frank, I did it for myself to see all the work together.” And on he goes in his marvellously undiplomatic way. “At first I didn’t take much interest in it, but when I came here I thought, ‘It is a lovely area . . . with individual trees and every one is different, just like we are’ . . . Also I knew that journalists would travel to see an exhibition. It’s an opportunity you don’t get often, and I am an opportunist I must admit.”

The best-known British artist of his generation is 71, and is often described as a national treasure. Despite his determined efforts to come across as a grumpy old man, he still retains the mischief and curiosity of a boy; an impression reinforced by the way he peers wide-eyed over his spectacles, and shuffles his feet impatiently under the table. When you laugh at his more preposterous statements, he joins in, which suggests that his curmudgeonliness is partly an act. There is a sense of fun in the way that he dresses, although his flamboyance, these days, is restricted to the odd detail: a flat white cap over his undyed hair, a red and white spotted handkerchief dangling elegantly from his jacket pocket.

After the conference, when we follow Hockney around the exhibition in a clingy pack, he explains that his suits are especially tailored to include an inside pocket in the jackets large enough — he gives us a quick flash — to accommodate a sketchbook and brushes that he always carries.

He is well aware, as he says, that “the art world thinks that this is a genre that’s quite exhausted – but nothing is quite exhausted”. Images, he says, help us to see the world: “I keep thinking that people have stopped looking at landscape . . . and I’m very interested in how we see; seeing is memory and memory is now. We don’t all see the same things even if we’re looking at the same thing . . . looking is a positive thing — you’ve got to decide to look.”

In the northern hemisphere, “you’re hit over the head with seasons, and each season I see more . . . how early spring begins at the top of trees, for instance. And I’m eager to get back right now [to Bridlington], as it’s just coming up for ‘Action Week’, which is what I call early spring.” In East Yorkshire now, Hockney says, he would be up at 6 in the morning, when the sun comes directly up over the sea: “The best light is between 5am and 8am, with the long shadows and the sun lighting everything from the front. Everything is very, very clear, whereas in the afternoon it’s all silhouettes.”

Marco Livingstone, a Canadian-born curator, writer and friend of Hockney, has contributed an illuminating and charming essay for the show’s handsomely produced catalogue. He told me about a recent visit to the artist’s Bridlington home, where he and his partner had been invited to stay the night. After a jolly dinner, the guests had retired at 1am and woke in fright a few hours later, with a loud banging on their door (the old guesthouse numbers have not been removed, apparently). Their host insisted they get up immediately and drive with him to a particular copse because the light was so magical, and he didn’t want them to miss out on the treat.

If this could be described as Hockney’s love affair with the landscape of East Yorkshire, it has been a slow burn rather than instant infatuation.

In the last ten years of his mother’s life, her son came to visit every three months: “And I never went there without drawing her because at that age you think, ‘Well, how long will she live?” Did she like the results? “Well, she’s your mother,” he says, throwing me the sort of look that suggests he’s thinking, ‘You daft brush’. “She’s going to like what her son does, yes, of course.” They were close and he misses her but the drawings comfort him: “I’ve still got them and there are lots of them and I won’t let them go, so that makes a big difference.”

They used to go on drives down the empty lanes and Hockney found himself responding to the subtle, undramatic landscape — so different from the showy lushness and bright light of California — and now that she has gone he feels even more deeply connected to the countryside of his youth. It’s tempting to see this as a way of bringing his mother back to him, especially with him moving back into her house, but he says not.

He describes his neighbours, pithily, as “modest and not too disappointed because they never expected much.” Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, his assistant, is probably the only Parisian, Hockney says, to have visited Bridlington. It is Jean-Pierre, I admit, who responded to this comment with the joke that it was the new St-Tropez, which was too good not to appropriate. There’s a picture of JP, in Hockney’s Photoshop computer works now on show in London, in formal black tie that, he jests (presumably), is normal dinner dress for the Bridlington ménage à trois. There’s also one of the artist’s partner of the past decade, John Fitz-Herbert — a former chef. What an honest face, I say, as we flick through the book of the exhibition. “He’s an honest human being,” Hockney replies.

There are several drawings of Hockney’s brother, Paul, and his sister, Margaret; and in each picture the subjects seem mesmerised by a small gadget in their hands, which turns out to be an iPhone — Hockney’s latest enthusiasm: “Yes, my brother and sister sat there for three or four hours, totally engrossed.” Hockney is thrilled that he has finally persuaded Celia Birtwell to buy one so that he can send her pictures: “I draw flowers on them and send them out every morning to a group of people.”

He demonstrates, tracing his finger over the tiny screen with such absorption that I worry he will stop talking altogether. “Who would have thought the telephone would bring back drawing?” he exclaims with glee.

“It’s such a great little device, it has every Shakespeare play in it and the Oxford English dictionary. In your pocket! But it’s also amusing, look at this.” He blows into it and his new toy becomes a harmonica.

At the other end of the scale are his epic landscapes, including the one created out of 50 separate canvases to form an enormous painting, which took up an entire wall at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The most striking thing about these landscapes, initially at least, is their size.

Perhaps it is still too early to judge to what extent — apart from the obvious technical differences — Hockney has made them his own.

As a student at the Royal College of Art, Hockney’s famous complaint was, “I’m not doing anything that’s from me”. Then came the light-saturated Californian pictures of palm trees, swimming-pools and naked boys in the 1960s, which made an instant (bigger) splash and are still instantly recognisable as Hockneys; as are his beguiling portraits through the years, set designs and elegant book illustrations. But in these oil paintings, there are constant refrains of other painters; a forest scene that makes you think of Matisse, another of Rousseau. Here and there, in certain details, you detect the free brushstrokes and wild exuberance of Howard Hodgkin.

These echoes may be deliberate. Back in 1976, Hockney wrote: “I am very concious of all that has happened in art during the last 75 years. I don’t ignore it; I feel I’ve simply assimilated it into my kind of art.”

In January 2012, Hockney says, there will be a big show of his work at the Royal Academy, mostly landscapes: “Just before the world ends on December 21st.” Sorry? “That’s the Mayan calendar and that’s when the sun will be at its fiercest. Look it up on the web.” He proceeds to go on at great length about a book he found in his favourite bookshop in LA — Book Soup — and the riveting new information it contains about the edge of the Universe and time and the Sun being at a certain pitch. All of which makes me think that you can take the boy out of Bradford but you can also, clearly, take Bradford out of the boy.

When I ask him whether he truly believes it’s going to be the end of the world, he says: “What I suddenly realised is that it could just be me — the end of the world for me.” But, unlike his mother, Hockney is not waiting for the call. “I don’t think about it much,” he says. “I assume I’ll just work until I fall over.”

– – –

Drawing In a Printing Machine is at Annely Juda Gallery to July 11 (020-7629 7578). Just Nature is at Kunsthalle Würth, Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, to Sept 27. Imagine on Hockney, BBC One, June 30.

Celebrities, Women

Kay Saatchi on life after Charles Saatchi

The Times, July 26, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Now the dust has settled on her divorce, Kay Saatchi has returned to her first love: modern art. With her pick of Britain’s best new talent on show in London, she tells Ginny Dougary about her future plans – and past mistakes

Kay Saatchi

There’s a certain ironic sting that in order to be her own person again, Kay Hartenstein felt the need to re-adopt the surname of her ex-husband, the art collector and spouse of Nigella Lawson, Charles Saatchi. For a while, in the difficult aftermath of that very public decoupling, the American art dealer turned collector and now curator reverted to her maiden name: “But really no one knows me as Kay Hartenstein here; nobody knows that I did that gallery with Charles all those years. It would be like starting out all over again. Even in LA, I’m known as Kay Saatchi in the art world, which means I have something to bring to the dinner table,” she says. “Charles would rather I had gone back to my maiden name but it’s part of me – and part of something I did for a long, long time, and it’s very good for getting tables at the Wolseley.”

It’s only in the last three years, since the couple’s divorce in 2001, that Kay has come out of the shadows and had the confidence to return to the art world, which had been her world, too, before she joined forces with Charles. For the first four years, she was “licking her wounds and lying very low”, dealing with multiple losses; apart from the end of a marriage which had been in trouble but which she had thought was salvageable, her mother and her brother died, as well as both Charles’s parents to whom she had remained close, and the 75-year-old nanny who had looked after the couple’s young daughter, Phoebe, also died of cancer. There had been the loss of her Chelsea home, which she was responsible for selling as part of the divorce settlement, and all the adjustments that diminution entailed: “It was a really hard time – physically and emotionally very draining, compounded by a lot of other loss in my life and a lot of disruption, and I was trying to take care of this little girl who was living in a tiny rented flat which she was unhappy about.”

Meanwhile Nigella, of course, had her own bereavement to deal with – living with and watching the decline of her husband, the journalist John Diamond, who died of cancer. But while only the most mean-spirited would begrudge her the chance to find happiness again, anyone can see that it must have been tough on the supplanted wife to be endlessly confronted with images of such a glamorous successor – in La Lawson’s dramatic trajectory as a domestic, then transatlantic goddess – splashed over billboards from the UK to the USA.

Our first meeting for this piece was in Selfridges’ “art gallery” Ultralounge, at Anticipation – an exhibition of work by some of the most outstanding London art school graduates, co-curated by Kay Saatchi and Catriona Warren. This is a most exciting venture, where a shortlist of 21 blossoming artists show their work and receive 100 per cent of the proceeds of their sales. The public benefits from the collective eye of two aficionados who have done all the hard work visiting the major London art colleges and liaising with the tutors to find young artists who combine talent with the commitment and creative heft to produce distinctive work for the long haul.

Saatchi had already seen the Conrad Shawcross sculptures in that space, as well as Sam Taylor-Wood’s banners elsewhere in Selfridges and various other shows, such as the one on surrealism and urban art. Nonetheless, she admits to having some initial concerns about whether a department store, however stylish, was an appropriate context for the students’ work.

“But people know how hard it is to put on these shows – even the Tate sometimes has problems getting sponsors – and it all depends on how serious the show is when it gets hung,” Kay says. “I said that we needed to run it more like a museum than a commercial art gallery so you can look at the paintings and read what’s written about them on the wall. The artists also need to be there to talk to people and get them to engage because these kids aren’t used to talking about their art that much.

“It’s also to teach people about contemporary art and let them know that buying art doesn’t have to be intimidating. If you’ve ever walked into somewhere like the Gagosian Gallery, it felt like if you asked the price of something they’d laugh at you.”

I happen to be a fan of the first wave of YBAs and, while writing a profile of Damien Hirst, years ago, visited the home Kay then shared with Charles in Chelsea to see Away from the Flock, Hirst’s sheep in a tank of formaldehyde, which had pride of place in the reception. (Kay was amusing on the subject of the importance of hanging works in a way that you can live with them. She found it challenging, for instance, to eat her breakfast gazing at the crotch of one of Jenny Saville’s monumental women – and had the nude moved to somewhere that was not so, quite literally, in her face.)

This Anticipation show, following the success of last year’s, is less about the shock of the new and more about a mining and refining of traditional ideas – there’s an emphasis on painting for instance, and photographs that recall the Grand Masters – married to what could be described as a sort of mind-screw.

Kay is rather maternal in the way that she champions her artists, coaxing the more reserved ones to speak out but with the tact of a diplomat rather than the thrust of a pushy parent, as she click-clacks around the show in her high heels. There’s an amusing moment when we hover in front of Philip Caramazza’s jewel-like work and she says, “Saatchi has expressed interest” – which is striking for all sorts of reasons. She then adds that Charles “and Nigella” have been to the show, which suggests a level of equanimity as well as support from Saatchi but also, perhaps, an appreciation of what his ex-wife and Warren have pulled off.

We next meet in Kay’s home which has a gracious, double-fronted exterior and a tangle of vines, jasmine and clematis leading down to the basement, which is what she has for a garden these days. Inside, everything looks a little over-size – apart from the owner, who is petite – as though the paintings and vases and sculptures started life in a much larger space, which is, of course, the case.

In the living room, where we sit perched at the end of a table dominated by a huge vase of blue delphiniums, one wall is filled with an impressive Paula Rego, which I think I recognise from the Chelsea home. Half the room is occupied by a grand piano which gleams in the semi-darkness; astride it is a massive naked baby by Ron Mueck, the Australian sculptor and Rego’s son-in-law. There’s a collection of Picasso ceramics and a table covered in ancient Egyptian translucent bowls, as well as pieces by lesser known artists which have caught Kay’s eye.

There is still a touch of Southern belle girlishness to Kay even in her mid-fifties. She is slim, wearing fitted black trousers, a nipped-in black cardigan, a bow hangs in folds from a cornflower blue blouse, and more of those click-clacky heels. Her hair is loosely coiffed and blonde, make-up is sparse, and she has puppy-brown eyes which crinkle attractively at the edges when she smiles. There is nothing brash about her style; in fact, she is self-effacing and occasionally tremulous.

She says that she hates her voice but it’s only on the tape that you notice how distinctively odd it is – think Loyd Grossman’s strangulated vowels and Madonna’s version of posh English, with an occasional Southern twist. Tenderness, for instance, becomes “tindirness”; Charles is “Chols”; naughty is “norty”; Picasso’s erotic show “Picawsow’s eh-rot-eeeek” (as in the French).

She slips out to the kitchen, with its lino floor of customised spots in homage to Hirst, whose work she didn’t get in the division of spoils, for regular refills of water and asks me fairly early on if I mind if she smokes. An American who still smokes! How revolutionary! “You know, I had my first cigarette when I was 50 years old,” she says. “Well, going through divorce makes you do strange things.”

Kay Hartenstein was born on Valentine’s Day 1953 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Clinton became governor after she’d left and she says: “I’m kinda glad I didn’t meet him when I was young – I would have been just his type!” Her high-school boyfriend for six years – who she later says was one of the only Jewish people in Little Rock – ended up working as a lawyer at the same Rose Law Firm as Hillary and had an office next to hers: “He knows them both so I know all the scoop!” Kay glints.

As a side note, Charles Saatchi’s first wife, Doris, who was his boss and responsible for turning him on to art, came from Memphis, an hour away from Little Rock. “He had a thing about Southern blondes,” Kay says. “Well, Chols had a real love affair with America as a young man.”

Kay says that Little Rock (she slurs the words so it sounds like a whisper… liddlerahrk) became much more sophisticated after Bill came on the scene, but when she was growing up it was a “wonderful” hick town. Her father was an elevator contractor and her mother was a mom to four children. There was a new car every other year, country club membership and Hattie May – “a big black lady who was a darling, like Mammy in Gone with the Wind, who would hug us when we cried”.

When she was four, Little Rock made news headlines for all the wrong reasons. In September 1957, nine African-American pupils had been bussed in to join the Little Rock Central High School but were prevented from attending the racially segregated school by a line of National Guard soldiers, who had been deployed by the Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in support of the segregationist protesters, many of whom were parents of pupils. It wasn’t until 1959, school closures and the intervention of President Eisenhower that Little Rock public school reopened as an integrated school.

Kay says that although she grew up in a non-racist family, she was naturally aware that Little Rock was segregated and absorbed people’s comments on the street: “Builders would use the N-word and there were great financial divides between the blacks and the whites.” Still, she was appalled when the partner of a leading member of the liberal intelligentsia in London asked her whether her father was in the Klu Klux Klan: “I said, ‘Do you really think that every single person in the South is a member? No, of course, my father wasn’t in the Klu Klux Klan.’

“I was so shocked by that. There are some deeply racist people in the South but there are some deeply racist people here, too. I’ve seen a lot of anti-Semitism, as well. Even before I went out with Charles, I used to hear the most extraordinary comments. It would be normal dinner party conversation for people to talk about ‘yids’. And Charles was aware of it. Absolutely. We’ve had lots of conversations about it.” Did it get to him? “Of course. Whenever you see him described, it’s always ‘Charles Saatchi, British Jew’ – they always say his religion. Why mention it?”

She is the only member of her family to have moved away – and keep moving – which she attributes to being the third child: “It made me more independent because I was left to my own resources a lot.” She loved reading and was always interested in art, regularly daubing the walls of her school with murals. “Look, I’m a typical American story of opportunity. Little town. Regular parents. I have never been extravagant. I like nice things but I’ve had to make my own money in my life and my own way. The way I was brought up, and I was very lovingly brought up, is that I could do anything I wanted to and it had to do with my energy and how hard I worked. You really believed that and I think that is the great thing about America.”

At university in Memphis on a full scholastic scholarship, she still had to get a job – working nights in the campus infirmary, doling out Darvon [a stronger version of aspirin, “maybe with morphine in it”] as a hangover cure to drunk kids, while her friends were out enjoying their sorority parties.

Somewhere at this point, Kay got married. It is interesting that she did not offer this detail herself since we were going through her life with what seemed to be a degree of thoroughness. Later on, I suddenly remember reading a throwaway reference about a previous marriage and ask her about it. “I was married once for six months when I was a student,” she says, looking a bit uncomfortable. She had already said that she’d lived with a boyfriend, which was a mistake, but this was another one: “Yes, well, they’re all mistakes until you find the right one. It’s just a question of how long you stay with the mistake.” So tell me about this mistake. “He was an artist – very bohemian; the exact opposite of my high-school boyfriend – and I fell for the myth of the sensitive artist. The only thing it did was make me decide that I didn’t want to get married again for a long time.”

Next stop was New Orleans where she worked on a newspaper called The Times-Picayune, wearing little flowered sundresses and reporting on fires and robberies in the French Quarter. It was here that she learnt to cook – she had a boyfriend who owned a restaurant and knew all the chefs – and came of age.

Kay ended up selling space for New Orleans Magazine, a “little hick version” of New York magazine, which sounds fun: long lunches on her expense account with colourful people in a town where lunch is an institution. She describes herself then as “Melanie Griffith in Working Girl trying to buy a nice suit on sale, you know”. This is when she first started acquiring art. There was one gallery she particularly liked and if she had enough money left at the end of the month, she’d buy something for her rented flat. She still has an Ida Kohlmeyer – “sort of like a colourful Twombly” – but for now it’s residing in her sister’s home.

By 1980, Kay felt she had outgrown New Orleans and was ready to move on to New York. After a year, she became the cosmetic and fragrance marketing manager for one of the Condé Nast magazines. Her big trick was to get into work at 7am – “I used to see Si Newhouse at that time” – and phone the presidents of the various cosmetic companies direct. “I would call, like, Ron Perelman who owned Revlon – I knew his secretary wouldn’t be in at that time – and make a lunch date with him at a fabulous restaurant like Le Cirque. On the way to the lunch, I’d drop in to Saks and ask the girls at the sales counter what was selling well. They’d say, ‘Oh, this new mascara, which does this, that or the other,’ and so at lunch I’d say, ‘God, that new mascara is amazing – how’s it selling?” in-between asking them about their kids. You know, you’d just be clever.”

It can’t have harmed her career that she was, as she says, “kinda cute then – so I got lots of dinner invites. I was always being asked out by older, very wealthy, powerful men.” Were you attracted to that? “I must have been but they were certainly attracted to me.”

Her career was on the up – the new publisher of GQ magazine, which had been bought by Condé Nast, had just poached her for a bigger, better job. But Kay started to look at all her fortysomething women friends in their Chanel suits, with their swanky apartments – by this time she had one of her own – and noticed there was something missing: “They worked like dogs and had no personal lives.” As always, Kay had saved a nice little nest egg and decided that what she needed was to change direction.

I ask her baldly whether she came to London to find herself a husband. She says no – it was the possibility that she could do something in the art world. “When I decided not to be a doctor, I thought very seriously about a gallery but I couldn’t do it because you don’t get paid anything in the art world. It’s mostly rich kids,” she says. “If I could have afforded it, that’s what I would have done in New York.” It was Leo Castelli, the Manhattan art dealer, who suggested that she set up in London, where there were hardly any contemporary galleries, and show New York artists.

In 1986, Kay packed her bags and set off for another adventure. She was involved in setting up a short-lived gallery but was unwilling to invest in its future so left to work for Waddington’s. She met Charles not long after at a show when they were both gazing at a painting by Michael Andrews: “This dealer – who will remain unnamed – was always too grand to talk to me on Cork Street and all of a sudden he’s my new best friend, standing beside me and saying: ‘I want you to meet someone,’ and that’s how I met Chols.”

I read that he was instantly smitten; “that he changed the placecards at the dinner we were going to”, Kay adds. What was your first impression of him? “I thought he was amazing. I loved talking to him about art from the word go. He is very charismatic.” Did you fall for him instantly? “I did kind of fall in love with him, yes. And, you know, I’d moved here completely on my own and only made a few friends.” I thought she had a boyfriend at the time? “I had lots of boyfriends. I always had men after me. I don’t know what’s happening now – it’s all dried up.”

There’s seems to have been some confusion about how long Saatchi and Doris had been separated when he met Kay: “I soon found out that he and Doris hadn’t been separated for six months, it had been more like six days when I met him. [The couple had opened the Saatchi Gallery the previous year.] So I thought, ‘This is not a good relationship for me to be in because he’s still married.’ They may be living separately but I thought I can’t move to London to start an art career and have a love affair with this guy.”

Nine months later, when Kay was satisfied that the split was genuine, she and Charles started dating. Three years later, in 1990, they married. She has said that with each new step of their relationship – as she became a wife and then a mother – Charles’s feelings for her seemed to diminish. In the last years, he was more interested spending the evenings go-kart racing than with his wife. “I became very lonely at that time,” Kay says. “But there are a lot of women who are lonely.”

Why do you think he didn’t want to have children? “He likes to be the centre of attention. He’s probably watched all his friends have children and watched their lives become filled with toys and having to go on holidays. He’s very Urban Man. He likes to get in his car and go look at art. He’s not the type to potter in the back garden. And children do force you to grow up, that’s for sure.

“But then I had this darling angel of a girl and, of course, the person who didn’t want a child was absolutely besotted. There’s not a more besotted father on this planet. So you know, it’s hard to guess how it’s going to affect you.”

She still sounds regretful about the end of the marriage as though – despite their problems – it could have been saved. For a start, she says, she doesn’t know any couples who haven’t had their ups and downs. “But it was difficult. He is a powerful, difficult man. He just does what he wants to do. So it wasn’t an easy marriage. I worked my hardest at keeping it together.”

I wonder how she feels about Nigella now. “Oh, she’s a nice woman – I mean, you know…” (A shrug and an expression that suggests “Heyeeeewhaddyagonnado?”) The blending of families is working a little smoother now, six or seven years down the line. Her daughter, Phoebe, gets on well with her step-siblings, which is what all the adults would have hoped for: “And the truth is that if Phoebe wasn’t as happy spending time there and everything, I wouldn’t have had the time or energy to do Anticipation because I was functioning as a full-time taxi driver/nanny.” (I know what she means as a part-time single parent but, still, it’s an odd way of putting it because that’s just what a lot of parenting is about.)

So it must be great in a way that Nigella has been able to provide a homely home in a way that Charles may not have been able to on his own? “Maybe,” she says. “I just try to let them be.” They have had the odd meal together recently and Kay tries to sound philosophical with all the old clichés – “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge and time is a great healer” – but then she can’t help a little dig: “…and she’s with him and he’s 65 now and probably really grumpy!” A big laugh. “And I’m free – so there’s a certain karma about that. I had him in his forties!”

While Kay is talking about the past and how difficult it was for her “having to read about Nigella all the time”, she is reminded of something rather telling: “Charles and I spent one summer in the Hamptons when Phoebe was tiny, and we went to Martha Stewart’s house and I remember Charles saying to me, ‘You know, you should do a Martha Stewart because you love to cook and do flowers and so on.’ He always wanted me to do something where I was famous and out there.” That is fascinating; what was your reaction? “I said, ‘I do it anyway – I don’t really have to be a brand.’ So maybe in the back of his mind… well, I think Charles likes fame and celebrity.

“But he also likes being private, too, because he likes to do whatever the hell he wants to do and if he’s ‘private’ he doesn’t have to show up to children’s bar mitzvahs and all the little things in life that we all do. I think that’s what it is because he’s not shy. He’s not shy at all. It’s actually not a bad way to be because if you say, ‘I’m too terribly shy to come to the opening of your show,’ you can get out of it if you don’t want to go!”

What is noticeable is that Kay vacillates between bitterness and loyalty about her ex. Any suggestion of him not having a genuine understanding and appreciation of art is smartly corrected. When I suggest that it was Doris who taught him everything he knows, she says: “And himself because he’s a very keen learner.” I wonder whether this learning curve continued in their marriage; whether they were enriched by each other’s “eye”. “Of course,” she says. “We went and looked at art almost continuously – that’s what we did every weekend. I was the unofficial co-curator with him. We saw every show; we travelled to look at art; we went to New York for the auctions. It was fabulous. What an opportunity.

“He was much more knowledgeable about art because he had been collecting it, and the best way to know about art is to have some money in your pocket and go see a dealer. All of a sudden the dealer shows you everything and tells you why this one is better than that one. Your eye develops as you immerse yourself in it, and if I hadn’t been with someone like Charles there wouldn’t have been this Saatchi Collection because I don’t have that acquisitive collector gene in the same dose that he has. I might buy one drawing from a show where he will go in and buy everything.” In other words, he wouldn’t love every work? “No, he would! But I’m the quieter, more conservative person in that way – and he’s bigger.”

A while back there was a flurry of tabloid interest when Kay was seen out and about with a much younger man who was reported to be her builder: “Oh God!” she says. “I met him in the park with my dog… it’s a great way to meet someone.”

But there’s been no one on the scene for some time now. She forces herself to go to parties and usually tries to take a girlfriend so she isn’t walking in on her own, and she worries about getting lazy: “And one shouldn’t because you’ll end up being a little lonely, miserable person sitting in your house all the time. You’ve got to embrace life, I think.”

Is she actively looking for a beau? “Everyone always wants someone to love. I quite like living on my own and I’m not lying about this, but I do get lonely. My ideal would be to have someone like a violinist who lives in Paris and is sophisticated and cool – to have a romantic life with him, and have someone to travel with. That’s when I miss it. You know, it’s nice to have a conversation with a man over dinner.”

Part of the problem, she thinks, is that she doesn’t find English men that attractive so perhaps she doesn’t put out the vibes: “Or maybe it’s because I was with such a charismatic, interesting man that most of the other men I meet are a little… vanilla.”

We’re almost done. Kay says that she’s found talking about her whole life in this way rather emotional and exhausting; a bit like going to a shrink. It is an odd process. When a person’s story is shrunk, patterns emerge that seem illuminating but may be equally distorting. In the retelling she comes across as a bit of a Becky Sharp operator, cutting a swath through all those rich and powerful men on her journey from Little Rock to London. But she is more likeable than that would suggest, and it’s plucky and admirable that she’s no longer fazed by Saatchi being “the big gun” in the art world, and has gone back to doing what she loves.

Before I leave, I have to ask her about a strange piece she did for Tatler not long after the split, when she was persuaded – or so I had assumed – to dress up as a maid. “Oh, that was my idea,” she laughs. “I was a bit nuts then! I was trying to be cheeky and funny because I had felt that I’d been like a housekeeper.”

Did she get much of a reaction? “Some people saw it in the light that was intended but some said, ‘Hey, that was so embarrassing. How could you do it?’ I did regret it. But who cares? If you worried about everything all the time, you’d never do anything.”

* * *

Anticipation runs until August 3 at Ultralounge, on the lower ground floor of Selfridges, London W1 (020-7318 3204)

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Me, Myself, I

THE TIMES – November 13, 2004
Ginny Dougary

Years of childhood misery, teenage trauma and adult excess have informed all of Tracey Emin’s work. But her masterpiece, says Ginny Dougary, is the triumph her life has become.

Can this be? Tracey Emin – legendary Bad Girl of Brit Art (who has, incidentally, been protesting she is not a girl but a woman ever since the title was first thrust on her ten years ago) – tucked up in bed by eleven, sipping cold white wine in an unhectic fashion, not falling over, not swearing, not smoking, and hardly showing off at all?

Yes, at 41, Margate’s most famous escapee is in danger of becoming – shock, horror! – sensible. In Istanbul, where we were holed up together for three days in an ancient palace of a hotel on the Bosphorus, the better to enjoy our sightseeing excursions and her show, Trace was at times alarmingly prefectorial. Watches would be checked in the foyer and the forthcoming timetable confirmed and reconfirmed – drinks at such and such an hour, followed by taxi to pre-opening rendezvous, onward to the opening, thence to dinner with British consulate, and so on.

She embraced her self-appointed role as host with enthusiasm, arranging for us to see a mesmerising display of dervishes whirling, a Turkish meal in an appealingly authentic restaurant, suggesting

various hikes incorporating tourist must-sees, and was clearly disappointed when we begged off for a bit of down-time.

Her inability to be punctual is well known and this is one of the habits she is trying to curb. Indeed, she was so very keen to fit as much as possible into the schedule that her little band of followers – Irene Bradbury, representing White Cube, old friend and curator Gregor Muir, representing the Tate, Kelly Piper, her personal assistant, the photographer Graham Wood and me – were often left scuttling in her wake as Tracey strode purposefully on ahead without a backward glance.

This, of course, could never be said of her art which is almost entirely made up of backward glances – an approach that has most definitely placed her ahead of her Brit-pack peers, who are unable to boast the sizable honour, as Emin now can, of an entire room devoted to their art, bought for the nation by the Tate.

En passant, I learnt that she is a stickler for a dress code – and has been mortified on the occasions when she has turned up in inappropriate wear (it is not unusual, these days, to see her in the social columns of magazines such as Tatler). And more arresting still, given her reputation – will she ever live down that Oliver Reed television performance the year her bed was shortlisted for the Turner Prize? – Emin now considers it bad manners and bad business to turn up pissed at her own openings, particularly since many of her existing or prospective collectors are likely to be present.

Why, La Trace has even taken to wearing sensible shoes (Gucci loafers), having done a Naomi in her platforms down some restaurant stairs in Rome, with the consequence that her summer was spent in a leg brace, convalescing in style with Ruth and Richard Rogers in Tuscany.

She has not, of course, turned into a complete goody-goody: her Pamela Anderson-ish love of her cleavage remains firmly intact – each day in Istanbul, there were visible signs of a new Agent Provocateur bra in some outlandish confectionery colour; she can be quite snappy with pushy waiters, and sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, with me; she spoke high-handedly to an obviously doting young journalist, upbraiding her for not sending over her copy to be checked for inaccuracies which – Emin made unambiguously clear – were plentiful.

During one of our walks from here to there, Emin suspected that she had been touched up by a gang of local men and pursued them yelling a torrent of Turkish and English expletives – which may have been understandable but was hardly sensible as she later admitted: “I mean, they could have had a knife.”

On another trot around town, talking about her teeth – an unsightly snaggle below, dentures above – without any warning, she suddenly disgorged the latter, revealing an arc of bare gums. This struck me as a most complicated gesture, daring you to be disgusted or perhaps challenging you to rise above your disgust. Some years ago, an old boyfriend sold a photograph of her taken in a similar vein to a newspaper – which was said, not surprisingly, to have upset her.

It was partly an odd thing to do because Tracey is quite defiantly proud of her beauty, having only fairly recently discovered that she is not, in fact, ugly. In a newspaper questionnaire asking her to rate her looks from 1 to 10, she awarded herself the top mark. A response which recalls the sort of playful arrogance Jeanette Winterson goes in for – the writer, like the artist, is either loathed or adored – who once nominated her own novel as best book of the year.

Emin’s reading of what is happening to her is that she’s “going through some middle-aged thing, definitely”: not sure of where she belongs and wants to live – is she Mediterranean, like Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot father, or seaside-resort England, like her mother? She still wants to have a child, and knows that she needs to modify her drinking drastically before that were ever to happen.

In 1999 she gave up spirits when her then boyfriend of six years – the artist Mat Collishaw – threatened to leave her if she didn’t, which, as it happens, he did anyway. (They remain the best, if not better, of friends.) Next on the hit list last December were cigarettes, and she hasn’t had a puff since. Smoking has always been forbidden in her gracious-sounding Huguenot home – which did surprise me, since that unbohemian attitude seems a bit uptight for any artist, let alone Emin. Sex was recently offlimits, including, she makes it emphatically clear, with herself: “It’s a human thing that you crave for or need, but I don’t want to mix it up with physical affection, which I’ve done a lot in my life. That’s why I started having sex when I was so young, you know.” And, now, even the white wine might have to go.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve got a drink problem, actually,” Tracey said. “Yeah, I do. I’m not trying to find another thing that’s wrong with me, but I really have because I’m such a nice person and I have a couple of drinks and I’m really good fun and then I’m really not fun.” This was clearly on her mind, because an hour or so later, she said: “I was thinking about this last night: how can I have spent so much of my life drunk? All the mistakes I’ve ever made in my life have been when I’ve been drunk. I haven’t made hardly any mistakes sober, ever, ever. Ever, ever, ever. All the mistakes have been made when I’ve been drunk.”

There can be something touching about the way Emin expresses herself, and this statement is a case in point. It is so very naked and guileless, unprotected by what most of us would consider normal worldly artifice. She and her art – the two, in her case, being inextricable – are often accused of childishness. But I would make the distinction that Emin is sometimes childlike in her simplicity and in her inability, most unusual in an adult, particularly one with her experiences, not to be trusting.

Since I also found the artist to be in the main both thoughtful and thought-provoking, I was disappointed on my return from Istanbul to find her regurgitating the same old piss-pot exhibitionist schtick on Paul Merton’s Room 101. Oh Tracey, I groaned, why are you letting yourself down? Why do you insist on making yourself into a cartoon figure, handing out a rod to make it easier for your critics to beat you?

She was fine and funny – sensible, even – explaining why cocaine should be banned purely on the grounds that it turns people into bores, but really not fine or funny, grinning like a demented teenager, as she spouted gruesome puke stories from her drunken past. (Including the quite hideous detail that she once vomited down the sleeve of her jacket in the back of a taxi.)

The thing about Tracey, however, is that it’s not just her art that is autobiographical but her life itself, which is led with a constant

eye on its documentation; each step that she takes is instantly observed and analysed while she is taking it, and placed in a wider perspective of her known history. Seen in that light, what could be more Traceyesque than inviting us to find her erstwhile exploits disgusting, acknowledging that she wants to turn her back on such behaviour; saying to Merton that giving up the drinking would make her feel free. There’s a way in which Tracey’s growing up is a work in progress in which we, as her public, are somehow obliged to participate.
She arrived for our interview by the pool only ten minutes late. A bikini under a canary-yellow flimsy kaftan – bought in India and a gift from the man she has been referring to for some time now as “my Roman husband”; a pair of clunky gold necklaces from one of her half-brothers (her handsome father sometimes gives the impression of having lost count of the number of children he has sired), a ring from her beloved late granny, May Dodge, and one she would give her daughter were that larger gift ever to be granted; slim, long-fingered, eyes hidden behind giant shades, sulky expression. Do you speak Turkish, I ask her. “Better than you,” she replies, without a smile.

When she does smile, it is never that weird lopsided grimace caught in almost every photograph of her ever taken. It’s a sort of nervous tic – as I discovered watching her switch it on for the camera – which not only distorts her attractiveness but also in some subliminal way conveys the impression that she is haphazard and out of control. And, these days, this picture could hardly be more inaccurate.

It is quite difficult, in fact, to know which of Emin’s many achievements and projects to focus on, so we decided it was best to focus on them all: the predictable uproar around her room in the Tate; her first feature film, Top Spot, also controversial; her line of appliqué luggage and handbags for Longchamps; her show in Turkey and, my favourite of them all, Emin’s Ovals, the artist’s dream (she’s at the discussion stage with Richard Rogers and Ken Livingstone) of creating half-a-dozen beautiful lidos along the banks of the Thames.

This level of concentrated activity is increasingly the norm for Emin as her reputation continues to build internationally. In 2004 alone, for instance, apart from Istanbul, she has had two shows in Italy, one in Sydney (following her previous year’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), one in Wellington, and a joint show with David Hockney coming up in Santiago, Chile. Even two years ago, she had a ten-year retrospective at the renowned Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, concertinaed between openings in London (White Cube and the Barbican), the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, as well as a show in New York.

The greater Emin’s success, of course, the louder her critics rail against her… the most bitchily clamorous of whom, it is impossible not to notice, are men. Since most art critics are male and the art establishment is still dominated by men, you could say that this helps to explain the lack of easy empathy towards Emin, whose fans tend to be women and gay men. But when I read the playground taunts that she is “very stupid” – the sheer unrestrained nastiness of the attacks – I find myself smarting on her behalf, regardless of what I think of her art. Tracey is, after all, such an easy target for those of a snobbish disposition: the absence of school qualifications (she has no O or A levels), her working-class accent, her lack of polish, her obvious enjoyment of her newfound wealth.

Back in 1999 when I saw her Turner-shortlisted work in the Tate, it wasn’t the bed or wall of drawings that flickered in my imagination but a video from 1995 called Why I Never Became A Dancer. I stood in the dark, in a tiny room packed with people, and watched Tracey in cut-off jeans dancing to Sylvester’s disco classic You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). She was staring straight at the camera and something about it, and her expression, reminded me quite forcibly of myself as a young teenager, dancing in front of a mirror, practising my moves, full of optimism about the future.

I can’t have watched for long enough, however, because I only got half the point

of it: the suggestion of hope and buoyant innocence, but not its shattering aftermath. I missed the dedication: “This one’s for you” and the string of boys’ names “Tony, Eddie, Shane, Richard…”, and it was only later that I read the explanation of the piece.

When Tracey was in her early teens, life was pretty crap at school and at home – she was raped at 13, and abused at a far younger age – but at least she was a demon dancer (still is, and she knows it). So she entered a local dancing competition in Margate, with high hopes and a new set of teeth (her twin brother having knocked out the original top row, aided by the siblings’ lousy diet and unfamiliarity with the toothbrush). There she is twirling and swirling, feeling every inch the dancing queen, lifted by the admiring boys’ chants spurring her on to win. Until suddenly she realises that the boys are not cheering but jeering, and what they are yelling at her is: “Slag, slag, slag, slag, slag.”

It was a long time ago, but despite the partial catharsis of transforming the humiliation into a name-and-shame art work, Emin is still stung by the memory. When I make a reference to her tormentors destroying her dancing, she is swift to retort: “It wasn’t so much destroying my dancing, it was destroying me, wasn’t it?”
Tony, one of the original jeering boys, recently wrote her a letter to apologise, saying that now his daughters are the same age that Tracey was at the dancing competition and he was mortified to think of the effect his taunts must have had on a developing young girl. Would Tracey forgive him, he asked – and she does. When the Daily Mail went in for one of its regular Emin-bashing routines after her embroidered tent was destroyed in the recent Momart warehouse fire – the artist received another contrite letter, this time from the woman whom the newspaper had paid to sew a cut-price replica of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.

This new name-calling strikes me as displaying the same sort of cowardly tribalism as the Margate lads, but those boys at least had the excuse of being young and ignorant. Emin’s first response when I ask her what she makes of the grown-up men who call her “stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid” is measured: “I think a lot of them haven’t met me and a lot of them have just heard my accent and then they judge you from it.”

Pretty soon, however, she is rather less measured: “I think some of them w*** off about me. I think they go to bed and they see my face and they think about my tits and they toss off. And then they don’t have to shag their ugly wives and they feel really sick with themselves and they’ve got to get up and do the same thing again and again and again, and they look at someone like me and I just really get up their nose. I really wind them up.

“I’m a woman, I like my life, I’m lucky in what I do, and I’m very wealthy doing what I do. And no one gave me anything. I made this for me and that puts you in a far different situation. I’m independent, and I’ve got really lovely friends, I really love my home, I love my lifestyle, I travel around the world doing what I do, and I’m in a privileged, fantastic position which I got myself into. So I think it’s resentment,” she concludes.

The Spectator was obliged to publish an apology to Emin and pay her legal costs when, earlier this year, the writer Philip Hensher suggested that the artist was responsible for mounting a homophobic harassment campaign against him after he had abused her in print. (Hensher is gang leader of the We Hate Stupid Tracey Club.)

“The point is, apart from anything else, I’m hardly going to be accused of being homophobic,” she says. “I’m a gay icon.” You mean, you’re hardly going to bite the hand that feeds you? “It’s not even about that. I was really hurt by it and really angry. You know, ‘some of my best friends are gay’? Well, I have hardly any friends who aren’t gay. It was just so stupidly ridiculous. He hadn’t done his homework. He didn’t know about my work for the Terence Higgins Trust or seen whom I’m associating with,” she says. “But I did feel genuinely sorry for him because it’s a really horrible thing to happen to someone and it must be driving him mad, but it’s not me.”

She doesn’t want to expend the energy or time (or money, presumably), in mounting endless legal suits: “But there’s so much stuff said about me that’s not true, so now what I try to do if something is hurtful and wrong is send an e-mail or letter immediately, saying, ‘This is not true… at no time have I ever said this…’ I don’t ask for an apology because it’s only tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.”

As for the writers who assert that the Tate was somehow bamboozled into buying a roomful of Emins, they clearly have no clue how such things work: how long it takes to make such a decision (a minimum of three years), how many people are involved in approving that decision, and so on. As it happens, the Tate has been nominating her work for their permanent collection for some years now: “It’s happened time and time again, but the committee has always decided against it – because it said f*** in it too much, or the work was too conservative or didn’t fit within the budget; there are millions of different reasons,” Emin says. “The point is that the work can’t just be bought on whim. It is really discussed, it’s really thought about; it’s a whole committee of about 40 people that argue this out. And it has to be like that because otherwise you could end up with a load of crap for the rest of history.” Naturally, she thinks it’s “quite cool, actually” – that you can walk in to Tate Britain and say, “Can you tell me where the Tracey Emin room is?” And when the Tate Modern opened, she recalls, “My auntie’s friend said, ‘Can you tell me where Tracey Emin’s work is?’ (as opposed to, say, the Francis Bacon or John Constable room) and the attendant said, ‘If I had a penny for every time I was asked that, I wouldn’t be standing here now.’ Sweet, wasn’t it?”

The morning I asked to see the Tracey Emin room, the attendant told me that it is the question she, too, is most often asked. From her observations, people either take one look at the work and walk straight out or they stay for hours, poring over each individual piece. Of all the YBAs – Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk et al – the young British artists who made such an impact in the Nineties, it is Emin who has endured thus far as the real crowd-puller. Partly this is because in our celebrity-driven, confessional culture, Emin satisfies on both counts. She is far more likely to be featured in a fashionable glossy or a colour supplement, say, than in a serious art magazine – as the Tate’s own house journal has pointed out. Emin herself says, “Each week I get between 60 and 100 requests, whether it’s to appear on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! or Celebrity Weakest Link or my favourite one, Celebrity Mastermind. That was, ‘Really, I think you may have the wrong person.’ Tracey Emin talking about herself, yeah! ‘When was your first show in a London gallery?’ The point is, they don’t ask other artists but they do ask me – which is why when I got the phrase ‘media whore’ thrown in my face last year, I thought, ‘Oh my God, if you only knew.'”

She has done Room 101, as we know, and Question Time and Have I Got News For You, which she enjoyed and will be going on again soon. She’s particularly proud of having been nominated for the Dimbleby lecture: “I mean, I’m not going to get it, but if people know what that is they realise what an absolute honour it is just to be nominated. It’s pretty nice and special because it means that there’s a board of academics that think I’ve obviously got some insight into things.”

But what of the work itself? What I notice is that it’s much easier to intellectualise what one dislikes about her pieces than what one appreciates. So although it may not be exactly “crap”, I have no time for her pink neon loping scrawl: Is anal sex legal, and its retort: Is legal sex anal. To me, it’s shallow, glib, gimmicky, as babyishly sensational – and on about the same level – as the fcuk advertising campaign. There must be better ways of addressing gay rights, if that is what prompted her to make it. That aside, I’m intrigued, moved, unsettled, disconcerted, upset, disturbed, tickled by most of the rest of the work in the room. The way it connects is visceral, reaching into parts of the psyche, to borrow from advertising myself, that other art doesn’t reach. What the art is not, which is something her detractors are always accusing it of being, is an unmediated confessional splurge. Both the horridness and the sweetness of Emin’s life are very firmly and, indeed, artfully edited to create a certain impact. She is quite capable of withholding in both her art and beyond it; she hasn’t, for instance, disclosed the identity of the boy who raped her or the man who abused her. And, on a happier note, she won’t talk about her new boyfriend, or even say that she has one – although this is a bit irritating since she does insist on introducing the subject of her “Roman husband” quite often.

On one of the walls of her room in the Tate are the handwritten pages – all 4,000-odd words – of Emin’s short story called Exploration of the Soul. It was published in the Independent on Sunday, as well as in a limited-edition book, in 1999: the same year as the Turner Prize shortlisting. It’s all there: the unhealthily intense relationship with her twin brother, the sinister male presence, a very disturbing suggestion of anal rape, and after “the police woman was talking to me – but I kept kind of sleeping… Dear God I thought – every part of me is bleeding” … “And he was rubbing his hands across my chest – my tiny little chest – my bony little ribs – I WAS ONLY TEN FOR F***’S SAKE” – the stifling fear of the dark (something that still terrifies Emin) “left alone… saturated in my own piss – too scared to breathe”, the knocked-out teeth, the teenage rape, the confusion of love and neglect, “Daddy gone”, and then his hotel – and their childhood home – boarded up…

I remember reeling when I read that in between the fashion and the food on a Sunday morning. It was such a direct assault with no leavening banality to make it more bearable. And, after my initial scepticism – oh please! so now Tracey Emin thinks she’s a writer – came the shock that she could write. And that she was able to evoke a certain sort of childhood – I did presume her own – in a way that made me feel absolutely that I was there with her under the bedsheets, in the bath, scrabbling in the strawberry patch looking in vain for our pet rabbit.

This is the way Emin’s art can work at its most effective – taking you unawares, making you catch your breath, knocking you sideways. It can happen, in a more muted way, in the most unlikely places. In the British Airways business lounge at Istanbul airport, for instance, an inspired executive has hung two Emin drawings. They have such a peculiar impact in that sterile setting; as exciting as coming across an original masterpiece, but also charming and intimate. What must go through the heads of the busy business people, tapping away on their laptops, when they look up and see: a pool of white space and a scribble of a bird on a high-up branch with another rather forlorn-looking bird below – “That’s Mat up there and that’s me,” the artist explains; a woman’s body, a pool of something nasty between her legs, various implements. Does it put them off their stride? Do any of them stop what they’re doing and get up to have a closer look?

If you think Tracey is good at what she does – as I happen to, not always but mostly – it is because she does know what she’s doing. At the age of 23, she talked herself into a place at Maidstone Art College, emerged with a First and went on to the Royal College of Art where she graduated with an MA in painting – although she describes herself as “a crappy painter” who was a bit of a misfit there. Her contemporaries were into abstract art, while she was into exploring “Byzantine frescoes and Edvard Munch”. And, rather amusingly, for those who assume she was one of the groovy Goldsmiths’ gang: “When Damien and all that lot were doing Frieze in Building One, I was in Turkey doing watercolours.”

While we are engaged in our interview by the pool – I more or less have to persuade Tracey, a fanatical swimmer, that it would be impractical to conduct it actually in the pool – the silence is broken by the muezzins’ periodic wails beckoning the faithful to prayer in Istanbul’s many mosques; it’s a great stereophonic sound, rising and filling the air all around us.

In the evening, we meet up again for drinks at the Pera Palas hotel, where Mata Hari, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie used to stay. And, more recently, Julio Iglesias and our Tracey (not together) – although she hasn’t yet got a room named after her like the others. Emin did a performance here for the 1997 Istanbul Biennale. At that time, she recalls, you couldn’t have a Turkish man in your hotel room – and so she decided to open up her room to the public. At one point she had 80 people crammed in, listening to her stories, trying to work out what she meant by transforming the space into a love poem, looking at the photographs she had placed under the doilies on the antique furniture, touching the bedspread appliquéd with the words, International Woman. (An early forerunner of her Longchamps suitcases, she says, limited edition of 200, a rosette on each with a handsigned drawing of a place Trace has visited, cost: £2,000.)

This new exhibition – Tracey Istanbulda – is in Platform, a converted bank, right at the heart of Istanbul’s tourist centre. Emin went to a show there at last year’s Biennale – she much prefers Istanbul’s art fair to the famous one in Venice – and decided that it was just the place for her to show work, which had only been created in Turkey and Cyprus. It’s been partially sponsored by the British Council who have “always been really cool to me. They are brilliant: ‘If you have a chance,'” Tracey says, with an impeccable plummy accent, “‘meet our woman Jenny in Madrid, she’s awe-fully nice.'”

This is her fourth visit to Turkey this year, and she’s been spending some time in Cyprus, where her father lives, too. Enver has come over especially for his daughter’s show, but relations between them are apparently somewhat strained at the moment; something to do with complications over the building of a house. “The land’s really beautiful, it’s just that I can’t… what it is, it’s a bit of a macho society to say the least and it’s very difficult to get things done,” Tracey says. “When it really comes to it, you have to be hands-on, you have to be there and I don’t have time. So either I let my dad finish it – do it how he wants which is not what I want at all – or just come back to it later.” I suspect the tensions are because she chose to postpone the project.

Enver sits, in his high peaked leather hat (a present from his daughter and Mat), suit and tie, surrounded by the bright youngish things of the art world. He smiles from time to time – a beautiful sunbeam of a smile – and doesn’t say much. He’s 83, perhaps a little deaf, walks slowly with a stick, but has the smooth, caramel skin of a much younger man. Tracey calls him “Daddy” and gets cross when he’s not attentive enough to her or the wine waiter. She’s quite openly tough with him, having encouraged him to come – the whole show struck me as a kind of love letter to him and his country – but insisting he’s responsible for sorting out his own accommodation.

Everyone rushes off to Tracey’s opening, and I hang back for Enver, who hasn’t a hope of catching up. Pretty soon, the others are nowhere in sight and I’ve no idea where I am – nor, I suspect, does my new chum. Arm in arm, we walk down the main shopping street, thronging with people, looking for the gallery. He says there’s a big sign with his daughter’s name on it and suddenly, there it is – Emin – a rather small sign, actually, pointing to an alleyway. “Come on,” I say, “let’s go.” But, alas, it is only a bakery; Emin, it transpires, being the Turkish equivalent of Jones or Smith.

We retrace our steps into the night and finally, thank God, stumble on a socking great banner – TRACEY ISTANBULDA – with a crowd queueing to get in. All the video work has been shown before, there was no money for shipping larger pieces, and Tracey made two new neons: It doesn’t matter My Friend it does Not matter To Cry is Beautiful, and its Turkish translation Bosver Bosver Arkadasim Aglamak Guzel (Tracey can rattle that off, no problem), and what she calls her sexy one: I Kiss You. They’re quite pretty, but that’s about it.
The videos are another matter. Actually, I think she’s hot stuff in this department – which is certainly why Michael Winterbottom, the respected young director, suggested she make a film, Top Spot, under the auspices of his production company, Revolution. The one that most insinuates of the three on show is the gentlest and oddly elegiac: the seaside, Cyprus, 1996; her father, stronger then, in white trunks walking into the surf, turning and smiling at the camera, a man – is it him? – singing in Turkish; then Tracey in a bikini, plumper but still a perfect hour-glass figure, engulfed by the water, her words, a sort of poetic rhapsody to the enduring encirclement of life – the sea, the stars, the sun – end with “I love you Daddy.”

When Tracey and her twin were seven, their father left home. Tracey’s mother, Pam, became pregnant by Enver 40 years ago, on an alcohol-drenched night that was meant to signal the end of their affair. Pam decided not to abort and Enver – who tells me he gave up drinking on the day the twins were born and recites the date, in true AA fashion, or perhaps in the fashion of a proud parent – spent half the week in Margate with his new family, apparently with the blessing of his wife in London. Tracey remembers coming to Turkey for months at a stretch when she and her brother were tiny. Then, one day, Enver found Pam in bed with his driver and later attempted, unsuccessfully, to run them over. So that was the end of that relationship.

Tracey says that although her childhood must have had its good points, her mother has told her that she was never happy. On one of our walks, I notice that one of her feet turns slightly inwards, and

she tells me she was knock-kneed as a child and teased about it. She spent hours on her own practising how to walk properly and, for that matter, talk properly since she was also afflicted with an appalling lisp. Even now, just occasionally, certain words are accompanied by the suggestion of a clicking sound, as though her tongue is awkwardly hammering the roof of her mouth. When I ask her whether her forties are the best time of her life, she says: “Damn sight better than my thirties and nothing could be worse than my twenties, apart from my teens or my childhood. So there you go, it is getting a lot better.”

Growing up was difficult, she says, because she and her brother were left alone so much: “It wasn’t my parents’ fault – my mum had to work all the time and my dad wasn’t there. But there were no rules and I think that children actually need a certain amount of rules. They need to brush their teeth because otherwise their teeth fall out, right? It is a kind of known thing. And children need to do their homework because it’s part of their education. But saying all that,” she suddenly seems wary of how this may sound, “I am fiercely independent and I probably wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for the way in which I was brought up.”

If you did have children, you would bring them up differently? “You can say that again, yeah.” You would be very much into rules and structure? “Yeah.” When I say that I’ve never read her talking about the period when she was abused, she says: “Not in the newspapers, no. I’m going to wait until I’m really mega f****** famous and then I’ll make a big billboard.” Is it complicated; are you protecting the person? “No, I’m protecting myself.”

Top Spot is the name of a Margate nightclub where the local teenagers would go to make out; it is also, as Tracey the film’s narrator informs us, the neck of the womb which is hit by the penis during sex. It is, yes, autobiographical with all the writer-director’s childhood horror stories grafted on to the characters of six different girls – as though they would be too much for a single person to bear. One way out of the misery of Margate – which has prompted the censors’ 18 certificate, much to the film-maker’s dismay – is the suicide by the girl the boys call “slag”. Another, as the ending makes perfectly clear, is to leave and turn yourself into something splendid… Tracey, the original Margate girl, amply demonstrating the alternative route.

It is, in a way, another exploration of the soul; only this time, perhaps, more of an expiation of the soul. There’s the rape, the teeth, and the same hints of abuse. One of the girl’s lines first appeared in that story: “I’d watch him from the corner of my eye – his hands down his trousers – always fiddling with himself. Always looking at me-”

The film has its moments – the girl in her school uniform, an echo of that earlier video piece, turning and turning, the colours all darting and electric, to Shirley and Co screeching: “Shame shame shame, shame on you, if you can’t dance too”; and a certain sort of

Beryl Bainbridge hint of strange sexual games between an adult woman and the girls, the latter fantasising about burning her home down, lighting the paper that glows and leaps in a dance of its own in the dark. But, for the most part, it’s too messy and flat and amateurish to be convincing for me, and – worst of all – I’m afraid I found it boring.

I had mentioned Bainbridge to Emin because until relatively recently, the writer had drawn exclusively on her early life for her novels. Then ten years or more ago, almost as though there was nothing left in her own small past to explore, Bainbridge turned her back on herself and switched to making her fiction out of major historical characters. I wondered whether the artist, whose own collection of short stories is coming out next year, could ever imagine herself making a similar journey.

In the future, which may or may not have something to do with the “Roman husband”, Tracey said that she plans to return to painting, in the hope, presumably, that with time on her hands and experience on her side, she’ll be less “crap” at it. She’s going to buy a studio in Rome and work on a series of 20 oil paintings. Her subject? You’ve guessed it. But it will also be Emin in some sort of broader historical context than her own life. Nude? “Maybe… maybe not. But I can see them in front of my eyes and I want to spend the longest time… like just a week painting the gesso on to the canvas and I want to build up the oil paint really, really slowly… the smell of it, this massive beautiful room in Rome and these lovely windows, and just the smell of the oil painting. There’s just me – no telephone, no office – me with very little clothes on because it’s really hot, and I’ll be making these oil paintings which maybe no one will see for a long time. But that’s what I’d really like to do.”

On our last night in Istanbul, there was another party held in honour of Emin and her show. More than 800 people, we were told, had visited the gallery the previous day – and the numbers have held up, with the exhibition closing today. Everyone is dancing to disco and soon comes the unmistakable thudding beat of Sylvester. The crowd parts and Tracey is on her own, brown skin gleaming, grinning broadly and perfectly symmetrically… “make me fee-eel, mighty real, make me – ooooh, ooooohhh”, and as she cocks her ears, what she hears, this time round, is: “star, star, star, star, star.”