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

Emin

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?

City.

Friend or lover?

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?

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

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.”