Tracey Emin on beating cancer: ‘You can curl up and die – or you can get on with it’

‘I’m smiling and talking to you,”说 Tracey Emin, sitting at her kitchen table. “But it’s not always like this.” We’ve been delaying this conversation until she finally felt well enough. She has been spending a lot of time in bed, just resting. On the phone, she sounded weak, but today she is indeed smiling, getting excited as she speaks – the Tracey who I have been fortunate enough to get to know.

“Now I’ve got a terrible pain in my legs, it’s unbearable. That’s why I’ve been in bed. I’m determined to go for a walk later because I hardly ever go out. I have a urostomy bag, so I have a major disability. The more well I get, the more annoying it is. Previously it was all right because I was on morphine. But now I want to do things and I can’t.”

Her disability is the result of a massive operation last year to save her life when she found she had squamous cell bladder cancer. It worked: she announced recently, on Newsnight, that she’s had the all-clear. But it has cost her dearly: as well as losing her uterus, ovaries, lymph nodes, part of her colon, her urethra and part of her vagina, 她说: “I’ve got no bladder.” So for the rest of her life, she has to use a urostomy bag.

This is not private. Emin has spoken about her illness and gradual recovery with an honesty that has shown people who may have thought of her just as a loudmouth celebrity artist exactly how sensitive and courageous a soul she is. Why does she think she made it? “Fucking luck, number one. Number two, getting a good diagnosis and prognosis really fast. The other thing was: Covid was happening and most people weren’t going to the doctors or hospital, weren’t having checkups. I just felt so unwell, just thought really this is not right. And then the surgeon I had was fantastic. And I had robots! The robots were pretty nifty. The robots can go places and do things that human hands can’t.”

Emin thought her acclaimed exhibition at the Royal Academy with Edvard Munch, which opened for just nine days before lockdown, might be her farewell show. But both she and it now have a new lease of life with the exhibition reopening next week. This public ability to speak so universally about her illness, 我问, is it an extension of the retelling of her life that she’s being doing in the art world for more than three decades? A kind of performance art? It’s a crass question, 葡萄酒为情人节增添光彩, and she’s not having it: she’s speaking out, 她说, to help herself and others deal with challenges and stigma.

“Having a urostomy bag is quite a disadvantage for lots of reasons and it’s something that most people would want to keep a secret. It’s a very private thing because, 基本上, you’ve got part of your bodily function happening on the outside of your body. It leaks and things happen. I could be out somewhere public and it could happen – and people’d just think I’ve pissed myself or think I’ve been drinking. 还, I could come out of a disabled toilet and people would go: '哦, Tracey Emin’s been in there for ages, she’s putting her makeup on.’ First of all, I’m entitled to put my makeup on in a disabled toilet. But secondly, I’m not putting my makeup on, I’m not hanging out in there for the sheer hell of it. So it wasn’t a performance thing, and if someone thinks it is they can swap places – all right, see how much they’d like to be a successful artist without a bladder.”

But no one actually thinks she’s getting off on this, 他们做? “Someone said something horrible about me the other day on Instagram. 他们说: ‘She should just let up.’ I thought: ‘Fuck them – this is mine, I own it.’ What the fuck are they talking about? Let up from what? Let up from the fact that for the rest of my life I’ve got a bag attached to me with a load of piss in it? There’s different ways of dealing with stuff. You can go off into a corner and curl up and die, or you can just get on with it. If talking about it is getting on with it, expressing myself, then yeah I will, because it’s much better than the alternative – a hundred million times better.”

Emin’s Royal Academy show confirms her as a great modern painter, a raw and inspired abstract expressionist. And yet she is also someone who lives her life, if not as art, then very close to it. Anything that happens to her can become a story, 视频, a blanket, a neon text – or a media interview, another form of her artistic expression. She already had plenty to tell when she started showing what many called “confessional art” in her first exhibition at Jay Jopling’s White Cube in 1993. So am I wrong to see painting as her greatest achievement? Is the narration of her life, cancer and all, her true art?

She disagrees, saying that confession implies guilt. “I say something and it’s considered to be ‘a confession’. I’m not confessing that I had cancer, I’m not confessing that I’ve got a urostomy bag. I have had cancer and I have a urostomy bag. It’s a statement.”

She emphatically does not consider her life to be a work of art, which makes her polar opposites to her old neighbours in London’s East End, Gilbert and George. “Gilbert and George are performance artists. Everything they do is performing. I was their neighbour for 20 years and they kept that veneer up for the whole time. It never slipped. They carried my shopping home once – and it was the two smallest bags of shopping! As the three of us walked down the road, I knew it looked really good, they knew it looked really good. They think. They calculate. They understand. They’re visionaries. But I’m not planning, I’m not understanding. I’m making mistakes as I go along.”

Yet she obsessively reworks this raw material. She took photographs and kept records in hospital, not to make art about her cancer, 她说, but because documenting her experiences is what she always does. She is allowing the Guardian to publish some of those extraordinary pictures, which rank among her most arresting, disconcerting and unforgettable work. She even had to legally define the boundary of her art and life last year. “When I thought I might die, we had to go over all my will and redo everything really fast. And we had to get some sort of clarity about what is art and what isn’t – because could you imagine people putting stuff of mine together and saying it’s art and it definitely wasn’t!” Then again, she says with a grin, “I’d be happy with a couple of Picasso’s handkerchiefs.”

One example of the way Emin’s life and art merge is her ouija board. It is classed as an artwork and was recently shown at White Cube. Yet it is not an ironic artefact. I thought she was joking, 首先, when she initiated a seance at a party a few years ago. And I make the same mistake for a moment now, when she starts relating an uncanny experience as she came round from her cancer surgery.

“When I was in hospital, after I came out of intensive care, the nurse came in and she said to me: ‘Have you had anything funny happen? Has anyone strange been here?’ And I went: ‘Yeah, 实际上. I saw all these dead people come out of the wall and they were all surrounding the bed.’ She said to me: ‘Why didn’t you call me? What did you say to them?’ I said I told them to fuck off. Some of them looked like roundheads, they were strange. 我想: ‘Oh fuck, they’re coming to get me.’”

Before going into hospital, Emin tried to make a list of the departed loved ones she wanted to meet, including her mother, her cat and her father. A friend stopped her. “Because if I went into hospital thinking: ‘Oh yeah, I’ll hook up to my mum,’ then there’s a good chance you’ll go off to that other side.”

It is impossible to understand Emin, I have learned, if you don’t accept her spiritual beliefs. Like William Blake, one of her heroes, she intuits a world beyond the visible. 毕竟, she proclaims: “An artist should perceive the world differently from other people. That’s what makes them an artist.” It’s a Romantic idea of the artistic vocation, very different from the rationalist attitude to art that sometimes prevails today, with even the Turner judges doubting that artists are special, gifted, insightful individuals. 出色地, Emin is. She sees ghosts and dreams about her lost ones. She lives as much in the past as the present.

“It’s not religious beliefs,“ 她说. “It’s scientific really. I really do think there are other dimensions. I think that time is of one. I’m sure there is a me that’s sitting on the end of my bed looking at me when I was a little girl. I’m sure all these ‘mes’ are spread over time. It’s not life after death, it’s more like a transition into another realm.”

After she had her biopsy, she awoke to see her dead cat, Docket, poking his head around the door to watch over her. “I realised it was a dream. But it was so brilliant. Docket was actually in the room. 迷人的. He’d come to see if I was all right.” This blurring of dreams and reality is where Emin’s paintings begin. Her beautiful new house, a neoclassical work by Robert Adam built in the 1770s, has a superb skylit painting studio that was added by a previous owner, a “Bloomsbury artist”, then converted into a kitchen.

It is now a studio again. Against the wall stands one of the first paintings she has begun since her illness – and it is the record of a dream. It depicts her mother carrying her on her back in the choppy sea off Margate. “It sounds so corny and awful, but it was a dream I had.” She dreamed she was drowning and her mum saved her. But this picture doesn’t satisfy her. It’s got the “Max Beckmann problem”, 她说, referring to the German expressionist who she finds “too illustrative”. She hates the idea of doing illustrations. Her paintings may start along those lines, but by the time they reach the wall they are mighty oceans of red or tempests of black and blue. She once showed me a picture of us talking about art – but, to my chagrin, the figures had vanished in abstraction by the time it was finished.

Returning to painting was exhausting and terrifying, 她说. “Just starting – oh my God! I was trying to open up the primer tins and it was, '哦, Christ!’ That stuff I really took for granted. It makes you think about people with physical disabilities and what they have to get over. It’s pretty intense and amazing.”

She’s planning to get a punchbag to build up her strength, for she really hurls and pummels the paint on. She identifies with Jackson Pollock because, like him, she paints from “inside” the canvas, rather than standing safely “outside” it. “Any painter will tell you, the failures within painting kill you – they kill you! You go to bed mournful, you go to bed feeling it’s the end of the world. 它的 suffering if you don’t get it right. That’s quite a big deal to put yourself through. It’s this battle. But it’s just you and it. And you kind of – it sounds so pretentiousbut it’s like a vortex, it pulls you in.”

Hanging in her front room is her painting The Ship, a wondrous whirl of pink, white and black that started as a love scene and became a typhoon-tossed homage to her Margate forerunner JMW Turner. We both love this painting and I can understand why she refused to sell it after it blew away everyone else in last year’s RA summer show. Looking at it together I see there’s no gap between Emin the “confessionalist” and Emin the painter. She can tell her life on TV or slap it onto canvas and the results are equally powerful. And she intends to continue her adventures in art and life.

“This is the happiest I’ve ever been,“ 她说. “There are things I was scared of before that I’m not scared of any more. That makes you happier and more content as a person. I’m thinking about getting some kittens – or a dog.”

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