During my time at university, I went to see a retrospective of Tracey Emin’s work called ‘Love is What You Want’ at the Hayward Gallery. I didn’t know much about her beforehand, only that she did what she wanted and caused a stir, which was the kind of woman I wanted to be. As I walked around the gallery, looking at her searing neons, appliquéd blankets and trembling monoprints, my connection to her work felt immediate and visceral. It was the first time I’d seen art that felt as though it was speaking directly to me. I didn’t know that it was possible to tell the story of your own life like that; to take the hurt and the dreams caught beneath your skin and make them visible. Tracey pulled her shame from her mouth like a thread of light and hung it on the gallery walls for everyone to see.
I bought a book-length collection of the column she wrote for the Independent from 2005-2009 from the gallery bookshop. She described dancing by the jukebox in her favourite East-End pub, and in a curious twist of fate, I ended up working there. The landlady had nurtured young artists in the 90s, when they set up studios in old Shoreditch buildings, and she and Tracey remained good friends.
In her columns, Emin writes about whatever is happening in her life; the art she is making, her dreams, her friends, heartbreak, ruminations on time and people she has lost. My favourite pieces are the ones in which she writes a version of London that I recognise. We lived worlds apart and yet our lives occasionally intersected on certain streets and in the pub. We knew and loved some of the same people. It is possible to pick one of her pieces at random and gain access to her world, but the collection as a whole forms a record of a woman at a specific point in time, marrying her life and artistic career. The columns helped guide me towards my own path, and so it feels difficult to choose one in isolation.
Working at the pub was a heady, exhausting time in my life; I did long shifts and navigated the landlady’s unpredictable moods. Tracey and her friends were not always kind to me, and I felt hurt by her disinterest, because her work spoke to me so intimately. Yet, the proximity to art and glamour felt like worlds away from the place I had come from, and the pub became the first home I made on my own terms, in the life I was building for myself, which was the life that I wanted. It could be cruel and difficult, but I was happy to pay that cost to spend my days around people who had built their own lives too.
Rizzoli International, 2011. Her column for the Independent is available online here