Exhibition: Tracey Emin: Love is What you Want, Hayward Gallery, London, until August 29 2011
© Courtesy Tracey Emin
"I think," grins Tracey Emin, smiling into the camera as she walks through a park in her 1996 film, How it Feels, "I might have shared enough with the world."
This unfamiliar glint of self-aware conservatism might provoke a sigh of relief in her most devoted fans, let alone the critics who tire of Emin's relentlessly explicit style.
But a hint is all it is – a few yards away, on the other side of the darkened corridor, we get tampons and well-reasoned accounts of why cats are better than babies and humans. There are also shots of our heroine, barely dressed, legs akimbo, counting coins made to look like they've spilled from her crotch.
And who else has such a way with (frequently misspelt) words? "Drive it like a fast car," reads a giant patchwork next to postcards of Emin in various states of undress.
"Speed into the future. Don't be afraid. Feel free...and if you crash on the way at least you felt life." And for a moment, even if your opinion on the devil-may-care philosophy of a woman who is now a millionaire is veiled by cynicism, you can see her worldview. Take it or leave it, her energy emanates and glows like the neon signs in the rooms above her.
“I know the gallery inside out, back to front,” she tells me, shaking her highlighted hair and gesticulating.
“Because I used to live in Waterloo in a co-op flat. I was on the dole, and I had a ticket that allowed me to come to the Hayward for nothing. I would spend hours and hours walking around this gallery – sometimes not actually looking at the art, but looking at the architecture and the space.”
She says it’s like coming home. “I couldn’t imagine anywhere better and more fantastic. I hope I rose to the occasion. A lot of thought has gone into the show. I’ve enjoyed every single moment of working with the Hayward – it’s been fun, fun, fun.”
The entrance is surrounded by a whirl of her enormous appliquéd blankets, presented so that, “you can see the amount of work that goes into the stitching. When you see them like that it’s a wow factor.”
What with meeting the Prime Minister and opening exhibitions, she doesn’t always stitch them herself these days, using six employees in what she calls a “distribution of wealth.”
“But nobody sews something I can’t sew,” she stresses. “And nobody sews something I can’t sew myself. That’s the rule. They have to follow my stitch and the way I want it done.”
The tampons in the show were, she admits, a “major surprise”, but Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, the tent adorned with the names of all her bedfellows, is absent – burnt in a fire at Saatchi’s warehouse in 2004 – as is My Bed, the work which she exhibited to indelible effect at the 1999 Turner Prize.
“I made two seminal pieces of work in my lifetime,” she argues, hitting characteristically bullish tone.
“You have many great artists out there who will never make anything seminal. They will never change the perception of art. I have done that with these two.
“I’m happy that the bed isn’t in the show because Charles Saatchi is going to show it in 2012. He’s the custodian and he’s looked after it very well.
“As for the tent – what upsets me is that a lot of people didn’t see it. They think it’s about all the people I’ve f***** - it isn’t, it’s about all the people I’ve slept with, it’s about intimacy and love.
“Yeah, there was one-night stands there or half an hour alley jobs or whatever, but the truth is it was about intimacy.” The bag and the poles of the tent are in the show.
“In your life as an artist you have these big moments,” she reflects, recalling a South London Gallery show which sold out and representing Britain in Venice as two of them.
“But I would say this is the biggest moment in my art career, everything culminated together. And if this show isn’t appreciated or it doesn’t go well I can actually fight this one because I really like this show, I really love this gallery.
“I’m not proud – it isn’t that – I’m pleased with the work, with the way it looks, the way it feels…I feel comfortable. So I don’t have to defend it or fight for it. It’s doing it for itself.”
- Open 10am-6pm (8pm Thursday and Friday). Admission £7.50-£12. Book online.
Tracey Emin on British art, family and dogs at the press conference for Love is what you Want: