Bad girl of British art grows up

Artist Tracey Emin poses in front of her painting Distant Memory (left). Her most famous work is My Bed (far left), consisting of a rumpled bed surrounded by empty vodka bottles, cigarette packets and condoms, which sold at auction last year for $5 m
Artist Tracey Emin poses in front of her painting Distant Memory (above). Her most famous work is My Bed, consisting of a rumpled bed surrounded by empty vodka bottles, cigarette packets and condoms, which sold at auction last year for $5 million.PHOTO: REUTERS
Artist Tracey Emin poses in front of her painting Distant Memory (left). Her most famous work is My Bed (far left), consisting of a rumpled bed surrounded by empty vodka bottles, cigarette packets and condoms, which sold at auction last year for $5 m
Artist Tracey Emin poses in front of her painting Distant Memory. Her most famous work is My Bed (above), consisting of a rumpled bed surrounded by empty vodka bottles, cigarette packets and condoms, which sold at auction last year for $5 million.PHOTO: REUTERS

Basel, Switzerland - British artist Tracey Emin seems stressed and ruffled as she weaves through crowds of deep-pocketed collectors to reach three of her pieces on prominent display at Art Basel.

"It's a trade fair, isn't it? People are shopping," she said at the largest contemporary art fair on the planet, which opened to the public last Thursday.

Emin, one of Britain's most famous living artists, said that showing her work at the Lehmann Maupin gallery booth at Basel, inside halls teeming with art enthusiasts and investors, was different from exhibiting in dedicated museums and galleries.

"It's heightened commerciality on an extreme level. You've got billionaires and millionaires and art lovers that are getting in from all over the world and they have come here to buy art," she said.

A vast array of artworks by 20th-century masters including Picasso, Calder and Warhol, mixed in with today's cutting-edge creations, are on display across 284 galleries at the fair.

The 51-year-old artist, who entered the art scene more than two decades ago as part of the wild Young British Artists movement, says she thinks investing in art is a good thing, "much better than buying other things, like gold bars".

But investment in art just to turn a buck is something she has no patience for.

"I don't like flippers. I don't like people who buy the work and then flip it. I've no respect for them whatsoever," she said.

Emin, known for her raw openness and often sexually provocative works, said attending Art Basel, where she was to be honoured last Saturday, "is absolutely exhausting", forcing her to face crowds of fans and hop from reception to party.

But fairs have an advantage too. "It's really brilliant at fairs because you can stand behind people and hear what they are saying," she said.

"If they say something nice, then it's good. But if it's negative, then it's a lot of fun for me, I can assure you. I am very confident and strong about my work so it doesn't really get to me, but it's good fun."

Lehmann Maupin has sold three Emin pieces at Art Basel, including a large bronze sculpture of a couple kissing passionately, called The Heart Has Its Reasons, for around £120,000 (S$211,646).

Her most famous work is perhaps My Bed, a 1998 installation consisting of a rumpled bed surrounded by the intimate debris of empty bottles of vodka, cigarette packets and condoms, which sold at auction last year for US$3.8 million (S$5 million).

That piece is currently showing at Tate Britain, alongside six of her recent figure drawings and two oil paintings by Francis Bacon.

Emin also has about 50 of her often highly sexualised works on display at Vienna's Leopold Museum, alongside 15 similar, if tamer drawings and poems by Egon Schiele, one of her great inspirations.

She said she was also planning a show alongside another one of her influences, Norwegian master Edvard Munch, in 2019 and "there's a possibility of Rodin".

Emin admits that her previous "bad girl" image has shifted over the years as she has become a staple of the art world establishment.

"I'm buying full-piece swimsuits now. I bought myself a leaf collector the other day, so I'm slowly catching up with my age," she said.

Agence France-Presse

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Bad girl of British art grows up'. Print Edition | Subscribe