In the 1990s, the reaction to Emin’s work was, in part, discomfort — the discomfort of seeing a stranger’s life laid bare, used condoms and all. But it was sexism and snobbery, too. At the Royal College of Art in the late 1980s, she felt like an outsider, “a working-class female mascot”. Later, reviews of her exhibitions would “start off talking about my breasts or my accent. I don’t see that happening very much with, say, Jeff Koons.”
Emin makes work about the fullness of female sexuality, from desire to bitter disappointment. What people sometimes miss in her art is that, by using the facts of her life, she is saying something more broadly about female experience. Two decades after “My Bed”, much of it remains taboo.
A Fortnight of Tears might be Emin’s most personal exhibition to date. “After this show,” she says, “for me, there’s no turning back. If people don’t like it, if it unnerves people, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not going to change. It’s out now. It’s all here.”
And she is squaring up to her critics. “That’s a finger up to the people who think I can’t draw,” she says, pointing to the perfect foot described in a sweeping line in “But you never wanted me” (2018). It’s a moment of clarity in a figure that seems to struggle for definition, like a person overwhelmed by her environment. The struggle is not one of draughtsmanship; if some lines look precise, others hesitant or blurry, that’s because they describe the vicissitudes of an inward struggle.
At 55, Emin is more self-assured than the brash, brittle young woman who so riled the tabloids. There are flashes of her famous spikiness — when I remark that her four-metre bronze, “The Mother”, reminds me of Louise Bourgeois’ giant “Maman”, she shoots back defensively, “What, you mean you think it looks like a spider?” — but for most of the morning we spend together her manner is soft and open.
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself at all. I’ve had a brilliant, fun life,” she says, with a glint in her eye. “But I think living in party central — Tracey, the first person to arrive/last person to leave reputation — has not really helped my art career at all. I’ve slowly grown into the kind of artist I want to be.”