Tracey Emin has never cared for privacy; “oversharing” is the point of her art. There’s an irony, then, to what happened this year. Just as the world sequestered itself – no exhibitions, no socialising, no face-to-face conversations – the Turner Prize nominee was told, alone at home, the most striking news of all. In her mid-fifties, she was facing death.
Rewind to spring, as the Covid crisis approached. There were signs already, Emin says over Zoom, that something inside her was wrong. “I kept thinking, why am I so tired? And I’d go out to dinner and have four glasses of wine, and the next day it would be like Russian roulette – I was so hungover, vomiting. Everything was difficult.
“And something was seriously wrong with my bladder, so every time I felt ill, I thought it was that – a UTI, or whatever. But, during lockdown, I realised it would be impossible for me to have a UTI, because I hadn’t been out of the house for 12 weeks. Then, during lockdown, I became more and more ill.
“I got an appointment with my urogynaecologist, and she found a giant tumour. I had an MRI scan the next day, and a phone call that night saying, ‘You’re going nowhere, you’re doing nothing – you’re going straight to hospital.’”
The diagnosis was squamous-cell bladder cancer. You may not have heard of it, but Emin had. “My mother died of the same cancer,” she says. “Four years ago today.”
Emin’s case was life-threatening. She underwent surgery less than a month later, on July 5. She had just turned 57. “I had my bladder removed, a full hysterectomy, my urethra, my lymph nodes and half my vagina.” After six-and-a-half hours in the operating theatre, she was sewn up and sent home to Spitalfields, where she lives alone. She’s unable to walk far, is given regular scans and blood tests, and has a stoma bag. At first she was on morphine; now she’s tamped it down to paracetamol.
Asked how she’s doing now, Emin is ebullient at first, but wavers. “I’m good. I’m fine – sort of fine. I’m recovering. It’s going to take about a year to get back to being half-normal. But I’m alive.”
Emin is the most honest of the Young British Artists, the group of Nineties enfants terribles. She took their devilish attitude, their willingness to shatter taboos, and turned it upon herself. The work everyone knows is My Bed (1999), strewn with condoms, cigarette packs and menstrual blood. It was nominated for the Turner Prize. The critic Adrian Searle had a typical response: “An endlessly solipsistic, self-regarding homage.”