In the history of contemporary culture, David Bowie and Tracey Emin are probably the two English artists who are most hyped about. The excitement around their work can’t be undermined as their contributions in their own field of work and sometimes beyond that has been commendable. Though majorly belonging to different forms of art, they shared a love for visual arts which probably connected them despite being ages apart.
The ever-charismatic David Bowie in a sense introduced the visual aspect in popular music. He reinvented music and stagecraft with his alter ego Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s and became one of the torch bearers of glam rock. In Bowie’s long career, spanning from the 1960s to 2016, he constantly broke and remodelled himself to stay afloat—each decade brought out a new side of him. While most people known him as a singer-songwriter and an actor, Bowie was also a painter, an art collector and an art patron. While describing Tracey Emin, Bowie once said that she is “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh”.
Tracy Emin, on the other hand, evolved from an ‘enfant terrible’ of the young British artists to a royal academician in the Royal Academy of arts. Stunning people with her autobiographical and confessional art, her wide range of work cover drawing, painting, sculpture, film, photography, neon text and sewn appliqué. Just like millions of teenagers her age, she admitted being heavily influenced by Bowie and his works.
Here, we look back at a conversation between the two which took place over an email conversation in 2001 after Bowie decided to open a visual gallery for art students. Honestly though, the meeting shouldn’t be tagged as an interview because it’s too cool to be one and also because, at times, one might get confused who the interviewer and who the interviewed is. Bowie literally started asking Emin what she was wearing at that moment to which the bold and candid Emin said among other things, “expensive underwear from Agent Provocateur.” And they were just getting started. Here, we look at a few highlights of their candid chat about art, drag and fame.
When Emin was asked about the “truth” in her art, she replied that though that is what she tries to capture and portray, her art is “edited, considered” and “calculated”. Bowie’s take on this is so deep that it will surely make one start pondering about it: “If all our truths are based on a series of spiralling misrepresentations, are we then left with searching for some mysterious logos of our own devising? A kind of ‘gut feeling’ for truth? Aren’t we just creating truth as a survival tactic?”
Talking about the history of art the two held contrasting opinions. While Emin believed that someone couldn’t be “a successful artist by parodying something that has gone before” Bowie countered it by saying, “so much well-known work over the last 10 years or so has been a restatement of earlier stuff.” However, Emin admits that it was Bowie’s LP cover for Lodger which was inspired by Schiele that got her to Egon Schiele and take an interest in German Expressionism.
Emin’s questions to Bowie were particularly interesting. She raised the topic of drugs and asked Bowie about the relationship between art and certain mood enhancers: “Do you think being ‘out of it’ adds to the creative process, or is this a myth? I mean, Van Gogh and absinthe, Victorian writers and opium, rock stars and cocaine.” To which Bowie nonchalantly explains how “having experienced drugs, the work is never the same again.” He cited examples of his albums which were drug induced and which weren’t and stated that “it’s all contradictory.”
They had a little tongue in cheek moment while having a discussion about fame, one in which Bowie was asked that if his superstar status limits his freedom of movement answered, “Difficult to pop down the shops?” Blimey, Trace! It’s delightful and yet a bit worrying that you are as much a victim of the Tabloid Nation as anyone else. I must really scrutinise your work a little more thoroughly. After all the front pages and column inches that you have engendered, is it really a problem for you to pop down the shops?” Which made Tracey, in turn, ask, “You once said the best way to travel in London is on public transport: all you have to do is wear a hat and read a Greek newspaper. So what disguise are you wearing today, David?” to which “I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve” came the answer.
Bowie’s sparkling wit though shines throughout, excels in the part where he is asked about the true value of fame. Bowie said, “I certainly fancied my own spoonful of it when I was young. I was more than downcast to find that fame brought nothing more than good seats in a restaurant. There is nothing there to covet. The nature of fame seems to have shifted recently. I understand that it doesn’t even get you a Madonna ticket these days. So I won’t be recommending it to my offspring. Having influence is more rewarding for feeding ego. Satisfaction and excitement with one’s work is the biggest buzz, though.”
Culminating their conversation in a topic of common interest, Bowie expressed how his idea of “visual arts” is usually filling out a space and how he’s not sure if it can be called “art” at all on being tagged an “artist and not a musician” by Emin. However, we can’t agree with Bowie’s humble claim.
For the full email conversation, view the Guardian article here.