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May 26 2012

Tracey Emin's hope for Margate resurrection as seaside town wins grant aid

Tracey Emin's show at the new Turner Contemporary gallery is the latest boost for ailing resort

Any seaside town worth its salt can be found in high spirits when the weather is hot, but Margate has more than one reason to rejoice this weekend.

The ailing resort's most famous daughter, artist Tracey Emin – freshly anointed as the local Olympic torch-bearer – has returned to open her first show at the pristine Turner Contemporary gallery on the seafront.

And, what is more, news has just broken that Margate will receive an extra government grant of £100,000 as one of retail guru Mary Portas's 12 pilot towns targeted for regeneration.

"It is brilliant," said Emin on hearing of the grant as she cut the ribbon on a new sweet shop in the hip Old Town quarter. "At first I thought we hadn't got the money when I heard Wolverhampton had won, but I am delighted. I want it to put Margate back on the map. It is badly needed because the town is in a tragic state."

If Brighton was once memorably described as a place "permanently helping the police with their inquiries", then much of Margate still looks as if it is on weekend release from a custodial sentence. Up the hill from the Old Town and the sparkling art gallery, the Cliftonville district remains crumbling and impoverished. Boarded up guesthouses and dingy hostels dominate.

"Anything that the middle of Margate needs, then Cliftonville needs it 10 times as much," admitted Emin.

But help may be at hand for Cliftonville, too, as the desolate Dalby Square has been earmarked for a £2m lottery-funded renovation.

"The benefits of the new gallery more or less stop any farther up the road from here," said Penny Ragozzino of the trendy Fort Café on the way to Cliftonville. "But we opened up here in October because of the gallery and our trade has been steadily growing. Lots of people from London are buying up cheap houses in Cliftonville now. It is phenomenal the number of new businesses that have started. There is a fantastic spirit here now."

Tawdry seaside towns in economic need are not rare in Britain, but what is rare is the positive impact of Turner Contemporary. In its first year it exceeded all hopes for visitor numbers, attracting half a million.

Speaking to Margate people and celebrity guests including Jerry Hall when her show opened on Friday night, Emin praised the local authority for giving the gallery free admission. "It has such a great knock-on effect," she said.

To win over those the artist described as "cynics" she wrote to each surrounding household, inviting them to see her show. The ploy has worked, with attitudes to Emin and the show generally much warmer than those of sceptical art critics.

"Tracey has made a difference and is popular here in Margate," said Margate-man Will Allsop. "It is a good beginning."

The gallery, too, has provided a focus for artistic regeneration and, as Emin pointed out, it has a secondary status as a shelter from the wind. "It is a free warm on a cold day," agreed Sarah Vickery of the town's Shell Grotto. "And it is clearly a good thing, but given that they spent £25m on it you would hope it did have some impact."

Vickery, who is campaigning for the redevelopment of the Dreamland amusement park, has watched several attempts at regeneration. While artists initially failed to move into expensive units in the Old Town, they are now colonising the cheaper area behind it. "You can't hothouse these things and just ship artists in, but the gallery has been a shot in the arm — although much of the effect so far is corralled around the gallery."

Vickery's partner, Colin Barber, who runs a vintage clothing store, highlights the lack of jobs for the high numbers of homeless Londoners and immigrants who are rehoused in Cliftonville.

Vickery agrees: "People always say Margate is so different to Ramsgate and Broadstairs. It is so edgy. But what they mean is it is rough."

Certainly it is a town that shouts out. Along the seafront, garish signs proclaim "Margate: the original seaside", "Café C Loves Tracey" or "There is no Such thing as the Dog Poo Fairy", while outside Primark a bare-chested youth with a beer in his hand calls out for passersby to admire his body. None of it is very far from the raw sentiments expressed by Emin inside the nearby gallery in her neon lights and blue paint.

Margate, loved by Turner as the home of great sunsets and of his mistress Mrs Booth, has its own kind of avant garde vibe. It is the sort of place you can overhear a discussion about whether or not dying your hair pink is a good idea when you are sunburnt, accompanied by a salty chuckle to rival Emin's own. So it seems natural that she should be chosen to carry the Olympic torch this summer. Whether she can also single-handedly deliver the future Margate is calling out for seems unlikely.

Her arrival on Friday was heralded by the descent of hundreds of international media and tourists to boost local retail sales, but she knows it is not enough and regularly calls for the reopening of Margate's caves, and the speedy redevelopment of the defunct amusement park.

Aptly, Turner Contemporary stands next to the town's lifeboat station, dwarfing its proportions, but it cannot rescue the town on its own, despite the high cost of its construction.

Time will tell if this marks the beginning of a boom for the seaside resort or just another of many ill-fated waves of optimism. As Emin told her guests on Friday night: "The last decades have not been at all kind to Margate, so it surely cannot get any worse." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 25 2012

The Saturday interview: Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin, who opens one of the biggest shows of her career today, talks about swapping sex for stargazing, why she likes David Cameron, and wanting her art to make people feel better

Demanding artist, selfish (her words) seeks an intelligent man with good sense of humour, probably not for sex because she's going through the menopause and has lost the urge, but definitely for laughs and companionship.

"I want love," says Tracey Emin. "I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again."

Emin is approaching 50 and she is worried about the possibility of a lonely, gentle descent to death. "I am going through the menopause and I have been for ages," she says. "It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It's horrible. And I don't look like that kind of person; you don't put menopause on top of my head, it doesn't associate with me."

Emin is talking as she finishes the installation of a show that she regards as one of the most important of her career, because it is in her home town of Margate.

The works going on public display from today are almost all new or never previously exhibited. They explore themes of love and eroticism, but overwhelmingly, they mark a farewell to the old Emin – the wild child, the one that got drunk all the time, the sex, the bed, the tent. Her "animal" lust has gone. Now there is the new Emin.

"People don't talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead, so you have to start using the other things – using your mind more, read more, you have to be more enlightened, you have to take on new things, think of new ideas, discover new things, start looking at the stars, understand astronomy … just wake yourself up, otherwise it's a gentle decline.

"For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I've got to start using my brain more – I've got to be more ethereal and more enlightened."

Emin is 48. In 2008 she told Piers Morgan she wanted to adopt children – an idea she scoffs at now. "I have friends who have adopted, and they had to radically change their life, their homes, the way they dressed – everything, to get through the adoption agencies. I am not going to change anything."

She's not even sure she'd make a good mother. "I'd make a good friend, not mother. I'm too selfish. I think a lot of mothers are selfish and they end up having children, but I don't want to put some small tiny person through that. I don't want to be Joan Crawford.

"I would really like the idea of someone small and cute to dress up, we all do, but that's not what it's about, is it? I don't want a mini-me."

The truth is she has now made a conscious decision not to have children, and finds herself something of a role model for other similarly minded women. "I'm never going to have children, I'm never going to be a grandmother, I'm probably never going to get married. I'm nearly 50, and it is not happening. I've got too much on the other side now, and I understand that."

But being childless can be difficult. "You're treated like a witch. And I'm not a witch, it is just that I have chosen to do things in another way. It is not by accident."

There are some stunningly beautiful works in her latest show, and much to get hearts singing, especially in the first room, which features a series of blue drawings bathed in exceptional light. "This room is about not being alone, and there's a nice feeling in this room. It's uplifting."

We look at some drawings of her in bed with a friend reading Daphne du Maurier short stories to her. "It was such a nice, cosy thing. No sex, just a really good story." Emin suddenly seems downbeat. "I've thought I experienced love, and now I'm nearly 50 I'm saying, have I? Maybe I haven't. Maybe I don't know what love is. Maybe what I thought was love was a kind of greed, or desire, or something? I think there's different kinds of love – that's where I'm at at the moment. But I don't think I've experienced love."

Emin came closest in her five-year relationship with fellow YBA (the so-called Young British Artists who emerged in the late 1980s) Mat Collishaw, which ended 10 years ago (they are still good friends). In 2010 she split up with boyfriend Scott Douglas, and her closest relationship now, she says, is with her cat, Docket.

"When you have a really good friend and they're reading you a book in bed and it's all cosy and all snuggly, that can be love, too. It doesn't have to be hardcore. There's different kinds of love, and I'd never experienced that kind of totally platonic love. All the love I've experienced has always been a kind of deal, and now, as I get older, I realise that there's this other love out there."

At the other side of the room we look at some works she has never shown before, from when she was in Australia in 2007. "I was in Sydney on my own for two months, trying to work out why I felt so ill. I went on this complete health thing – I stopped drinking, I cycled every day, I walked about 10km every day, I swam every day, went on a really strict diet. My legs and arms went completely skinny, but my stomach was just getting bigger and bigger, because I was ill, and didn't understand why. What I was trying to do with these drawings was try and make myself feel sexy again, but it was difficult. It was almost there, but wasn't."

What was her illness? "I had a tapeworm."

We move on to works she did in Carrara, Tuscany, when she was looking at marble with a friend. "It was the first time I'd been really happy in a long time. You know when you wake up and you feel good? I realised then I'd been low for a long time."

One is a simple drawing of a heart, which Emin now wants to make in pink alabaster. "I'm sure the first alabaster heart will be a disaster, I'd have to keep working at it, but it's about me being driven by myself," she says. "Whether people like my work or not, I want to show people I can do things. I look at this show and I'm enthusiastic. It makes me want to do things."

Emin's path to art superstardom began when she opened The Shop in Bethnal Green with YBA Sarah Lucas in 1993, cashing in on Damien Hirst's new fame by selling ashtrays with his face on. People began to sit up and take notice with works such as her tent (Everyone I Ever Slept With, from 1963 to 1995) that was bought by Charles Saatchi and shown at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997 – the same year that she so memorably appeared on a late-night Channel 4 discussion show completely hammered. Two years later, Emin was shortlisted for the Turner prize, exhibiting her unmade bed complete with stains, condoms and dirty underwear.

Unlike some other YBAs, her success has endured. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007, staged an enormously successful mid-career retrospective at London's Hayward gallery last year, and not long after that was voted by her peers as Eranda professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, the first woman to occupy the role.

Critics generally warm to her these days. Reviewing the Hayward show, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times wrote: "I would love to hate Tracey Emin," but she left "a convert". The Guardian's Adrian Searle called her art touching and surprising and said "the cumulative effect is extremely powerful".

She may shake her head at the suggestion, but Emin, once "Mad Trace from Margate", is now firmly part of the establishment. She's even a Tory. "I like David Cameron because I think he is fair compared to a lot of politicians in history," she says. "He's in the centre. Probably more centre than someone in Labour, not mentioning any names, who's actually Opus Dei – that is extreme right-wing thinking."

She is baffled by all the political fighting that goes on. One work in the show, The Vanishing Lake, is a rusting metal bath with a scrunched-up union flag in it, and is a comment on Britain – "politically, socially, morally". The flag is a scar. "I don't understand why people don't pull together. I don't understand why there's so much disunity. I don't understand why people can't just say: 'It's a mess, let's pull together.' Why is everyone so angry with each other on everything? It's so easy – if everyone relaxed and said we should work together, rather than against each other."

The Margate show is at Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery that opened in April last year and is helping to spearhead the town's desperately needed regeneration. Emin has been a staunch supporter, and she was the obvious choice for a major show in Olympic year (the exhibition is part of the London 2012 festival). It is clearly a big deal for her, and she's written an open letter to Margate, asking people to come. "I do feel really positive about this show, because even if people don't like it, I like it. And that is the most important thing. I didn't know that I would, because there's so much new work, and I thought I was setting myself up for a fall, but I've done it. I wanted to do something exceptional because it is Margate.

"I'm always anxious with a show, but more so with this one. I've been tearing myself to pieces … chronic nerves."

Reassuringly, there is a bed in the show. Or a Heal's mattress at least – quite astonishingly stained – on which Emin has placed a bronzed dead branch. The mattress saw service between 2000 and 2003, and is called Dead Sea. But how did it get into such a state? "I'm not going to go into the gory details. Believe me, it was all naturally made. It wasn't all on my own, I can assure you.

"It goes back to that thing of being over." She's talking about sex again. "It's over. This explains it very well. It was there, but it's gone."

And though she's one of the most successful and feted artists of her generation, is rich and has beautiful houses in east London and the south of France, where she spends around four months a year, it's still not easy finding a man. "I don't think it helps," Emin says. "Any woman who is successful and top of their game will tell you that it is not attractive to men."

She says she has not had many close relationships in recent years, and her friends "have seriously stopped" any attempts at matchmaking. "I say to them, 'Would you give him a blow job? No you wouldn't, so don't expect me to.'"

A flash of the old Emin – full-on, confrontational, up yours. Now she simply wants people to come to her show and enjoy it. "A lot of my shows generally make people feel worse," she says. "I'd like it if people came and left feeling better."

She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea: Tracey Emin at Turner Contemporary opens today, until 23 September. Details: © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 06 2011

Turner Contemporary: boardwalk empire

Margate's brand new gallery stands where JMW Turner painted his epic seascapes. Will it attract artists back to the town?

"The sun is God." These are said to be the last words Joseph Mallord William Turner spoke from his London deathbed as the light streamed through his window. Not quite true: what the artist actually said, to his doctor, was "Go downstairs and get yourself a glass of sherry." The more famous phrase was an invention of Turner's friend, John Ruskin, the critic who made the artist a kind of demigod, championing his every brushstroke.

Turner Contemporary, a brand-new public art gallery that opens on the seafront at Margate next week, glories in sunlight. It rises from the site of the lodging house where the artist enjoyed the ample favours of its landlady, Sophia Booth. It was from this north Kent beach, where the North Sea wrestles with the Thames Estuary, that Turner immortalised in oils and watercolours the sunlight and seascapes that would make him Britain's greatest painter.

The Turner Contemporary project itself began back in 2001. Under the directorship of Victoria Pomery, the arts organisation has been putting on exhibitions and events in a variety of local buildings; to date, more than 690,000 people have visited Turner Contemporary shows or taken part in workshops and courses in Margate, a town of high unemployment and otherwise limited opportunities for artists. As well as providing a place where art can be seen, the building has been built to give artists a space to work with local people.

Its original design, by Norwegian architects Snøhetta and Britain's Stephen Spence, would have been situated right at the end of the town's harbour mouth. Intended to open in 2007, it would have cost around £55m and been prey to the forces of nature that make for memorable paintings, but are no friend to architecture.

"It was a very romantic proposition," says architect David Chipperfield who designed its replacement after a consultation process involving 8,000 locals. "I liked the idea very much, but only on paper. The reality here is a seafront that can be very tough and unforgiving, and any building facing it has to be extremely robust."

What Chipperfield has designed is further inland, a bold yet simple gallery that has cost £17.5m. From a distance it appears to be a sequence of industrial-era boat sheds, but close up reveals itself as an interconnected set of giant artists' studios sheathed in walls of thick translucent glass. During the course of a day they capture, reflect and refract the many moods of the sun and sea. The building changes colour, acting as an architectural canvas on which the light that inspired Turner can play.

"It's very fortunate", says Chipperfield, "that the gallery faces due north, as, of course does Margate, which is not often the case of holiday resorts in the northern hemisphere. But this means that we get the light that works best for artists and the artworks."

As you walk in, a huge lobby window frames the north Kent horizon like a giant Turner painting (the artist's paintings will be displayed here in the upcoming Turner and the Elements show planned for January 2012, but exhibitions of contemporary artists will be the norm). Walking around the ground floor – a serenely austere interior made of little more than polished concrete and glass – natural light seeps everywhere. It brightens the generous lobby, with its corner cafe overlooking the sandy beach, and animates the big study rooms where adults and school parties alike will learn about contemporary art. Upstairs in the galleries, the light is channelled through high studio windows and from bands of glass set into the high, sloping roofs.

"The idea is very simple", says Chipperfield. "The gallery isn't a museum. It doesn't have a permanent collection. It's a place where art is experienced, nurtured and created. So we've made it as much like a studio as possible. We've also made the gap between the entrance and the galleries as small as we could. I'm not a fan of galleries that can seem like air terminals, where the cafes, shops and everything else appear to take precedence over getting people to the art." Indeed, the atmosphere that permeates Turner Contemporary is one of immediacy and purposefulness. There is indeed a studio-like rawness here that artists will like.

This is the first major building that Chipperfield has completed in Britain since the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames, which opened in 1998. Since then there has also been the BBC headquarters in Glasgow, which was finished by another architect and opened in 2007 (Chipperfield prefers not to discuss it). He was hugely acclaimed for his Neues museum in Berlin, an inspiring fusion of intelligently renovated and new design that has become a model of how to push historic architecture forward without betraying the past; in 2011, he won the Queen's Royal Gold Medal – along with the Pritzker prize, one of the two most important architectural awards. It was high time this exacting architect completed another new building in his own country.

'I can't design a wacky building'

A lot depends on the gallery's success. As Margate-born Tracey Emin puts it: "The brilliant thing about Turner Contemporary is that is has given [local] people hope that things are going to change here, and also to put Margate back on the map." Much like talk of an Olympic legacy in east London, the big ambition is that the Turner Contemporary will help kickstart urban regeneration. Once a popular seaside resort, in the 60s Margate's economy was fatally wounded by the advent of cheap package holidays to Spain. And yet, though it's rough around the edges, the town boasts a fine seafront and a fascinating mixture of historic buildings, though many are in need of love and care. Can this modestly sized gallery have a similar impact as Frank Gehry's eye-catching Guggenheim museum did in the rundown port of Bilbao?

"It's very hard to say,"says Chipperfield. "Architects can only design buildings to do the best job they can, but of course I understand the hopes here. I can't design a wacky, clown-like building – that's not my style – but I do think the Turner will become a true public place where people can meet, be inspired, inspire one another and feel somehow uplifted."

The result is a quiet triumph for all of those involved, sure to encourage a new generation of artists. "I would like the building to be closer to the sea than it is," says Chipperfield, "but that would have meant rerouting the path of the Margate lifeboat. I would also like to have had more money to spend on the glass facade to give it that bit more subtlety, but, then, we've also been able to do a lot on a modest budget. I hope to prove – although time will tell – that you don't have to design a building that looks like a big toy to make a success of a new public art gallery."

Shortly before I left Turner Contemporary, the sun set to spectacular effect, warming Chipperfield's concrete floors and walls, even though the wind howled mercilessly and darkening clouds threatened rain. Turner would have loved it.

• Turner Contemporary opens to the public on 16 April. Members of Guardian Extra can win two pairs of tickets to attend the gallery preview event the evening of 15 April. The prize includes one night's hotel accommodation. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Turner Contemporary: 'A pure art space' – video

Turner Contemporary, designed by architect David Chipperfield, is a new cultural centre on Margate's seafront inspired by JMW Turner's legacy in the town. Jonathan Glancey talks to the architect about the imposing structure ahead of its opening

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