Guardian - July 18th, 2001
David Bowie and Tracey Emin
When David Bowie decided to set up a virtual gallery for art students, he began an email discussion with Tracey Emin about art, drugs and fame. This is an edited transcript of their correspondence
David Bowie: I am a brand-new art student from Surrey. I would like to break into the art world. Could you give me some tips please?
Tracey Emin: You're not a brand-new art student from Surrey, you're David Bowie! But if you were, I would say get a good part-time job. If you can't afford a studio, always carry a camera and a notebook. If your brain feels a bit dead, enrol in a part-time course - maybe philosophy, a language or art history - but whatever you do don't think the world owes you a living.
DB: What are you wearing right now? (And don't lie, because I can see you.)
TE: I'm wearing an Adidas zip-up tracksuit top from 1996, a pair of Helmut Lang jeans that are two sizes too big for me, a pair of smashed-up old loafers, a black nylon slip from M&S, expensive underwear from Agent Provocateur, a pair of blue Calvin Klein sunglasses, a clear plastic Swatch watch, a fair bit of gold jewellery and no makeup. Today is a working day.
DB: Does your work point to a "truth"?
TE: With my work I'm always credited with the truth, but of course everything I do is edited, considered, and its final production very much calculated. But that doesn't make me fake.
DB: Does it matter if you lie? As you say, your work is often edited and manipulated to produce a certain perspective. 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?
TE: "Surely god will look the other way today" - ring any bells? Yes, it's true most of us use truth when it suits us. I know when I've fucked up, I know when I've hurt people, I know when I've behaved outrageously. A lot of my life has been fucked up but even an idiot can see it's getting better and better. The strange thing is that all the major mistakes that I've made in my life have been decisions fuelled by alcohol, mainly vast amounts of whisky. I haven't drunk spirits since September 1999.
DB: Do you think more about the history of art now that you're a household name than when you were just a Margate name?
TE: I've never been really good on the history of art and I've never really studied it. I didn't go to the Tate gallery until I was 22 - I didn't even know where it was - but I got into Egon Schiele when I was 14 because your LP cover for Lodger was inspired by Schiele. From then on I took an interest in German expressionism. But I don't think anyone is going to be a successful artist by parodying something that has gone before.
DB: I would have to disagree with you. I think so much well-known work over the last 10 years or so has been a restatement of earlier stuff. Everyone from Nauman and Beuys to Koons and Richter has been raided and pillaged. On the shoulders of giants, etc. Although what's been just as fascinating is the reluctance of many observers to credit the original pieces where it might have been appropriate or illuminating.
TE: I once quoted to you the line from The Man Who Fell to Earth where you say to your driver, "Slow down, Arthur." At the time you said you had no memory of this line; you were on uppers, downers, a concoction of drugs just to keep you going. 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.
DB: Mmm... having experienced drugs, the work is never the same again. Station to Station was a drug album. Low and Heroes were not. Never Let Me Down was. It's all contradictory.
TE: Mr Newton, the character you played in The Man Who Fell to Earth, was obsessed with channel hopping, invention and mass-media communication. Don't you see eerie similarities between Mr Newton and you now?
DB: It was Nic Roeg's intention to show that Newton's only means of collecting and sifting data was channel hopping. This, to me, intimates that he had at least some interest in what was going on around him. At that point I'm not sure that I had quite the same passion for "reality" as he. My preferred viewing was the "snow" on the spare channel. My "truth" was somewhere between extraterrestrial magi and a few good grams.
TE: You've been involved with projects on the net right from the beginning. Is this due to your superstar status? I'm sure it's difficult for David Bowie to pop down to the shops and buy a newspaper, so is the net a good way of keeping in touch with life on an everyday level?
DB: "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? For me, living in downtown New York and without the all-pervading British press on 24-hour call, it's a nonexistent problem. "Popping out" is carried out several times a day hereabouts, though of course I do find it expedient to have a train of Lincoln town cars following me at a crawl in case I get a sore ankle.
TE: Are you being serious? That's what my New York gallerist said when I asked if David Bowie was famous in New York. I'm glad things are cool for you in New York because when I was in Dublin with you and Iman queueing for the Book of Kells, people were almost fainting on the spot. 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? Don't lie, because I can see you.
DB: I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve.
TE: Did you always want fame? Is it something you'd wish on your children?
DB: 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.
TE: Your daughter is almost a year old now. Being a new father at your age, how do you think this is going to affect your "golden years"?
DB: She's already affected them. The added dimension to life, of course, is inescapable. Thinking for and on Alex's behalf. Trying to second-guess how she will develop. Continually looking for ways that I can help her. All that.
TE: Throughout my life your music has had a big influence on me. I remember at the age of 14 vomiting at the end of Rock'n'Roll Suicide after drinking a bottle of sherry, and in later years sailing down the Nile listening to Young Americans on a Walkman full blast.
DB: I also remember vomiting at the end of Rock'n'Roll Suicide. I remember vomiting at the end of quite a few songs.
TE: I've always considered you an artist, not a musician. Why is it so important for you to carry on making visual works?
DB: I usually make work for a specified space. I want something to go in such and such an area of this or that room. A gallery only needs 10 pieces, six paintings and four sculptures, say. I make work to fill a gap. That could also be metaphysical. It's a kind of interior decoration. I don't know if that's art. I'm not driven.
TE: Now that you are using your website, Bowieart.com, to promote young artists, does it worry you that your name is an instant endorsement for these people? Are you sure that they believe in what they are doing and are not relying too much upon your faith?
DB: Well, you know the Goldsmiths artists, for instance, who are now represented on our site. Do you think they believe in what they do? How much is merely self-advertisement, how much is heartfelt? I would imagine a little of both. Most of the work itself is good. As for my participation and endorsement, I am very proud of the fact that our site gives new artists a showcase and a way to sell their work without their having to pay any commissions. I find also that endorsement is a huge part of creating the artist these days, don't you think? Whether it's patronage or newspaper coverage, it pretty much amounts to who can shout loudest.
© David Bowie 2001.