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Tracey Emin by Jonathan Jones 1
Tracey Emin in her east London studio (2017)© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020

Tracey Emin has ‘never been so happy’ following ‘dramatic’ cancer surgery

In an interview with BBC Woman’s Hour, the artist discusses her treatment and how it altered her outlook on life

In June last year, Tracey Emin was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and within weeks she’d undergone “aggressive” surgery, including the removal of her bladder and reproductive organs. Now in remission, the artist has spoken about the treatment in an interview with BBC Woman’s Hour, ahead of the much-delayed exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul, which places her works alongside those of the Expressionist pioneer Edvard Munch.

“I had my bladder removed. I had my uterus removed. My fallopian tubes. My urethra. Part of my intestine. My lymph nodes and half of my vagina,” Emin says, adding that she laughed when the surgeon told her what was going to be removed: “But I think I was just putting on a brave face at the time.”

Emin also suggests that she’d consider reconstructive surgery in the future. “But at the moment,” she says, “I’m just really happy getting my life back, and I’m not being greedy.”

On the aftermath of her surgery, she adds: “I just go from deliriously happy, to kind of, ‘Oh dear, now I’ve got to get on with it all’. I think it’s a bit like having a baby… with this surgery and with everything, I was so happy to be alive, and now I’ve got to get on with the consequences of it all.”

The conversation also sees Emin touch on people’s reception to her deeply personal work over the years, and how it has changed. Asked about the urge to experience other people’s pain through art, she says: “Twenty years ago people said: ‘We don’t want to hear about her rape. We don’t want to hear about her abortion. We don’t want to hear about her loneliness. We don’t want to hear about her upbringing. We don’t want to hear about her child abuse’.”

“Yes, you do,” she goes on. “Because society needs to hear about those things and discuss those things, because they are still happening. And now, thanks to #MeToo and women campaigning, I have an open forum to talk about what I like without being called a moaner or a whinger or a whiner or a narcissist.”

In December 2020, Emin also said that art kept her alive during her cancer treatment, and that she “would have been dead a long time ago” without an artistic outlet. 

The same month, The Loneliness of the Soul opened at London’s Royal Academy, but was subsequently closed due to coronavirus lockdown. The exhibition is set to reopen its doors with limited capacity on May 18, and is scheduled to run until August 1, 2021. You can buy tickets here, and a free virtual tour is also available.