Tracey Emin live at MCA Sydney

Beloved British artist Tracey Emin has been commissioned by the City of Sydney to create bronze bird sculptures to be installed along Bridge Street from Macquarie Place to Grosvenor Street to be called The distance from your heart. Emin spoke about the commission and presented — at Foundation Hall in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)— a slide show on her past and current work, talked about her life and what turns her on to make art. She also answered questions from the live audience and via Twitter. She was candid, funny, and profound.

Emin said the idea for The distance from your heart can be traced all the way back to her 2003 visit to Sydney for an exhibition of her work. She was supposed to go with her boyfriend at that time. But right before she left he broke off the relationship. She flew to Sydney on her own. They had booked a stop over in a romantic resort in Thailand. So Emin became the only single person in a resort full of couples who were going to get married, just got married or for sure were going to get pregnant.

When she arrived in Sydney, she was determined not to tell people that her boyfriend had just broken off with her. Unfortunately the first place her hosts took her to was the Gap. So she was at the cliff edge bawling her eyes out. After the exhibition, her boyfriend still wasn't sure and wanted space (even though she was down under, as far away as she can be from him). So Emin stayed for a few weeks longer than planned and fell in love with Sydney. She stayed in Wolloomooloo. She would walk to Kings Cross all the time to do her errands. She would see backpackers taking selfies in near the El Alamein Fountain where there was a bunch of signs showing how far Sydney is from everywhere else.

She said these backpackers weren't being honest about what they were feeling. Instead of saying how much they miss their loved ones who were far away, they were simply rubbing it in how far they were. She said Australia is the place as far away as can be from you unless you were Australian. So there is this sense of isolation.

Emin said she was planning to have a solitary little bronze bird on a plinth at Maquarie Place with the with words: With your thoughts in my mind, the distance of your heart. Emin hopes that backpackers will take photos with this solitary bird instead of the signs at the El Alemein Fountain — so they could express what they really feel, that is missing their mothers, fathers, lovers, and friends who are thousands of miles away. She also hoped that office workers would stop, pause and take notice of the birds which would be put up along heritage buildings on Bridge Street. This could remind them that the most of the first wave of immigrants that came to Sydney came here not by choice but was made to come. Like the migratory birds, these first wave migrants had to call Australia their new home when they arrived. She said the job of an artist it to make us stand still for a moment.

Emin thought she would have a hard time in getting permission to drill holes in heritage buildings but the building owners liked the birds so much that they all wanted birds to be put up in their buildings. Emin said there will be birds installed on a level where people could touch them. When she was asked if she's worried that people would steal the birds, she said why would people steal something that already belongs to them. She said the birds would belong to the people of Sydney. She told a story of when she made a bird installation in the city of Liverpool in the UK and one of the birds was stolen. As she was writing for a newspaper at that time, she wrote a Wanted/Missing column after the theft explaining that she was not angry at the thief because the thief did not steal from her but from the people of Liverpool who are the ones angry at the theft. The bird was promptly returned the following day.

In her slide show, Emin explained it is nature that turns her on to make art. For example volcanos. She said trips to Mount Vesuvius continue to inspire the hues of her paintings. She showed photos of volcanos and underwater grotos. She said that when she reaches old age, she would ask a grant from the British Art Council so she can travel to volcanos around the world and shout out the name of her ex-lovers into the caldera. Emin said that there's nothing sexier than nature. She said she would go out to be exhilirated by nature only to feel down when she returned to make her art in the city where she was surrounded by concrete. That was until she realised that she was part of nature. I am nature. Emin said the job of the artist is to work with the world not against it.

She also said that contemporary artists don't inspire her at all. Instead she is inspired by the ancient, the landed, like the body of a Pompeii man permanently cast in solidified lava by the explosion of Mount Vesuvius. She said she would very much like to make that form but she can't because it was nature— the volcano who made that form.

Emin talked about her current experience of learning to cast bronze. She said it's like beginning all-over again. She said most artists today take an object and asks a technician to blow it up, 3D print it, then use that to cast bronze. Emin said with her process she starts with a small pattern, then she continues making bigger patterns, remaking the patterns until the desired size is reached. Emin said she learns a great deal from each step in the process. She said just like in life, there is no shortcut to be an artist. She said she spent 7 years learning how to draw, and this skill has served her well in her art career.

Emin told the story of how she found her favourite artist and influence Egon Schiele. She loved David Bowie's music when she was growing up. She liked the album covers where Bowie was making all these dramatic poses like in Heroes. Her boy friend at that time told her:you know he's just copying Egon Schiele, right? Emin went to the library and got all the books featuring Schiele's work. She said she became right then and there an Expressionist at age fifteen.

Emin answered questions from the live audience including the question I sent via Twitter:

Emin said that to find her own voice, an artist must have conviction, stick with it and persevere. She related her experience of wanting to cast in bronze a bird perched on a tree. People around her said don't do that Tracey, it's corny, it's been done a lot of times before. So Emin asked her assistants to get the photos of all bird on a tree sculptures made in the last 20 years. She looked at them and found that none of them was the bird on a tree sculpture she wanted to make. Emin said that not sticking with their convictions result in some artists making a lot of fodder art instead of making what they really wanted to make. She said to stick with your convictions. You will of course make mistakes. But that is how you learn. She said babies don't learn by not dropping things.

Now, I'm really looking forward to take pause along Bridge Street and let my heart bleed out with that solitary little bird on the plinth of my deepest longing.