Artist Tracey Emin’s first acquaintance with Sydney, almost two decades ago, was emotional. Having begun her visit with a relationship break-up, she recalls her walks around Woolloomooloo were filled with homesickness.
At a recent talk at the MCA to speak about her upcoming public artwork The distance of your heart, Londoner Emin remembers how far away Australia felt from home. She recounts watching tourists take photos beneath the sign next to King Cross’ El Alamein Fountain, which marks the distance to major cities around the world. At the time, she wondered why people wanted to take photos there when this just shows loved ones how far away you are, but doesn’t say you’re missing them.
Emin’s short visit turned into an extended stay and Sydney took a special, life-long place in her heart. Last year she was chosen as one of three artists to create new works of public art as part of the City’s City Art Program. Alongside a plan to transform the heart of Sydney through light rail and other major projects, the City Centre Public Art Plan curated by Barbara Flynn includes Emin’s work The distance of your heart, which is inspired by ideas of distance and migration.
“I think I’ve been here about seven times,” she says, “I would never have applied to do this project if I didn’t know the city – it’s because I know Sydney and I love it, that’s why I wanted to do it.”
The distance of your heart will perch 70 delicate handmade bronze birds on poles, above doorways and awnings on Bridge and Grosvenor streets. “I chose Macquarie Place for either the beginning or the end of the project because that’s where the distances were measured from Sydney,” she adds. “There’s going to be a bird bath and one of these little birds on it, with the words ‘The distance of your heart’.
“So it’s kind of poetic and I hope that people go there and have their photograph taken and send it to people to say that they’re missing them, instead of saying ‘Look, I’m so far away’.”
Emin has been drawing birds for a long time. Although her art famously takes herself as the subject, the artist talks of needing a release from this figure. Emin’s genuine love of nature, and especially birds, provides an outlet.
She describes a wistful juxtaposition between the massive city and her subtle figures, “The city’s big, it’s massive, but the birds are tiny, delicate, fragile, like we are as human beings.”
Working out of the Foundry in New York, Emin is looking forward to the process of making. “I just started making lots of bronze figurative works, using a lost-wax process. I’ve learnt something new in the past three years, so I’m really excited about making lots more bronzes.
“At my last show, I was so excited about it. It felt like it was my degree show, like I just left university. I thought – if I can have that much enthusiasm and excitement every few years, I’ll be a very lucky person.”
Emin is enticing us to slow down and look at our city in a different way, even if it is just looking up and spotting a small bird on a windowsill: “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s very simple, it will make peoples’ lives in this city go just that little bit slower and for them to take just that little bit more time to process things.”
The renowned artist’s work was selected by an evaluation panel, which included members of the City’s Public Art Advisory Panel, through our biggest-ever international public art call-out. Along with two others – Junya Ishigami’s Cloud Arch and Hany Armanious’ Pavilion, it is set to transform our city centre.