WHEN Chinese performance artists Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi tried to urinate in a replica of Marcel Duchamp's famous latrine in the Tate Modern in 2000, their behaviour showed a distinct pattern. A year earlier, the duo had jumped up and down on the work of the unvictorious Turner Prize nominee, Tracey Emin. They called their performance Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey's Bed. Emin had called her piece simply My Bed. Like Duchamp's latrine, the bed offered no easy answers and provoked extreme, mostly negative, reactions. Worst of all, both works seemed to intimate that they might be laughing at their audience, and the bed became the whipping boy of contemporary British art.

Emin was decried as a fake. One particularly harsh undertow of criticism seemed obsessed with the fact she was a woman, and a mouthy one, regardless of the merits of her art. It must have been hard not to take this personally. Ahead of her first retrospective show, celebrating her 20 years as an artist, she is probably nervous. "I'm feeling quite excited actually but it's like any show - I always get so slagged off," she says. "The idea of being slagged off for 20 years' work is a lot harder to take than just being slagged off for one show, so I'm bracing myself."

Emin is a confessional artist, whose work depends on the viewer meeting her at least half way, and sometimes a little more - it's like a proper relationship, with the same risks and frustrations. We know about Emin's rape - one of several - behind a Burton's store on New Year's Eve 1979; we know about her two abortions; we have the names of every one of her sexual partners, thanks to her infamous "tent"; we have seen, in pictures at least, Emin's unmade bed with bloodied condoms and sex-stained sheets. Too much detail? Says who?

She is regularly called "victimy" and "exploitative" although it is usually not her experiences, but her means of expressing them, that gives Emin's art its gravity. The materials and techniques she has worked with include painting, sculpture, embroidery, mono prints, appliqué, performance art and texts. The loudness of Tracey Emin in the public imagination is undercut with a silence, often aching, and a gift for hanging and presenting her work. Her twin brother Paul, with whom she was nearly aborted, regularly appears in her art, as does her grandmother and her parents. She works with what she calls "poor" materials: nothing is diamond encrusted and most of her pieces will one day fall apart. If you want more from Tracey Emin than sex and scandal, there is more to Tracey Emin.

Working with embroidery as an unknown artist in the early 1990s is unlikely to have been an attempt by Emin to gain quick acceptance. It left her out of kilter with the generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) with whom she is still nevertheless associated. She is now a member of the Royal Academy and represented Britain at last year's Venice Biennale with her show Borrowed Light. For some, Venice was a seal of acceptance of Emin by the art establishment; for others, it was a chance to lay into her again. (The Daily Telegraph described her as a "phoney" who had conned Britain into thinking she was an artist). When her tent - Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 - went up with the Momart blaze in 2004, certain commentators were as gleeful as children on Bonfire Night, showing themselves as heroes or ghouls depending on your point of view .

If we can assume, as Duchamp clearly did, that art should annoy half the people most of the time and all of the people when necessary, many of the arguments against Emin's work become obsolete. The question becomes whether you like her work and, by extension, Emin herself. "We all think of ourselves often but not perhaps in a very original way," says Patrick Elliot, who has curated Emin's Edinburgh show. "It's rather interesting to have someone like Emin doing all of that thinking on our behalf." For a year, Emin has been working at home in London with a scale model of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, placing tiny replicas of her work in the places they might look best. It has "bits of old cotton wool lying in it and the cat walks across it occasionally", which is not to say she doesn't care - just that her life is bound up, like the cat hair, in her work.

Emin's retrospective will move to Malaga in November, before travelling on to Berne in Switzerland. Of the diverse reactions it will surely provoke, indifference seems the most unlikely. "I've never had a show that's toured before," she says. "I've never had a major retrospective. I've never even had a museum show in Britain." She is defiant, optimistic and defensive. She dares you to accept her work without judging her and maybe knows that this is nigh-on impossible. "The last time I was in Scotland I got a good reception," Emin says. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens."


It's Not The Way I Want To Die (2005) Supposedly, when Sigmund Freud was asked by one of his students whether there was any significance to the large cigars he smoked, he replied that "sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar". Looking at Emin's rollercoaster - a four-metre-high, nine-metre-long track reminiscent of the Dreamland fairground in Margate - it is easy to interpret the metaphor literally as the rollercoaster of life and of emotion. Emin says that this - while "really corny" - is, in part, completely accurate. But Freud would have had a field day with the genesis of the idea. "The rollercoaster is firmly in my mind as part of my rites of passage, and I sometimes dream about it," she says. "In one dream, I got thrown from the carriage and catapulted onto a giant penis. It was swaying from side to side, but it was real, not a blow-up. I climbed down on the veins of the penis to the ground. I eventually got round to making the rollercoaster, but not the big penis."

The work's architectural purpose, she says, is to "divide up the gallery space in a really elegant way. I always end up doing shows in big open rooms, and I don't like building walls in the gallery. I prefer to try and use the space." Because of its size, it will have to be assembled in Edinburgh, in the gallery, when it arrives.

Curator Patrick Elliot sees it as "an effective scene-setter" for the exhibition. "Tracey's very plugged in now," he says. "She has assistants to keep her on the straight and narrow. But for years she's had an up and down, slightly schizophrenic existence. She needs her emotional instability in order to provide the little piece of grit that will make pearls."

As with the majority of Emin's works, the rollercoaster is made from reclaimed objects - in this case reclaimed wood, split into scaffolding, and rusted old bits of metal. "I've been making wooden sculptures for a long time," she says. "Beach huts, bridges, sheds - if something's made of wood, I'll pay a lot of attention to it. The materials I use are not expensive, but the work is very time-consuming, so it becomes rich in another way. This rollercoaster was something that I wanted to see, something that gave me a lot of pleasure."

Hotel International (1993) "This was the hotel I grew up in when I was little," says Emin of this piece. Her father, Envar Emin, a Turkish Cypriot, created the 80-bedroom hotel in Margate in 1966 by knocking a few existing properties into one. Four years earlier, while he and Emin's mother, Pamela Cashin, were still married to other people, Emin and her twin brother Paul were illegitimately conceived. The hotel ran at a healthy profit but when, in 1972, Emin senior went bankrupt and later left Emin's mother, the family was thrust into poverty. In her 1994 text Exploration Of The Soul, Emin refers to being sexually abused by more than one person at the hotel during her childhood. All of this is woven explicitly and implicitly into a blanket, which goes on to say much more.

"I made this in 1993," says Emin. "Jay Joplin of the White Cube Gallery in London wanted to have a meeting with me to talk about my work. What I thought of doing was sewing my CV onto a blue sheet I'd bought from a flea market in Geneva - not a CV detailing what shows I'd had, because I hadn't had any, but just my life." Memories of living above a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet with her mother, of being raped and of her grandmother vie for space alongside a pink bed blanket from Emin's childhood. "Lots of the fabrics on that blanket are very meaningful," she says. "I used a piece of fabric from our sofa which we'd had from when I was little, and I used my own clothes."

The work builds on Emin's experience of pattern cutting during a brief stint at a fashion school when she was 18. After showings in London and New York, there were still no takers for the blanket, priced at £2500. This, and subsequent blankets by Emin, are now worth upwards of £500,000. At the time she was unknown - a Royal College Of Art graduate who had given up painting three years earlier after a traumatic abortion.

"Back then, no-one was sewing or doing anything like that," she says. "It seemed so crafty. On one level the blanket was considered really naff and naïve; but on another people treated it as if it was really sophisticated - it got quite a mixed response.

"In a way, this blanket's very, very nutty. It's really loose and free because I didn't know what I was doing. It was my first blanket."

My Bed (1998) Emin never intended to show the bed as part of her selection for the 1999 Turner Prize (which was won by Steve McQueen) but needed a focal point in the room. She had wanted to use her beach hut (This Is Another Place) but it was "stuck in California" with Emin unable to pay for shipping. In America, both the bed and its creator had been dismissed as "a woman ranting". In Japan, where it was shown before America, it caused only minor offence. "The Japanese were disgusted by the slippers," remembers Emin. "They were repulsed because they were dirty - they couldn't understand it." The bed - Emin's actual bed from the time, in which she had lain depressed for a week contemplating suicide - pairs ruffled, stained sheets with dirty underwear; cluttered alongside is an assortment of items from vodka bottles to slippers, cigarette packs to used condoms.

She describes the work as "a damsel fainting. From a distance it looks really beautiful and when you get close up you see all the stains and misery. I was very naïve. At the time, I was more worried about what my boyfriend's mum would think about it being dirty than its grander connotations."

Whether Emin's bed was art or just a bed became one of the defining cultural issues of the late 20th century - a democratic debate, with no-one chairing and no-one prepared to back down. She was, she says, "plagued" by paparazzi during this period and "shell-shocked" by the experience. In 2000, the art critic Brian Sewell opined that "the sane man must ask whether he should give any of this pretentious stuff the time of day in aesthetic terms when it seems that this self-regarding exhibitionist is ignorant, inarticulate, talentless, loutish and now very rich". Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi , by jumping up and down on the bed in 1999, expressed a similar sentiment. "I was really upset about that," says Emin. "Had it been a painting, charges would have been brought against them. Instead, they just let it go."

She describes My Bed as "a seminal piece of art that will go down in art history. When people suffer depression, their world gets smaller and their bed gets bigger, and I think those people understood My Bed completely." She hasn't seen the work since 2003 and is unsure how it will look when unpacked in Edinburgh. It was bought in 2000 by the art collector Charles Saatchi, who was lampooned at the time for spending £150,000 on an old bed. "I would think Mr Saatchi has looked after it well," says Emin. "He had it for a long time in his living room, which looked amazing. I don't know how long bedsheets and feathers last for, but that's what we're going to find out."

She knows that the bed will be the big draw of her Edinburgh exhibition, and that it is - for all its infamy - just an unmade bed. "I think that it's become more iconic in people's memories," she says. "I loved it back then, but I love it now for the strength it gave me, from when I first got out of that bed to how I've become now. It's a pretty incredible journey."

Uncle Colin, 1963-93 (1993) At the centre of Uncle Colin is a plastic seagull which was found on the beach by Emin's uncle while out walking with Emin's mother. "In my family we really love Jonathan Livingston Seagull," says Emin. "If something loves you, set it free, and if it comes back, you know it's yours." It's an incorrect quotation, but no matter. "It's corny, but it's a beautiful sentiment," she says. "I've got the plaque that my mum had with that quote on it." Colin, she says, was her favourite uncle: he played gypsy guitar and read tarot cards and seemed "the one person in my family who could guide me". He died in a car crash in 1993, aged 42.

"His car was pushed under a bus and he was decapitated," says Emin. "At the time of his death, he was holding a packet of cigarettes, the Benson & Hedges packet you can see in the work. His death really affected my family terribly. It just seemed to be at a time when things were getting better for us - it was like going 10 steps forward and a hundred steps back."

Uncle Colin was originally shown as part of a collection of Emin's Memorabilia works, which included her intimate teenage diaries and an out-of-date passport. It is thoughtful; it is powerful. It is precisely the kind of work that drove The Independent's Michael Glover to describe Emin's art as "unadulterated, self-indulgent crap".

Emin remembers the responses at the time. "Uncle Colin was really shocking to people because they thought it was art but really conceptual and really cynical," she says. "They saw it as me playing a game with art. They didn't believe I had an Uncle Colin who died in a car accident. When they eventually found out that I was being genuine, it became even more shocking. People started saying that it wasn't art at all, but that's because they had never seen anything like it."

The Memorabilia show was Emin's first, meaning that her name, and her experiences, carried little currency. To some, her selection and presentation of material was, at best, audacious. "This was just when Rachel Whitehead and Damien Hirst and the whole YBA thing was kicking in," says curator Patrick Elliot. "Irony was big, as were very large production values on the grand themes of life and death. And in comes Tracey, a rather gawky looking kid with bad eyesight. She was someone people avoided at private viewings because you got into confrontational arguments with her."

When she is not arguing, Emin speaks in the quietest voice, so different from the loud-mouth way her art is sometimes portrayed. She thinks she knows why her work was misunderstood. "The Memorabilia pieces are little and a bit posey. They can easily be missed or walked past because you have to read them and give them time."

Why I Never Became A Dancer (1995) Emin, like her mother, was a good dancer and, had things been different, she may have become a professional. "My thing was contemporary dance," she says. The eight-minute film piece, shot on a Super 8 camera, recounts Emin's participation in a dance competition in Margate in 1979. Had she won she would have gone on to the finals in London, but her performance was rudely interrupted. "All these boys started shouting Slag! Slag! Slag!' and I lost my nerve," she says. "I ran off the stage in tears. I've presented it as a one-off in this film, but the same boys also called me slag' in the street, so it was actually crueller than I've made it." The Burton's shop behind which she was raped, aged 13, also features.

The film will be shown on a monitor in the Edinburgh retrospective. The low production values are perfectly fitting, echoing 1970s home movies. Emin's narration - "When I was a girl, I slept with a lot of men in my home town. I loved sex. And they hated me for it" - only added to her reputation as an awkward outsider. But it wouldn't be until 1997, when Everyone I Have Ever Slept With was shown at Charles Saatchi's Sensation exhibition, that this reputation would fully blossom.

The same year, she gained media exposure after appearing drunk and swearing on a live Channel 4 TV discussion with stuffy male Turner Prize commentators.

Curator Patrick Elliot thinks Why I Never Became A Dancer is a strong example of Emin's early work. "You're really cheering for her by the end," he says. "It's got this fabulous soundtrack by Sylvester. Tracey just starts boogying away, with You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) booming out. You feel like shouting, Go on, Tracey'."

Commentators have linked Emin's rise to fame in the mid to late 1990s with the birth of gossip magazines that skim the most lurid episodes from the lives of otherwise "ordinary" people, as if both things were part of the same arc. If this theory holds any water, it's for the wrong reasons.

Because Emin's work is so personal, it is often taken literally, which is not the effect she's aiming for. "This is not really a film about dancing, is it? It's about the metaphor of dancing. What gives some people the confidence to get up there while, for other people, it gets taken away? That's what this film's about."