I recently went to see Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ (1998) at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. I had seen it before many years ago but the shock upon seeing it is as ripe this year as it was nineteen years ago.
Wandering into the gallery where it stands, I saw the dirty sheets sprawled over the unkempt mattress, laced with vodka bottles, condoms and dirty tights, and found it a little on the repulsive side. Age has not made the installation more beautiful; it now has a layer of dust ground into the already grubby and torn pillows, the cigarette butts are almost turned to dust and there is definitely a faint mustiness in the air. We, the viewers, stood and stared at the bed, at the suitcases with chains the juxtaposition of this most confrontational of artist with the works of the revered, almost deified William Blake designed to provoke and challenge and all around the gallery the arguments raged, from ‘had it been carved out of marble you’d think it was art’ to ‘my kid’s room looks like that’. Blake is almost ignored. He becomes the afterthought. His art, once considered so controversial and challenging is easy to understand compared with The Bed.
The idea that art can be a moment caught in time, as compared to an item that took a strenuous amount of effort and skill with paint or marble, is a concept that divides the viewers. Everyone has an opinion, for or against; there is no shrug of shoulders to denote any kind of middle ground. Emin’s Bed is the Marmite of art.
Consider this. ‘My Bed’ is a moment caught in time, a 3D photograph: it has been described as a confession, a critique of the messiness of an individual life. The bed represents not only her flaws, but also the frameworks of sexual politics, hopelessness and displacement. When it was first displayed, the bed sent out convulsions of shock to the public. After its first appearance at the Tate, it became an overnight sensation as it was realized that as seemingly simplistic and taunting it is as art, it had never been done before and, because she has done this, it can never be done again. Tracey Emin caught the imagination of a nation and thus described their mood and their times, becoming a modern art sensation, begging the question as to what is conceptual art? Her tormented past and her status as a controversial artist is often argued to produce such pieces. It is important to know that the bed was not composed upon a whim, but was the product of months of meticulous planning and painstaking work. She took a low point in her life, when she suffered and could not get out of bed. Had she painted it, photographed it, carved it in marble it would not have the same impact, it would be static and always and enduringly the same. Her bed is a moveable feast each time it is delivered to a new gallery, Emin herself comes to organize the carefully packed cigarette butts, the hardening condoms, the dirty glasses and the full ashtrays. She arranges the worn rug and the rumpled sheets, patting down the blanket with its stains and tears, plumping carefully the now almost too threadbare pillows. It is a sad piece now. Almost twenty years ago it was young and vibrant, stroppy and rebellious, sullen in its outlook and its anger was almost palpable. Emin and her ilk became rich on challenging the establishment, stamping their little feet and screaming look at me!
But despite all this effort, despite the anger mellowing and the establishment paying millions for the outrageous, My Bed is now all grown up and the worse for wear.
Emin’s work is not going to last forever; unlike a painting or sculpture it is already dying. The cotton is becoming worn, the feathers flat and grey, the mattress rotting, the colours fading over time until eventually it won’t be able to be moved, it will need a climate controlled room to maintain its existence and yet still the argument will rage as to whether or not it is art.
In a time when fundamental change continues to push the boundaries of modern art as we know it, we continue to struggle to define it and question its validity. Whether you love or hate modern art, it is important to recognise its complexity. Art is not simply art because the nicely composed still life has taken a long time and the ‘detail is pretty,’ but art is what the viewer makes of it and the feelings it inspires.
Art demands a response, an opinion, a discussion. Emin’s bed certainly does that.
Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed” is at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool until 3rd September 2017.
Director Sayle Gallery
Head of Youth Arts Centre.