The bed that shook the art world

By Lucy Sara-Kelly

It was smaller than I expected, laid bare, vulnerable, despondent. You walk through the door into the silent gallery, and it stares at you, dimly lit and surrounded by blood red walls.

My Bed.

Or is it his bed, her bed, your bed, our bed? Tracey Emin’s contemporary confessional art piece is both incredibly personal and candid, but at the same time undeniably universal. It is, after all, a bed: a human home, a place of conception, birth, and death. The most intimate place a human possesses.

Used tampons and dirty underwear lie on the blue carpet, and a pair of tights lies carelessly on the covers. The slippers sitting neatly by the side of the bed are strangely old-fashioned. A yellowing newspaper sets the piece at the specific time of Emin’s breakdown (1998) which led to the creation of this installation. The objects surrounding the bed are distinctive, some (for example a little puppet her boyfriend bought her) are Emin’s and Emin’s alone. But others – alcohol bottles, tissues, pills – could be anyone’s.

The sheets are ruffled and the bed looks abandoned, but it still feels like you’ve just walked into somebody’s room, a scene incredibly personal and private, a scene bereft of a person. A self-portrait with the self only represented by crumpled, dishevelled, and repulsive objects. A depiction of depression, imperfection, and insecurity, an un-stylised picture of humanity. It may be shocking, but for many it is an image all too recognisable, a representation of a period of your life you may rather forget. A time when you couldn’t face him or her, or the world. A time when your bed was your only comfort and the only space where you felt safe. It’s a real image of life and it shouldn’t be taboo.

Emin doesn’t change any of the parts of this art installation, she puts each tissue, each scrap of paper in a little clear bag like a piece of evidence. The installation changes home, and the evidence is set out again, making My Bed feel almost like a crime scene. This allusion to a crime scene was also enhanced when Emin temporarily added a hangman’s noose over the bed, casting a more sinister note over the scene and for some, My Bed became a death bed, a coffin. But the noose was taken down and instead two suitcases sit a meter or so away from the bed. They are outmoded, tied up with rope which looks remarkably like the hangman’s noose. They represent travel and movement but are they leaving or staying, is this home or no longer home?

My Bed was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999. It shook art lovers across the globe, some worshipping the emotional evocation the bed provoked and praising Emin for revealing her emotional turmoil. Others dismissing the installation as pretentious; holding no aesthetic value or artistic merit. In July 2014, someone paid £2.5 million for this bed.

£2.5 million.

For a messy bed? Is it just a self-indulgent money-making concept, or is it a modern masterpiece? It’s the classic case of art, the raging debate which is consistently fuelled by more and more inflammatory and inventive pieces of visual art.

Whatever your response to Emin’s work is, it is unquestionably provocative. Whether it reminds you of a dark stage of your life, or a past lover, or whether it simply annoys you because how can a bed be art, the piece strikes you, forcing you to emote. People say what they think, they hate it ferociously, they don’t get it, it’s not aesthetically pleasing, or it moves them, sticks with them, affiliates with them. At the end of the day it incites a reaction and it is incredibly interesting to see how people respond to it.

Good or bad, My Bed is notorious and as it moves through the galleries, the art world’s interest shows no signs of waning.

My Bed is on exhibition at the Liverpool Tate until 3rd September 2017.

Photograph: Lucy Sara-Kelly


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