‘I had a kind of mini nervous breakdown in my very small flat and didn’t get out of bed for four days. And when I did finally get out of bed, I was so thirsty I made my way to the kitchen crawling along the floor. My flat was in a real mess- everything everywhere, dirty washing, filthy cabinets, the bathroom really dirty, everything in a really bad state. I crawled across the floor, pulled myself up on the sink to get some water, and made my way back to my bedroom, and as I did I looked at my bedroom and thought, ‘Oh, my God. What if I’d died and they found me here?’ And then I thought, ‘What if here wasn’t here? What if I took out this bed-with all its detritus, with all the bottles, the shitty sheets, the vomit stains, the used condoms, the dirty underwear, the old newspapers- what if I took all of that out of this bedroom and placed it into a white space? How would it look then?’ And at that moment I saw it, and it looked fucking brilliant. And I thought, this wouldn’t be the worst place for me to die; this is a beautiful place that’s kept me alive. And then I took everything out of my bedroom and made it into an installation. And when I put it into the white space, for some people it became quite shocking. But I just thought it looked like a damsel in distress, like a woman fainting or something, needing to be helped.’ (T. Emin, quoted in 'Tracey Emin Interview: Julian Schnabel’, http://www.lehmannmaupin.com/artists/traceyemin/press/376, [accessed 14 May 2014])
‘She has said the tent and My Bed are the two pieces of hers that have done most to change the way we think about art. Hers isn’t the first bed to be displayed; Emin isn’t obsessed with doing things first (which is, in any case, a very Boys Own version of the world); rather, she is interested in doing things differently – so different that they force a revision, another way of looking’ (J. Winterson, in T. Emin, C. Freedman, R. Herman Fuchs, J. Winterson, Tracey Emin Works 1963-2006, Ann Arbor 2009, p. 6).
‘To map the movement of My Bed is to interrogate its débordement, its potential for meanings to overspill into the disjunctive yet overlapping contexts of sexual politics, homelessness and displacement at the end of the twentieth century. With their cartographies of diaspora and address the unresolved longings of identity, the installations of My Bed touch on and point to some of the key concerns of a contemporary moment’ (D. Cherry, ‘On the Move: My Bed, 1998 to 1999’, in M. Merck & C. Townsend (eds.), The Art of Tracey Emin, London 2002, p. 135).
As an artwork which evokes an emotional state of mind, My Bed, executed in 1998, is one of the most iconic images of the young British art movement, arguably Tracey Emin’s most celebrated and seminal work, it lies at the heart of her deeply personal critical attention when it was exhibited at the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition, an event which considerably contributed to the notoriety of the yBa movement. My Bed was first shown in 1998 at the Toyko’s Sagacho Exhibition Space, which toured to Lehmann Maupin gallery, New York, in 1999 radically updating Contemporary British art with an aesthetic of immediacy which propelled it onto the international stage. Over the past two decades, My Bed has been included in several major solo exhibitions including her retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, CAC Málaga and Kunstmuseum Bern. Emin played a lead role in a group of young British artists who transformed the relationship between art and the public by creating direct visual statements, which strike the heart of important philosophies about our existence.
Operating as an unconventional ‘self-portrait’, Emin’s work re-invigorates the connection between art and life through the combination of previously unexplored media. Continuing the legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade, My Bed is the artist’s real, wooden bed – its rumpled sheets, pillows and twisted blankets appear still warm, left in disarray and intertwined with tangled nylon stockings and crumpled towels. Strewn helter-skelter around the bed is a clutter of personal effects: empty vodka bottles, slippers and underwear, crushed cigarette packs, a snuffed out candle, condoms and contraceptives, a wayward cuddly toy alongside several Polaroid self-portraits. Closely related to Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1965-1993, 1995, My Bed stands as a confessional, exposing Emin’s personal life, replete with all its indiscretions, insecurities, and imperfections. At the time, Emin described My Bed as ‘a self-portrait, but not one that people would like to see’ (T. Emin, quoted in S. Kent, ‘Bleeding Art’, Time Out, 8-15 October 1999, p. 24). Emin’s unflinching stance towards herself as subject resists romanticizing or glamorizing; instead, this intimate installation evokes an emotional state of mind, transforming her possessions to vehicles of desire and the centre of her vulnerability.
Emin and the yBas were inheritors of a Duchampian tradition, and their work borrowed from art history. To this effect, the ‘everyday’ qualities of Arte Povera can be seen in the appropriation of Emin’s media, as well references to the legacy of Conceptual and Minimalism. ‘You feel her wilful occupation of Conceptual art’s formal turf (think Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Joseph Kosuth) as well as her wicked put down of its pompous austerity and authority’ (J. Avgikos, ‘Tracey Emin Lehmann Maupin New York’. Art Forum, October, 38 (2), 1999, 139). To this effect, the sharp linear profile of her bed and gleaming glass bottles ape the clean lines of Minimalism – the tactile messiness of her bedspreads confound any sense of order or reason. In this way, My Bed suggests a full spectrum of meanings, unpicking the cool detachment of the contemporary art world with desire, sexuality, tenderness and violence. ‘Part of the success of My Bed is that the bed Emin uses is contemporary and stylish in its minimalist design... by choosing not to show it in an over-theatrical darkened environment, and instead presenting it simply, Emin’s paradoxical presentational style increases the brutalising self-harm evident on its sheets’ (N. Brown, Tracey Emin, London 2006, p. 97).
The bed has been the subject revisited by artists throughout history the place of birth, conception, death, dreams and nightmares. Delacroix’s painterly iteration of Un Lit Défait, 1827, features the sweat stained, twisted sheets of an artist tormented by creative passion and fervour. Continuing this dialogue, Emin’s unapologetic positioning of her work in the trajectory of a male dominated canon. ‘She has said the tent and My Bed are the two pieces of hers that have done most to change the way we think about art. Hers isn’t the frst bed to be displayed; Emin isn’t obsessed with doing things first (which is, in any case, a very Boys Own version of the world); rather, she is interested in doing things differently – so different that they force a revision, another way of looking’ (J. Winterson, in Tracey Emin, Carl Freedman, Rudolf Herman Fuchs, Jeanette Winterson, Tracey Emin Works 1963-2006, Ann Arbor 2009, p. 6).
A profound exploration of the condition of the female artist, My Bed forms part of Emin’s continued dialogue championing the relevance of art and its ability to addressing questions of gender, sexuality, malady, fertility, loss, and inequality. ‘To map the movement of My Bed is to interrogate its débordement, its potential for meanings to overspill into the disjunctive yet overlapping contexts of sexual politics, homelessness and displacement at the end of the twentieth century. With their cartographies of diaspora and address the unresolved longings of identity, the installations of My Bed touch on and point to some of the key concerns of a contemporary moment’ (D. Cherry, ‘On the Move: My Bed, 1998 to 1999’, in M. Merck & C. Townsend (eds.), The Art of Tracey Emin, London 2002, p. 135).
MY BED, 1998: TRACEY EMIN IN CONVERSATION WITH FRANCIS OUTRED, MAY 2014
FO: My Bed dates from 1998 and in many ways feels like a kind of self-portrait – encapsulating a particular period in your life. Would you agree? Looking back at it now, how do you see it?
TE: I totally agree with that. It’s like a time capsule. It was like a moment caught in time. But as soon as I had the clarity to see the bed as an art object, that’s when I become a third person removed from it.
FO: You first showed My Bed in Japan, could you describe the birth of the artwork and how it felt to exhibit it for the first time?
TE: It was quite diffcult in Japan, because the work didn’t turn up and customs wouldn’t release it - they wanted to destroy it. And they wouldn’t accept it as art. Nicholas Serota and the British Council wrote letters to say that I was an artist and this was an artwork. I think they looked at it like a crime scene - the Japanese customs were horrified by it. So I only got it to Japan the day before the show opened. It’s interesting that in the beginning, each place where I showed it had such different receptions. In Japan, people were really disgusted by my slippers. So that was one thing that I found really shocking. And then in America it was treated like a neo-feminist piece of art. And then of course when it was shown at the Tate, that’s when things just exploded. I wasn’t expecting the explosion at the Tate because I had shown it twice already. But for me actually showing it in a gallery space, in a white space, it was fantastic, because of the moment of clarity and execution, that’s when I first saw its capabilities and all the possibilities I had imagined coming to fruition.
FO: Well this is the point, I mean for me, a lot of people talk about it; it has become this icon now. But the story that gave birth to it is very important. Do you want to describe how that came about?
TE: Well I spent four days in bed. And I was feeling at a very low ebb. And, for two of those four days I was asleep and I didn’t wake up. It was about the breakup of a relationship with someone I was really in love with. And it was also about my own sort of desperation; it was very romantic in lots of ways. It was almost like a nineteenth century bohemian, ‘have you ever half lived?’. It’s very romantic, what I was feeling was the saddest kind of romanticism that anybody could ever imagine. I could have written a broken-hearted love story at the same time, and I did, with the bed.
FO: Could you describe how you transported this thing from your bedroom into the gallery?
TE: Well I had to ship it to Japan. And there was very little budget for the show, it was at Sagacho in the old Rice Factory. And the suitcases, I put everything into the suitcases. In Japan I used another mattress - I didn’t even have the money to ship the original mattress over. But the mattress you have is my original mattress. I brought all the duvets and sheets inside the cases, and the chains, everything. What the Japanese customs picked up on was that the person who had been lying in that bed was so close to death. And that’s why I love the bed, that’s why when I got up, after four days and staggered into the kitchen to get some water, and that is when I came back to see the filth. I knew that it was somehow beautiful. I had the clarity and I understood what I’d experienced and what I’d seen and what I’d witnessed and what I was part of was art.
FO: The experience happened in the bedroom in London and the first time you saw it in a gallery was when it had been transported and put into a gallery in Japan.
TE: From my personal experience of what I’d witnessed and what I’d seen and what I’d felt. I took it, in my mind and I put it in a white clear space. And then when it went to Japan it was in a big gallery space, you know, that’s what I saw. Imagine the bedroom walls just collapsing, and everything in my whole life, disappearing, and I’m just in this heavenly white space. Clear, white, pure, and there the bed is with everything around it. How you normally see it now in images, that’s how I saw it in my head when I staggered back from the kitchen with a glass of water. And I thought, ‘this bed saved me, this bed is positive, this is a really good thing. I have to look after this bed. I have to give it validity. I have to validate it’.
FO: The suitcases weren’t originally part of the work, were they?
TE: No, the suitcases were in my bedroom. This is really interesting, because the chequered suitcase is the one I left home with when I was really young, when I was homeless and I had all my stuff in it. And the other suitcase was when I decided to change my life and I went and bought this brand new Samsonite suitcase. I was doing a show in Canada and I thought, ‘when I come back from this show my life is going to be completely different’. And I was right. So the Samsonite suitcase was like a signifier for me for change and movement and internationalism and just making everything different for myself. So by tying the two suitcases together, I joined my past and my future.
FO: And you’ve tied them together with cord, right?
TE: And chain. I mean they are bonded together.
FO: That element is certainly a poignant part of the work.
TE: Everything about the bed and the cases, everything is really sincere. There was nothing that was supposed to be shocking. Nothing that was supposed to be irreverent. It was like me sitting down in my studio doing a drawing, except it wasn’t, it was bigger than that. It was life changing.
FO: So were you surprised by the controversy it created at Turner Prize?
TE: Really surprised, because originally I had wanted to show my beach hut. All I knew with The Turner Prize was I wanted my square sculpture in the middle and my drawings round the edge, so the beach hut seemed like the perfect thing because it created walls, so you’d have to walk around and look at other things. And then I couldn’t get the beach hut back from San Francisco and I didn’t have the money to ship it back. So the bed was really easy because then I could just put all the stuff back in the suitcases.
FO: How do you install My Bed?
TE: There are trestle tables and on the trestle tables are all the objects in little tiny plastic bags. So for example, all the individual dog-ends that are around, are in individual tiny bags, and then all the dog-ends that were in the ashtray are in one bag. All the tampons are separated into little bags, all the tissues and everything are in a big bag. The underwear is separated into different bags. It’s like a crime scene. And I walk in, and then I have to place everything back how it was. And every time it’s different. Because every time I’m in a slightly different mood. But it always still looks the same, it still looks iconic.
FO: You often refer to My Bed and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1965-1993, as your ‘seminal works’. Could you explain what effect these works have on your practice? How has your practice evolved?
TE: Well they changed my life. It’s that simple. And they changed other people’s.
FO: In terms of your work today, do you think about the bed when you make your work at all?
TE: No. But I think about the bed almost every day when I make my own bed.
FO: Do you?
TE: Yes. I’ll always be grateful for the bed. And if I could show the bed in my next show and my next show and my next show, I would. Because I think the bed will forever stand up to time.
FO: Would you describe yourself as feminist artist?
TE: No, I would describe myself as a feminist.
FO: You’ve often spoken of the influence of Louise Bourgeois on your practice. What other artists inspire you?
TE: Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch, Bruce Nauman, Rebecca Warren, I like real creativity, I like things which are touched by people’s hands, and I like to feel the transference of energy through that.
FO: Many of those artists you mention, the origin of their work is the self.
TE: Every artist that I really adore works with the self and their own emotions.
FO: What are you working on now?
TE: I’m working on a series of figurative, really classical bronzes for my show at Jay Jopling’s [White Cube] in October. I’m also about to have a show at the Leopold Museum in Vienna with Egon Schiele in May, and I’m doing a show with Edvard Munch in Amsterdam curated by Rudi Fuchs next October.
FO: So really you’re kind of coming round circle and you’re showing with your influences, but also I think something like My Bed will really endure throughout history as an object which speaks of that time but also of a timeless anxiety and how we evolve as human beings.
TE: The whole thing about the bed that everyone keeps forgetting is that it’s a zeitgeist, it’s like a time machine. There was this anxiety in the 1990s that just hung there, and I think the bed is a good representation of the time. But it still holds itself within history because at the end of the day it’s a universal symbol of something.