My bed by Tracey Emin
Photo: copyright Tracey Emin
First published as ArtWay Visual Meditation, 1 August, 2010
It is fairly obvious that we are intended to be shocked by this work of art: to feel surprised at the unusual materials, provoked by the lack of craftsmanship, and affronted by the awkward intimacy into which the artist invites – or forces – us. But it repays contemplation.
First of all, it is not clear what it is ‘about’. The lack of artistic intervention makes it enigmatic. It presents you with a scene – apparently the artist’s own bed – and invites you to respond, without overtly suggesting what direction that response might take. But it is presented as a work of art, in the long tradition of Fine Art, in which we contemplate the deeper issues of human existence.
Secondly, there is an interesting conflict in making public what is normally very private. The general scene is very familiar to us, and in that familiarity we know that we normally close the door on scenes like this. Just the intimacy connected with undressing and going to bed, let alone the personal nature of the clutter, is powerful enough to ensure that we don’t want others looking in. And here the tangled sheets, and particularly the detritus on the floor, suggest someone living a more than usually chaotic life, which ordinarily we might want to keep secret.
Making public what should be private seems to speak of an overpowering desire or need to be known. We all long to be known, and yet modesty and privacy have their place in human life. We cover up for a good reason – to protect ourselves, and to save others from embarrassment. And that is part of the shock of the work. It suggests a real sense of vulnerability, and perhaps a relational difficulty – a deep desire to be known, but an inability or unwillingness to use more normal means of forming close relationships in which we can safely know and be known. It is that sense of childish naivety and social awkwardness that lend the work its pathos: one has to feel sorry for this person.
This is confirmed by the nature of the detritus on the floor. In some versions of the installation, a fluffy toy dog tells us that this person is still deeply attached to their childhood. But the dog sits apart, looking at the empty vodka bottle, condom packets and cigarettes, the paraphernalia of a grown-up who has lost their innocence. But the choice of clutter shows that loss of innocence has not brought happiness: there are no photographs of loved ones, no personal correspondence, no books. Beds are typically places of warmth and safety, but there is nothing attractive about this one.
Then finally, the work is engaging because of its tone of doubtful defiance. On the one hand, it seems to dare us to make a judgement. Do we presume to judge someone else’s lifestyle? On what do we base our judgement? Is there still such a thing as shame?
On the other hand, presenting this as a work of art seems to be a recognition that are questions to be asked about it; there is something worth contemplating. The objects round the bed seem to invite moral judgement. And the presentation of the scene in public as art acknowledges the possibility of shared values being brought to bear on it. In amongst its air of defiance is an implicit recognition of a moral world, an aspect of our life in which judgements can be formed, and may be legitimate.
As we look at this work, we may be touched by Tracey Emin’s honesty in facing this mess and recognising there does seem to be a moral question to be asked about it – something about it does not seem right. This can’t be all there is: surely we sense there is something better we are reaching for. But you won’t find the answer in the mess. The way out is to recognise it for the blind alley that it is and cry out, ‘God, save me from this mess.’ And He does.
Tracey Emin: My bed (1998; mattress, linens, pillows, objects; 79 x 211 x 234 cm)
[First published by ArtWay, 1 August 2010. To subscribe to the weekly ArtWay visual meditations, or view other articles in the series, go to www.artway.eu.]