Tracey Emin, My Bed and JMW Turner. Turner contemporary Margate.



The Autumn/Winter exhibits at Turner contemporary complement each other well.  Arp, The poetry of Forms is a major retrospective of an artist whose work seeks to captures abstract thought.  This exhibition is contrasted by Tracey Emin’s My bed and her selection of Turner sea-scapes, that deal with a more visceral response to life.

Even now I find amongst friends that The Bed remains controversial, the marmite of the art world.  However asked if she could account for its divisive response in audiences, Emin herself believed that it had lost much of its shock value.  But she did suggest that any such extreme reaction in the viewer was largely dependent on their own emotional honesty when confronting the past.

Emin is extremely forthright about her own life.  The bed was a eureka moment after a period of devastation following the break- up of a love affair.  Coming round from her grief she suddenly saw its universal message and thus transformed the bed into art.  Now returning to the work as an older more mellow artist she feels the events it represented are 20 years removed from her current life.  It is she says as if ‘she were holding hands with a ghost’.  The bed is reworked each time she installs it in a space.  In a sense this keeps it fresh, allows her to tweak or edit as she sees fit, so that each audience is presented with a slightly different version whilst at the same time remaining faithful to the original artwork.  Emin is an artist, who in this piece at least, seems to specifically speaks for and to women.  For example, when she points out that the tiny belt coiled up on the floor once fitted her waist but now barely fits her thigh.  I hear you sister would be a common female response to this home truth.

The bed is an extraordinary piece of art.  It is a metaphor for the anguish felt when a passionate love affair ends abruptly with no hope for reconciliation.  It signifies that initial acute period of suffering.  As such, we are shown the artist’s raw emotion.  The seediness of the piece reveals a period of self-loathing and self-neglect.  What struck me was the level of squalor the artist skilfully creates without the bed looking like a construct.  This very skill, that makes the work so honest and authentic, may be what is misinterpreted by some viewers as casualness.  The way into the piece is simply to observe and carefully follow the narrative.  In this way an emotional reaction is evoked that serves to stir up similar memories in the observer albeit not so extreme.  Such memories as Emin points out may not be pleasant but there is an honesty in recalling parts of our lives that remain parts of our own stories.

The bed itself is a crude divan.  Its mattress grossly stained, suggesting sexual activity from happier days, spilled booze and perhaps not making it to the loo in time and not even caring if you don’t.  One pillow is ripped hinting at rage or even self-harm; the duvet bares no cover and is mangled as if after nights of restless sleep and days of drunken despair.  There is a sense here not just of heartbreak but also of poverty that disturbs the audiences’ psyche.  A new addition to the piece is a carelessly thrown pair of blue knickers, grubby and worn, that hints at self-neglect and are also  a sad symbol of sauciness that has died with the affair and so are cast aside much like their owner.  Emin herself felt that this reincarnation of the work seemed to have an air of sexiness and sensuality, perhaps because it is ensconced now in one-time saucy seaside Margate where even Turner was known to cut loose.  I confess I did not pick up on this, perhaps because never having seen the bed before I was too overwhelmed by the negative impact to pick up on this nuance.

The narrative of the bed spills out onto a square of blue carpet cluttered with detritus that amplifies the feelings of despair.  This carpet is so filthy and litter strewn that the observer feels it would squelch under foot.  Empty fag packets, full ash trays, toted vodka bottles, condoms, are all strategically selected and placed for maximum effect, again the craft lies in the seeming lack of thought by the artist, that creates an enduring image of chaos.  The observer can spend ages pouring over these many items that have crystallised not just as a state of mind but also a sense of another era.  As such, the work will benefit from being visited a few times to fully take in the detailed layers.

Visit this installation then with an open mind and prepare to be honest about your own emotional past, which although perhaps not so extreme is no less intense.   Emin shares her autobiography with us here but it is rich with universal themes that we can recognise and own to if we are brave enough.  It shocks because it symbolises the intense emotions all human beings are subject to.  Looking at the bed, is rather like looking at a catastrophe natural or man-made, that one marvels anyone could have survived.  It is extraordinary given the emotional chaos that the bed reveals, that the artist could recovered herself enough to have the seminal moment that saw its potential as art, believing correctly that her experience was not unique.

The bed fits well with the Turners’ judiciously chosen by Emin, especially the brooding ‘Stormy sea with Blazing wreck’ that hangs closest to her own work.  He like Emin was a visceral artist who as part of the Romantic movement, strove to depict and indeed evoke in his audience the awe and chaos endemic in the human condition.  Shown in tandem they make for a moving experience.

Fiona Sinclair © 2017.