Monday, 30 March 2015

The Bed is Back: Tracey Emin's My Bed at Tate Britain

It has been 15 years since Tracey Emin's Bed was last shown at Tate when it was the most talked about nominee for the Turner Prize.

Since then like the artist herself it has been on quite a journey. It was bought by Saatchi who exhibited it in both his gallery and his own home. In 2014 it was bought by Count Christian Duerckheim for a staggering £2.5 million. The Count in turn has lent it to the Tate gallery for a period of 10 years.

So much has been written about this work that I will not dwell on its history and the impassioned debates it inspires about what art is, how meaning is stored in objects, the importance of authentic objects and sensationalism. Although of course these are all important parts of what makes it what it is.

What interests me about this work is seeing it again at the Tate. It is easy to think that permenant collections stay the same but they are always changing and now My Bed is seen alongside a range of works that open up a fasinating dialogue with it. It has gone from being part of the temporary Turner Prize exhibition to being seen as an integral part of the history of British art.

Emin has helped curate the room in which the work itself will be shown. She has chosen to show it alongside some of her ink drawings produced in 2014 and gifted to the gallery and two works by Francis Bacon. The impression these dynamic works create in this small space is one of turbulence reflecting her emotional state at the time that the bed was conceived. The link with Francis Bacon is a logical one the two artists share a hair trigger and emotional turbulence they both lived big and fast and as a result their work is expressive and charged with their respective personalities and pains.

But of course the room is a small part of the overall gallery and seeing it there got me thinking about some of the other links. One that sprung immediately to mind is a Tate Britain favourite Henry Wallis' The Death of Chatterton. It is no secret that Emin's Bed is considered a self portrait of the artist in her darkest moment although it is sometimes forgotten that in an earlier incarnation a hangman's noose used to hang above it making the theme of suicide more explicit. It is interesting to look at the similarity between the works despite the fact that they belong to such different traditions. We see Chatterton in his bed with the signs and symbols of his life strewn around him. Instead of condoms suitcases and vodka bottles we have a discarded coat, torn up letters and an arsenic bottle.

A second connection which I am sure is not entirely coincidental is the fact that this display coincides with the Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen show. McQueen took his life in 2012 and it is a theme that is difficult to entirely forget as you go around the exhibition. You get the sense that he was preoccupied with his own legacy with creating something memorable and getting all of the information down through his clothes and through the photo book the two produced together. In the Exhibition Susannah Frankel talks about McQueen being very aware of the Horn of Plenty as his last collection as a young man. The Juxtaposition of My Bed and this reflection on McQueen in the same gallery suggest a dialogue between creativity, survival, legacy and youth.

The Final link that occurred to me is a more general one. Looking at the bed now it is clear that it has become something else it is a sort of time capsuale not just of Emin's life and the history of the Young British Artists but of the 90's. As you go through the gallery from the 1600's to the present day you see a series of moments they are shown to be distinct by the objects included in them. Take The Portrait of William Style of Langley on show in the 1640 room.

We do not know the artist of this work but it can be dated to the 17th century because of the fashion and the objects shown within it. The same is now true with Emin's Bed. The fact the Marlboro cigarettes do not have health warnings, the old fashioned orangina bottle even the type of razor these details all date the work. They allow us to look at it through a different lens making it not just an art work but an artifact.

There are so many more connections to be discovered so I do encourage anyone to come and have a look My Bed will be on show at Tate Britain from 31st March 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyable read- intriguing connections!