Tracey Emin is a name that even when uttered through the tightest pursed lips breathes a brutal honesty across nations, cultures, and ages. Her work is as raw and wretched as it is mysterious and melodramatic. Labelling her as controversial is an understatement; Emin’s work shocks, surprises, and creates feelings of tension and intrigue that leave her audiences disturbed and uncertain.
Her 1998 installation piece, My Bed speaks as much for itself as it does for the artist – the work can be seen as a portrait of Emin where she candidly exposes herself. Our eyes initially seek any patterns or codes that may simplify the understanding of such a complex exhibition of one’s self, but similar to the life led by someone with depression, there is little clarity to be found, and answers remain elusive.
The concept behind My Bed arose from the depths of one of Emin’s depressive episodes. Having been prone to depression, it was the break up of a relationship that triggered the artist’s suicidal thoughts, disabling her from getting out of bed for days. Emin claims that the general state of the duvet and sheets in My Bed are true to the manner in which they were left when she finally found the courage to move herself, to put her slippers on.
The bed becomes a stage for various occasions – a rough night, an overdose – and the remnants of such times lay strewn on and around the side of the bed like miniature ancient ruins, lifeless symbols of Emin’s past. Scattered amongst twisted sheets are used condoms, contraceptive pills, stained underwear and an empty vodka bottle. The scene exposes a life that many viewing the work would feel uneasy about. The revolutionary media in the work seems to defile art itself, and our inclination is to judge the piece and Emin, turning our heads away towards something easier to digest.
Initially My Bed was received negatively and critics directly insulted Emin; there was little public empathy. However, in 1999 when the work was exhibited at the Tate Gallery, it was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Charles Saatchi bought the piece for £150,000.00.
The reception to the work can be likened to that of the Cubist movement’s, with its innovative facetting and inclusion of everyday objects such as rope and chair caning. This, too, was misunderstood by those who advocated for traditional artistic standards. Like the revolutionary work of Picasso and Braque 90 years before her, Emin’s My Bed is equally unconventional and adventurous.
This psychologically challenging work requires persistence from its viewers. It becomes a looking-glass into a certain type of life as well as translating our own, which is emanated to us through our own responses to the piece. My Bed makes us reflect on our judgemental behaviour and our inability to emphathise with others and their circumstances.