Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” Ignored Society’s Expectations of Women
Installation view of Tracey Emin, My Bed, at the Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, 1999-2000. Photo © Stephen White. © 2018 Tracey Emin. All rights reservied, DACS, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of White Cube.
When Tracey Emin aired her dirty laundry in the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, she set a new standard for confessional art. She conceived of the installation, titled My Bed (1998), after a long, bedridden bender following a bad break-up. When Emin finally left her sheets, she examined the mess she’d created. Crumpled tissues, period-stained clothing, cigarettes, empty vodka bottles, a pregnancy test, lubricant, and condoms surrounded her bed. She decided it was a work of art.
Emin first transported the bed and its accompanying detritus to Tokyo’s Sagacho Exhibition Space for a 1998 show, then to the Tate the following year. Though Emin lost the prestigious Turner Prize to Steve McQueen, the work became a media sensation and launched her career—even if some critics hated it. (The Guardian’s Adrian Searle wrote that the piece was an “endlessly solipsistic, self-regarding homage” to the artist, and chided: “Tracey, you are a bore.”)
In an email to Artsy, Tate Liverpool curator Darren Pih described the work as a “form of assemblage art” that “almost resembles a crime scene.” Viewers can read the component pieces like detectives, reviewing forensic evidence. Yet My Bed also elicits warmer, more personal responses. It remains one of contemporary art’s most striking depictions of vulnerability, a self-portrait that doesn’t veer from the messiness of depression and heartbreak. In particular, it appealed to viewers who connected their own painful experiences to those implied by Emin’s installation.
Born in London in 1963, Emin grew up with her mother and twin brother in Margate on England’s southeast coast. However, her father was married to another woman, and divided his time between his two families. When she was 7, his local hotel business failed, and her family struggled financially. Emin’s difficult childhood turned traumatic when she was raped at age 13. When she was 18 years old, Emin became pregnant and had an abortion (a second followed in her mid-twenties). These early wounds fueled her practice for decades, inspiring her work.
Emin studied fashion at the now-defunct Medway College of Design in Rochester (but never completed her degree) and joined The Medway Poets, a punk-poetry performance group. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Maidstone College of Art in 1986 and a Master’s in painting from the Royal College of Art in 1989, Emin began focusing on building a career as an artist.
In 1993, Emin teamed up with fellow artist Sarah Lucas to open The Shop, a temporary gallery in London’s Bethnal Green neighborhood. They painted the walls magnolia to distinguish their space from traditional white cubes. The Shop didn’t display art; instead, it offered T-shirts and mugs customized by Emin and Lucas. They threw parties, Damien Hirst stopped by, and soon the pair had cemented their reputations as forerunners of the Young British Artists (YBAs)—a group who began exhibiting together in the late 1980s and received patronage from collector and gallerist Charles Saatchi, who coined the name.
That same year, Emin presaged her later fame by titling her first solo exhibition, at London’s White Cube Gallery, “My Major Retrospective 1963–1993.” This early show evidenced the confessional mode that would become Emin’s hallmark. The artist mounted personal relics, from journals to a quilt to newspaper clippings memorializing her uncle’s untimely death. In her title and presentation, Emin suggested that, together, the writings and knicknacks offered a fractured but honest portrait of her past.
Emin was following an artistic lineage that some scholars trace to artist Louise Bourgeois (The Telegraph once called her “Tracey Emin’s spiritual grandmother”). Bourgeois, like Emin, fixated on her early life and wrestled with sexuality and the female body throughout her oeuvre. In particular, the older artist repeatedly exorcised the demon of her father’s 10-year affair with her childhood nanny. The title of a 1974 artwork, The Destruction of the Father, suggests her deeply personal, psychologically fraught connection to her artwork. The Telegraph has also called artist Sophie Calle—who makes art out of personal break-up notes and sexless relationships—“France’s answer to Tracey Emin.”
If Emin is part of a larger narrative about confessional work, particularly work made by women, art historian Laura Lake Smith also sees her as a product of her time. Emin, she said, creates an “authentic, inauthentic persona.” In the 1990s and noughts, Smith explained, “there was the rise of reality TV, of social platforms, of crafting personas in a very personal way,” suggesting that Emin’s work is not just autobiographical, but performative. At that time, Emin was creating a persona for an audience in the way that MTV was generating characters for The Real World.
Smith lauded, in particular, Emin’s ability to tell a story. Looking at My Bed makes the viewer consider the events and mishaps that led up to the wreckage. The piece is expansive in its ability to conjure a full narrative about depression, self-harm, and eventual redemption: The bed is empty, of course, because Emin decided to leave it and sublimate her troubles into art.
In 2017, Emin recreated My Bed for an exhibition at Turner Contemporary in her hometown of Margate. The gallery hung paintings by J.M.W. Turner around the installation, creating a particularly contemplative atmosphere.
In an interview, Emin discussed how her life had changed since she first mounted the piece. “I don’t smoke, I don’t have sex, I don’t use contraceptives, I don’t have periods, I don’t wear small pale blue knickers that look like one of Turner’s clouds,” she told the writer. “I don’t make stains on the bed like that, like I used to, and if I did, I wouldn’t have a bed like that, the sheets would get washed immediately.”
“What’s interesting is that the bed is a stage for birth, depressive isolation, and death,” Pih said. “It’s a powerful symbolism found in literature and art, in the work of Edvard Munch and William Blake, for example.” Emin’s bed, however, offers a particularly feminine angle on those motifs; her work elevates the anxieties of life as a woman to monumental status.