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Tracey Emin – My Bed

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates/Tracey Emin/Saatchi Gallery.

Women Artists

Tracey Emin – My Bed

My Bed is an iconic and seminal artwork by British artist Tracey Emin. It was conceived over 20 years ago. Despite its age it is still one of contemporary art’s most striking depictions of vulnerability.

It is a box frame wooden bed with a mattress and white linens (stained). Strewn beside the bed, on a blue carpet, are various objects: a side-table, empty vodka bottles, slippers, underwear, cigarette packs, a snuffed-out candle, condoms, a cuddly toy, polaroid selfies, take-away sauce packets etc. 

Originally My Bed was made in Emin’s Waterloo council flat in 1998. First, it travelled to Tokyo and then New York. Next, My Bed became famous – during the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition. Now, it is on a long term loan to the Tate, following its purchase by a private collector in 2014.

My Bed: a Seminal Artwork

Tracey Emin - My bed
Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates/Tracey Emin/Saatchi Gallery.

Beds often feature in artworks, with, most often, a nude posed on top. Before My Bed no one had ever displayed a bed as the art object itself. It is a portrait of a young woman, devoid of, and made by, the woman herself.  My bed is not a representation of an object, such as with paintings or sculpture. Rather, it is the art object in and of itself.

The Place of My Bed within Art History

Tracey Emin was part of the group of artists in the late 1980s that came to be known as “the Young British Artists,” which included artists such as Damien Hirst. The YBAs would exhibit together and were known for their innovation, shock tactics and entrepreneurial attitude. It is in this context that My Bed was created.

My bed can also be seen to be an inheritor of the “anti-art” tradition. This term was coined by Marcel Duchamp in the 1910s when he first began making “readymades,” such as his Fountain (1917). 

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1964, replica, Tate, London.

My Bed is also related to the idea of “found objects” in art. From 1912 Picasso would incorporate things like newspapers into his cubist collages. Artists like Henry Moore, who collected bones and flints as natural sculptures, and Salvador Dali, who modified found objects for his work, also used found objects.

Originally, My Bed was exhibited alongside three miniature watercolors by Emin. In 2015, at Tate Britain, Emin chose to situate it next to paintings by Francis Bacon as well as some of her current drawings.

When My Bed visited Emin’s hometown, Margate, it was accompanied by Turner paintings (“Tracey Emin, My Bed/JMW Turner,” Turner Contemporary, Fri 13 Oct 2017 – Sun 14 Jan 2018).

“This Is a Beautiful Place that’s Kept Me Alive”

 “I had a kind of mini nervous breakdown in my very small flat and didn’t get out of bed for four days … I crawled across the floor, pulled myself up on the sink to get some water, and made my way back to my bedroom, and as I did I looked at my bedroom and thought, ‘Oh, my God. What if I’d died and they found me here?’ And then I thought, ‘What if here wasn’t here? … at that moment I saw it, and it looked fucking brilliant. And I thought, this wouldn’t be the worst place for me to die; this is a beautiful place that’s kept me alive … when I put it into the white space, for some people it became quite shocking. But I just thought it looked like a damsel in distress, like a woman fainting or something, needing to be helped.”

Interview with Julian Schnabel, 2006.

My Bed Is Personal but Nonetheless Art

Now, My bed is over twenty years old. Emin precisely puts it back together whenever it is shown. She describes this process as quite painful, as it requires her to revisit a past-version of herself.

Like almost all artists Emin’s personal life informs her work. However the extent to which her art is confessional is something that distinguishes her. 

Nonetheless, integrity is vital for her artwork. Emin turned down the £1 million insurance money and declined to remake the artwork, when her (also seminal) piece Everybody I have ever slept with was destroyed in a fire.

“The Response People Had to It Is Part of Its Identity”

My Bed did not win the 1999 Turner Prize but the media sensation it stirred launched Emin’s glittering career. Shamefully, it was more gossip than a critical debate of her art that informed much of the early response.

“Many modern artists take the view that art should address the more unpleasant realities of life and should not necessarily be conventionally beautiful … Tracey Emin, while controversial, is a well respected contemporary artist of the younger generation and already has an international reputation – My Bed was shown in exhibitions in New York and Tokyo earlier this year.”

Standard Tate reply letter in response to Tracey Emin complaints during the period of the 1999 Turner exhibition

It has taken a long time for art critics to accept the influence of Emin. When My Bed went up for auction in 2014 it was undervalued by over £1 million.

Shocking art has always had an important place in art history, for example the Impressionists. Often, seminal works are shocking by definition.

Tracey Emin - My bed
Tracey Emin, I’ve Got It All, ink-jet print, 2000, Saatchi Gallery.

Tracey Emin – Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire

Emin’s magnificently skilled artwork includes needlework, sculpture, photography, drawing, painting, video and installation. She regularly donates to charity and would describe herself as a feminist (although she would not say she makes feminist art). Queen Elizabeth II awarded Emin a CBE in 2013 for her contributions to art.

You can keep up to date with Emin’s work through her Twitter account @TraceyEmin. Tracey Emin’s “Desert Island Discs” episode is also great.

Isla is a Classicist and lover of learning about art. She recently moved to London, having spent a year in Japan after graduating from the University of Cambridge.


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