(This article was originally published here, but was also featured on MI Magazine here)
Sometimes a work of art becomes so famous, so controversial, that it is impossible for many to see it as a work of art at all. As anyone who has been to see Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’, returned to London this week after 15 years, can testify, it is one of those pieces. Viewers of the piece flock round, take a photo, feel satisfied for a moment that they can tick another famous artwork off their list and then move on, not giving a moment to the two Francis Bacon oil paintings or set of four Emin drawings the Tate has put alongside the piece.
This is a great shame, as these greatly illuminate the piece, highlighting points made by the work that were often lost behind the media celebrity that the bed become when first shown as part of Emin’s Turner Prize show in 1999. The bed presents a moment in time, at once dated to its original creation date by the newspaper that makes up part of the detritus that surrounds the bed, and yet oddly ahistorical, the build up of many years of sexual encounters, lonely nights and hangovers slept off.
Critics tend to focus on the sexuality explicit in ‘My Bed’, the condoms, contraceptive pills and dirty underwear, but its being displayed with two Bacon paintings (chosen by Emin herself) really bring to your attention the sense of death that lingers over the work. Just as Victorian parlance had ‘little death’ as a euphemism for an orgasm, so too do Bacon and Emin both show the complex relations between sex and death. This is particularly clear in Bacon’s ‘Reclining Woman’, in which the female figure is reduced to a sort of post-orgasmic goo that just as easily could be decomposition. In Emin’s bed, the talismans of sexuality are combined with those that are slowly killing the bed’s sleeper. Cigarette cases, fast food pots and painkillers are liberally festooned across the carpet, the unhealthy objects harming not just the Emin-surrogate of the bed but the majority of the western world. Just as Bacon’s woman’s facelessness means she is simultaneously one person, every woman and no woman, the person who sleeps in ‘My Bed’ is at once Emin, everybody and nobody.
A more curious choice by Emin is Bacon’s ‘Study of a Dog’, a definite Bacon lesser work as much early Hockneyesque with its palm trees in the background as it is Baconesque. It is a work that makes it seem as if the Tate had simply run out of Bacons for Emin to choose from. However, perhaps the key is in its title, and Emin is suggesting that her bed is as much a study of Tracey Emin as Bacon’s oil is a study of a dog, a brief sketch that does not define its subject, just as Emin may wish to be defined as something other than ‘the promiscuous lady artist’ that the tabloids may like to paint her. It is definitely taking the analogy too far, but Emin shows us she is more than the rabid dog in heat, humping at the leg of the art establishment. She is an OBE, an RA, and a professor of drawing, she is no longer just the woman with the bed.
Although ignored by most gallery visitors, the drawings of this drawing professor included here are highly illuminative of Emin’s relation to the bed today. Four works showing supine women, these are at once the bed’s owner and multiple owners of beds, turning the piece from a self-portrait of sorts (featuring its own Polaroid self-portrait of EMin as part of the piece) to a wider statement more fitting Emin’s wider status than she held a decade and a half ago. Rather than just a prurient look into one woman artist’s lurid sex life, the Tate gallery displays it as an elegant rumination on sex, death and art, more than standing up to that other tortured great Francis Bacon. All it takes is a little time to discover that, a little time to work through the levels of notoriety, the levels of pants, sheets and duvets to uncover the heart of the work.
And if you desperately want a picture of it, just Google Image it later. It’s famous enough.