Culture House Daily

Why I love Tracey Emin’s bed

5 July 2014

My Bed, one of the works that failed to win Tracey Emin the Turner Prize (she lost to Steve McQueen in 1999), made £2.2m at Christie’s this week, going to an anonymous buyer. Charles Saatchi, who put it up for auction, had bought it for £150,000 in 2000.

It has apparently lost none of its controversy since it first went on display at Tate Britain 15 years ago. And by ‘controversy’ I simply mean that many people – and that includes art critics – don’t think much of it at all. And note, I only use the term ‘controversy’ – and in scare quotes – because many sections of the media are rather wedded to it when it comes to anything do with Tracey Emin. I suspect that its use is really little more than lazy shorthand for the antagonism people, journalists, feel towards contemporary art in general. And that can get very boring.

Anyway, here I’m begging to differ. I love Emin’s bed. I think it’s good art, even though I don’t actually think it’s her best work. Her videos are her best work, because they are powerful and moving and because she’s a great story-teller in an avowedly traditional sense (I add that not as a plea to reassure, but because it’s true). For the doubters, just watch Why I Never Became a Dancer and you’ll see that her work has real narrative power.


She’s also, unsurprisingly, a very good writer, as anyone who’s read Strangeland, her 2005 memoir, will know. This has made some critics suggest that it’s writing (spelling aside) rather than visual art that’s her forte. And although I don’t think that’s true, it is true that her work has a story-telling function. Therein lies its seductive potency – but only if you’re prepared to be open to it. Visual art, unlike prose, operates on the condition of its obliqueness, its slipperiness, its open-endedness. Prose embraces all that too, of course, but not as a kind of unwritten condition of its power.

And Emin’s bed, that smelly, messy expression of Emin’s precarious and disorderly emotional life as a younger woman, operates on that level too. Like Rauschenberg (with Bed, 1955), Emin took the notion of the coldly dispassionate Duchampian ready-made (a real bed) and married it to the emotional heat of a confessional narrative. But Emin’s bed, as opposed to Rauschenberg’s, has a squalidly humdrum, English kitchen-sink feel to it. Her bed, after all, is just a literal thing, a literal bed with nothing added and nothing taken away, with all its surrounding accoutrements (bloody knickers, used condoms, cigarette stubs), transported into a gallery to look as if that’s how it always looked.

So it’s a bed with two histories – both Emin’s history and art history, in bed together, intertwined. It’s a conversation on all those levels, happening in that bed, and with all that unruly feminine emotional baggage too. That’s why I’m rather take with it.

Fisun Güner is the visual arts editor of The Arts Desk

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  • lenzicon

    Anyone who likes this is being conned big time.

  • Baron

    It may have sold for more than the £2,2mn if she defecated in it. Crap’s expensive today as the visual art editor above demonstrates.

    • Frank Marker

      Crap: Maybe they should can it? Or has that already been done?

  • AlisonMS

    If art is that easy, I’m buying shares in Dreams and IKEA.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    I suspect that its creation is really little more than lazy shorthand for the antagonism artists feel towards people in general. And that can get very boring.

  • Kevin Weinberg

    How the fuck is this art?

    • AlisonMS

      In this instance, I think that’s what created it.

  • mitate

    Metaphor for this country.

  • mitate

    Metaphor for this country.

  • DrWatt

    One of the most ridiculous ‘works of art’ I ever come across was Martin Creeds Work 227: ‘The lights going on and off’. This consisted of an empty room and a light that would flick on and then off every five seconds or so – it won a £20,000 Turner Prize.

    Creed said his work is about the qualities of “nothing”.

  • dado_trunking

    If Emin did not exist, who would Britain declare having talent?

  • BillRees

    Tracey Emin is a genuine artist.

    Or, perhaps a little more accurately, a genuine con-artist.

    Good luck to her if she can persuade gullible people to buy her works.

  • The Masked Marvel

    So, if one urinated on it, would it become satire or parody?

    Bill Viola’s video work is better.

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      It would double in ‘value’.

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    A case of the Emperor’s new bedclothes?

  • DaveyT

    It’s not art because it required NO SKILL OR PROFICIENCY WHATSOEVER to create!! It’s an insult to all the great and skilled artists throughout past centuries who died in poverty for want of recognition!

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      So true. Still, at least with that pile of bricks exhibit some years ago you could do something useful with it, for example build a small garden wall. A very expensive garden, admittedly.

      • IainRMuir

        Which is probably exactly where they are now.

        Are they still “art”, wherever they are, or did that title mysteriously evaporate when they were moved?

    • IainRMuir

      Agree. It also receives a disproportionate amount of attention (which I suppose I’m contributing to here) and gives all art a bad name in the eyes of many people whose attitudes would probably be pretty neutral otherwise. That’s a shame.

  • Ricky Strong

    £2.2 million for that! I don’t know who the real idiots are here, the “artists” or the purchasers of this inane tripe.

    • DaveyT

      Unfortunately, the ‘artist’, the art dealers and the investors certainly can’t be labelled as idiots – between them they have shared in a profit of £2 million quid for a pile of dirty old sheets. The real idiots are people like us who believe you have to earn money in this life, or at least be rewarded according to your skill or worth!

  • GraveDave

    It’s a bed, you pretentious prat. A bed!

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