"Tracey Emin's 'My Bed'," Deborah Cherry.
Tracey Emin's My Bed, short-listed in autumn 1999 for the Turner Prize (plate 1), presents a base supporting a mattress, on top of which are rumpled sheets, pillows, panty-hose and a towel; cluttered alongside is an assortment of items from vodka bottles to slippers and underwear, cigarette packs to condoms and contraceptives, Polaroid (self)portraits to a white fluffy toy. For her London critics, My Bed exemplified and expressed Emin's sluttish personality, the detritus of a life quintessentially her own; it was, above all, confessional. Such links were encouraged by the mise-en-scene with its misspelled jottings, declamatory textile and neon, memorabilia, and 'home videos' in which the camera wandered, accompanied by voice-overs by the artist, through scenarios of clutter similar to that of My Bed and filmed in her apartment near Waterloo station in London, all of which facilitated elisions between life and art and confusions between the two.
Marooned in the raging sea of a woman's tortured emotions, My Bed was circulated in an economy of excess. But however compelling, this confessional 'bad girl' was not the only frame for My Bed, also contextualised within an aesthetics of dirt and disgust. Yet the celebration of Emin as the epitome not so much of bad taste but distaste equally failed to break the circuit of excess. Starting from a deconstruction of Emin's critical reception in London in the autumn of 1999, this paper examines the installations of My Bed in Tokyo, New York and London and explores the ways in which this work might be located within the disjunctive yet overlapping contexts of sexual politics, homelessness and displacement at the end of the twentieth century. In a paper which is very much work in progress, these are not offered as definite conclusions which delimit of the meanings for what is a complex and contemplative piece, but more suggestions which in declining to foreclose the work as personal expression, interpret it as productive and located within the key issues of a contemporary moment.
My Bed made its first appearance at the Sagacho Exhibit Space in Tokyo in the autumn of 1998. In a long rectangular space with windows on one side, the bed, a rope noose suspended from the ceiling, was juxtaposed to a wooden coffin box beside which were two bound cases. A collection of drawings was arranged on the long wall, painted blue, and the far wall carried two blue neon signs. While many of the elements beside the bed and on the blue carpet (rug) were established here, the repertory was far from fixedi. And just as the components and their disposition have varied at each installation, so too have the pieces with which it has been shown. Dated to 1998, My Bed was included in her first solo show in the United States, Every Part of Me's Bleeding, at the New York gallery Lehmann Maupin in May-June 1999 (plate 3). Adjacent to the piece were the blue neon signs Soba sex (1999) and My Cunt is wet with fear (1998), and (seen beyond the bed in plate 3) 'The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet a baby a shawl'. The Hut of (1999) was displayed in the main gallery. Showcasing the many media in which Emin works, the exhibition included the neon title piece, drawings, Psyco Slut a textile work of 1999, and a number of smaller installations — Leaving Home of 1999 which juxtaposed a metal tub part filled with gin, two keys, two bound suitcases, and a spool of thread, The History of Painting and The History of Painting part 2 (from 1998) with pregnancy tests, morning-after pills, used tampons, blood and tissue, and The Interview in which two child-size chairs, slippers beside them, were arranged in front of portable televisions showing a video in which the artist, in different guises, confronted herself in a spiral of self-loathing. For the Turner Prize the bed was installed without the rope noose; the two bound cases were placed on the side opposite the clutter. The artist's space also included a blue-painted wall scattered with drawings, No Chance, a blanket work of 1999, the neon Every Pat of Me's Bleeding and a series of videos including Why I never became a dancer of 1995 and CVof 1998. My Bed was re-installed once during the Turner show and it has been since been reinstalled by the artist for display at the Saatchi Gallery after its purchase by Charles Saatchi.
Plate 2: My Cunt is Wet with Fear, Japan, 1998, reproduced courtesy of White Cube (not available).
Plate 3: My Bed at Every Part of Me's Bleeding, New York, May-June 1999, reproduced courtesy of Lehmann Maupin (not available).
In London My Bed rapidly became an over-night sensation, as a rhetoric of shock, sensation and controversy swirled around the artist and her work. A celebrity from the moment she stormed out of a Channel 4 discussion on the Turner Prize of 1997, Emin has regularly appeared in the British press, at gallery openings and fashion awards, been photographed by Jürgen Teller and Sam Taylor Wood, modelled for Vivienne Westwood, and advertised Bombay Sapphire Gin and Beck's beer (Garnett, 2000, 111; Bagley, 2001, 320; Sumpter, 2001, 10-12). Now the Guardian proclaimed 'the birth of a phenomenon', hailing her as 'a dedicated media tart and headline junkie'. Giving pride of place to My Bed on the cover of G2 with the headline 'How this bed turned from work of art to modern icon in less than two weeks', inside the banner headline congratulated 'Clever Tracey! That bed causing a stink in the Tate has rocketed Tracey Emin from minor celebrity to mass notoriety' (Burn 1999, 2–3; Jones, 1999, 3). And to be sure that readers identified the prodigy herself, the text was accompanied by a familiar life-size photograph of Tracey caught in a characteristic media pose, smoking a cigarette.
Notoriety was stirred up by reports of audience responses. The Independent on Sunday ran a debate asking readers 'would you show your bed in public?' (24 October 1999). The News of the World , a Sunday paper whose news is sex scandals and celebrity gossip told with relish how '[a] furious housewife who attacked controversial artist Tracey Emin's bed' with a proprietary cleaner was pulled away in the nick of time (31 October 1999). Whereas Stuart Wavell's claims in the Sunday Times (1999,4) that 'at least the naughty schoolgirls liked it' traded on the appeal of transgression, a (tongue-in-cheek?) report in the Sunday Mirror (31 October 1999) that 'elderly readers have written in their thousands to grumble about the so-called art work' set a conservative view in place. Defending the artist and her art, Richard Cork (1999, 42) remarked in The Times that 'nobody inside the show was fulminating about her unwashed knickers, or doubling up in satirical mirth at the revelations about her unbridled teenage libido and its disastrous consequences. Rather they were attending, quietly and seriously to a young women's frankness about the calamity and mess of her life so far'. Seeing Emin as the people's choice, Ralph Rugoff (1999, vii) commented that 'her work speaks in the confessional register of our talkshow, docusoap culture… [and] deals with teenage sex, bad relationships, self-destructive behaviour and emotional hangovers, — with real life hard-luck stories to which most of us can instantly respond, if not identify with'. Although much of coverage took issue with the Turner Prize, the discussion about Emin was overwhelmingly preoccupied with mapping the relations between her life and her art. This emphasis tended to shift the debate away from the artistic and aesthetic evaluations of her work granted by New York reviewers. In a sympathetic and informed review for Art Forum Jan Avgikos (1999, 139) assessed her place in the history of art: 'You feel her wilful occupation of Conceptual art's formal turf (think Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Joseph Kosuth) as well as her wicked put down of its pompous austerity and authority'. While American critics remarked on the dramatisation of autobiographical exposure in her work (Spaid, 1999, 56) and '[h]er controversial subjects, taken from her sordid life' (Preece, 1999, 68) they were not, on the whole, hostile to or doubtful about these strategies. Christopher Bagley (2001, 320) praised her 'profane, provocative, unflinchingly honest pieces shaped by the traumas of her childhood and adolescence', while The New Yorker hailed 'the vulnerability of this promising début'. For the New York Times reviewer, Roberta Smith (1999), 'the best thing is simply Ms Emin herself', an artist who 'tells all, all the truths, both awful and wonderful, but mostly awful, about her life'.
In contrast to American critics who accepted, indeed promoted, Emin's truthfulness and open disclosure, and Emin's British supporters who have argued for her genuineness (Brown, 1998, 4-6), many London reviewers questioned her authenticity. The Daily Mail ran an article asking whether Tracey's tales were really true (reported in Walter, 1999). Life as art became the exclusive focus of Richard Dorment's (1999) commentary: 'Emin shows memorabilia amassed during the course of a life marked by promiscuity, rape, abortion, alcohol abuse and financial destitution, but also by phenomenal critical and financial success, achieved by marketing graphic descriptions of her most intimate feelings and degrading experiences as works of art. Billing herself as a modern day Expressionist, Emin brings life — in the forms of videos and things taken from the real world — into the art gallery and leaves it there, more or less unchanged, like unprocessed sewage. …What interests me about Emin is not her relentless self-absorption, limitless self-pit or compulsion to confess the sad details of her past life, but that all of this adds up to so little of real interest'. Declining to view Emin's art as anything other than personal expression, Dorment's tactics are disbelief and doubt. My Bed is thus 'supposedly her own unmade bed' (my emphasis). Her biography, he assures his readers, is not only one of 'physical illness and emotional disorder' but characterised by media celebrity and market success. In his assessment of the yBas (young British artists) as 'high art lite' Julian Stallabrass (1999) is equally sceptical, though he reaches different conclusions. Perceiving Emin (with Damien Hirst and Gary Hume) as 'famous for being famous' (17) he characterises her as an 'authentic primitive' whose fame is at risk of colliding with, even compromising, the expressive message of her art, her work virtually disappearing as her media personality expands. Although he concludes that the greatest danger is that 'Emin's subjectivity and its expression become conceptual signs of the exercise of elite and knowing taste' (43), his discussion with its generous quotations from Emin's interviews declines to re-interpret her art as anything other than 'confessional and self-exploratory' (41).
Emin's reputation in Britain has been built on a familiar rhetorical strategy in art history and art criticism: the reciprocity of art and life (Pollock, 1980). Art critics, dealers, curators, collectors and even the artist herself present her art as produced out of and inescapably referring back to the events of her life: her's is an art from the heart, wrought from personal experience. Writing in the catalogue I Need Art Like I Need God, Sarah Kent asserted (1998, 37), 'Emin's subject matter is herself; her life story is the source of her pain and pride. She mines this resource relentlessly …'. Matthew Collings (1997, 110 ) has confessed to his belief that her exhibited work 'told her life story in notes and diary and memorabilia form.
It was a story which seemed tragic and hard and mostly set in Margate, with a disturbing streak of sexual abjection running through it, but it was full of passion and striving and liveliness'. Emin's art has been widely understood as confessional and she has been praised for her 'natural story-telling ability' (Brown, 1998, 6, my emphasis). But the stories are not only Tracey Emin's. Critics have retold time and again the 'rags to riches' fairytale of a working-class girl growing up in the seaside town of Margate who became a famous artist in London, a tale not without its trials and tribulations, its excellent copy for a newspaper press which thrives on sensation and enjoys a certain philistinism (Pointon, 2001). It comes as no surprise therefore that criticism of Emin's art can be couched as a satiety with her stories. Guardian critic Adrian Searle (quoted in Jones,1999, 3). informed her that whereas once he 'was touched by your stories. Now you are only a bore'. It may also be the case that while Searle is wearied by the artist, he is by now impatient with the litany that Emin's art is no more than Tracey's life.
In her essay 'Undutiful daughters' Rosemary Betterton (199/) explored the confessional mode of Emin's art, seeing the autobiographical elements less as direct outpourings and more as highly mediated and artful self-reconstructions. Drawing on the work of Joan Smith, she proposes that the tactics of self-revelation by women artists are not so much exhibitionism, the implications of the allegations made in the Guardian that Emin is a 'dedicated media tart and headline junkie', but rather that they comprise a counter-aesthetic to reclaim feminine subjectivity. This kind of self-representation is, she argues, is part of contemporary consumer culture. She likens Emin's art to the feminised genre of day-time television shows where audiences in the studio and at home consume not so much commodities as experiences as they watch subjects confess the private in the public, not just blurring the boundaries between two domains but wholly confounding them. Yet, as she suggests, such strategies are not without risk, all too easily confirming women artists as hysterical and deviant. Tom Lubbock's comment (1999) that Emin is 'an interesting bit of rough, a wild pet for artland' confirms Betterton's concerns about the voyeurism and sexual fantasies potentially triggered by the artist's performances.
Suspicion that Emin is a media exhibitionist haunts feminist writings. Asking 'why do we consume Tracey Emin's miseries so eagerly', Natasha Walter (1999) concluded that 'by making a parade of her suffering' the artist stands 'at the end of a long tradition of female artists who've gained esteem through public self-flagellation', so playing into older tropes of the dysfunctional female artist, out of control, out of mind'. It is the image of the 'bad girl' that has proved particularly contentious.ii The 'bad girls' exhibitions of 1993 and 1994 triggered intense debate: were they reclaiming or revising feminist art, making distinct departures, setting out new strategies and/or demarking the politics of a later generation from an earlier moment in the 1970s. There has been considerable discussion about whether Emin's work is or isn't feminist: Rosemary Betterton's re-appraisal is in part a rebuttal to John Roberts' assertion that Emin's art compares unfavourably to that by feminist predecessors such as Mary Kelly (Roberts, 1994). The redundancy of this question is highlighted by the conclusions drawn by many feminist critics that there is no definable entity of feminist art marked by its stylistic features or content. Nevertheless while some reviewers contend that Emin's blanket pieces reprise the 'subversive stitch' of 1970s and early 1980s (Avgikos, 1999, 139; Arning, 1999, 114), others are troubled by the links between the 'uncritical commodification of women in popular culture' and the exhibitionism of artists such as Emin (Pollack, 2000, 7-10). Careful not to use the word feminist yet drawing on the writings of Hélène Cixous, Sarah Kent (1998, 32) praised Tracey Emin's art for its critical engagement with propriety, challenge to the conventions of the female nude and feminine sexuality and representations of herself as a 'sexually active women [who] forfeits neither dignity nor integrity'. As Katy Deepwell (1997, 156) has tellingly observed, transgression can be, but is not necessarily, feminist. The distancing of politics from the public persona of 'bad girls' and yBas separates Emin's opera from the public politics and the cultural interventions of feminism.
Yet her confessional art — with its intimacies of pregnancy, abortion, rape, and abuse, the explosive rage of pain, the destructiveness of guilt — has much in common with feminist consciousness-raising of an earlier generation when speaking the unspoken about domestic violence and sexual abuse could lead to a sharing of experiences and a recognition of the structures in which they took place. In the detritus beside the bed, and in the smaller installations in New York are pointers to and reminders of earlier feminist interventions. The bloody tampon echoes Judy Chicago's Red Flag in which she photographed herself removing a tampon and Carolee Schneeman's Interior Scroll, of 1975 a performance in which she withdrew a tightly rolled script from her vagina. In the mid-1990s Jane Beckett (1997, 136-9) drew attention to an ambivalence towards feminism for '[y]oung women artists [who] now speak within contexts informed by feminism and register an acute awareness of the networks of power in the politics of pleasure ad work, making shrewd use of a feminist politics in the strategies they adopt'. Nevertheless, artists like Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin have found the term 'feminist' limiting, and feminist art practice has been positioned as the concern of an earlier age and generation. As an active and dynamic set of forces, feminism no longer claims a unitary or unifying project; it is continually in transformation just as feminist subjectivities are perpetually subject to change.
Emin's reputation as the most notorious of British art's bad girls was fuelled by the associations of My Bed with an aesthetics of dirt. Edgy stuff this woman artist playing dirty, provoking over-excited descriptions of 'urine-stained sheets', 'heavily-soiled knickers' and 'used condoms'. Boyd Tonkin (1999) catechised 'Tracey Emin's notorious unmade bed, lapped with its scummy tide of soiled knickers, empty bottles, used condoms and discarded pharmaceuticals'. Dalya Alberge's article for The Times (1999, 14) was headlined, 'It's not a dirty bed, it's a Turner Prize entry'. In a short paragraph of 26 lines on the Turner Prize, The Independent (27 October 1999) mentioned 'soiled' sheets' (twice), 'dirty knickers, cigarette butts and other debris'. The Daily Telegraph's remarks that 'several journalists at the press view described the exhibit as stomach-churning' was characteristic of the irony and flippancy of much of this writing.
Yet My Bed in all its variations (plates 1-3) is a thoughtfully composed assemblage of items arranged around a central object of a bed base which invites ambivalent and contradictory responses. The linen is both rumpled and smoothed, bright white and stained; beside the soiled items are pristine objects such as the glistening clear glass of the vodka bottles. If encountered in daily life, all these items would exude distinctive and powerful smells: sweaty feet, stinky ashtrays, stale body fluids of semen, blood or urine. But My Bed emits no strong odour. Nevertheless a stink metaphor, already in circulation for Emin's art, drifted around My Bed. Neal Brown's earlier celebration of her art as an 'undeodorised song of poetic extremity ' (1998, 4) returned in The Guardian's headline, its comparisons to Mary Kelly (the nappy liners of Post-Partum Document) and to Mike Kelley (besmirched toy animals and stained blankets), and its declaration (Burn, 1999, 2-3) that My Bed 'taps into a tradition of filth and got it dead right'. Such statements place My Bed in a supplementary economy of excess, that of dirt which, adding to and abutting discourses on femininity, heightened sensations of transgression swirling around Emin and her art.
Contemporary criticism which explains Emin's art as an expressive conduit for her emotions or as artful stage-management effects particular kinds of closures. The title too suggests ownership, someone to whom the bed belongs and who is, for many, the artist herself.iii As Jacques Derrida (1979) has indicated the title, like the signature, acts as a borderline to the proliferation of meanings for a work, setting a boundary, but not a conclusive limit, over which meaning can spill and proliferate in the movement of débordement. As he explains: 'If we are to approach a text, it must have an edge.' (Kamuf, 1991, 254) At the Turner prize exhibition, Emin's signature was staged within and by the installation as a whole. The work of the signature, according to Derrida (1972), is to stand in the place of the person who signed, for the signature not only authenticates, it also acts as a guarantee. In a western metaphysics of presence and absence the signature and title suggest the once present but now absent artist. Within this logic, the bed has a social life, its tousled state suggesting occupation by figures who have departed or disappeared, its objects the possessions of the artist or left with her by another missing person, perhaps the man who wore the underpants.
This metaphysics of presence and absence was called into question by the action of two artists, Cai Yuan and Xi Jianjun, who removed some of their clothes, rushed onto the bed, shouting and jumping, and had a pillow fight. While for the media this was a fun event — 'feathers fly in art hot bed' announced The Daily Mirror — for the artists it was one of a series of witty yet serious performances designed to question the politics of art and the art establishment. Working in the traditions of artistic, political and social activism, 'they act as artistic space invaders, using London as their exhibition space' (Cai and Xi, 2000). According to Eduoardo Walsh (2000), this ironic and playful self-publicity was undertaken in order to call attention to the presence of Chinese artists in the UK and to refute the desires for authenticity, as well as to expose the sensationalism of contemporary British art and its press. 'We are not trying to shock, we just want to show how spontaneous art is superior to the institutionalised art which dominates the Turner Prize' (quoted in Kennedy, 1999, 1). Although the title, Two Naked Men Jump on Tracey's Bed, still attributes the bed to Emin, in the performance the bed was for a time no longer hers and actual possession shifted from feminine to masculine. Although temporary, the action transformed My Bed materially — it was reinstalled by the artist — and symbolically, spilling its meanings over the borderline of confessional art and personal experience and opening into a space for a number of possibilities.
If Emin's art is no longer viewed as exclusively personal, can it be seen as multi-vocal? The installation at the Tate was full of declamation, from the neon-sign, its cool blueness counterpointed to the agonised cry 'Every part of me is bleeding', to the interrogations and assertions of the textile piece No Chance: 'some times nothing seems to make sense and everything seems so far away; 'they were the ugly cunts;' 'at the age of 13 why the hell should I trust anyone'; 'no fucking way, I said no'. Sarah Kent (1999, 25) suggests that the union flag marks the year as 1977, that of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, when Emin at 13 was raped and dropped out of school. 'No chance' is richly ambivalent: a gesture of defiance and rebellion, a cry of despair about the lack of opportunity in a small provincial decaying sea-side town, a direct refusal of a request or demand. Not simply attributable to the artist, this outcry constitute rather a cacophony of voices oscillating indeterminately from women's to men's, from feminine to masculine, from voices in the head to voices in the street, from past to present on a spectrum from private pain to public recrimination, not one by one, but all at once. Listening, the bed becomes a stage for occasions and events: sexual abuse and harassment, terror and physical danger, strife and conflict, fear and oppression; it was surrounded by stories of love, abuse, sex, abortion, desertion and promiscuity. The voices in the texts do not necessarily all add up to a narrative of a singular self. They are conflicting, contradictory, varied in tone and emotional range, addressed as much to the speaker herself as to unseen figures from the artist's life who may or may not have been listening, or the audience in the exhibition, no longer just observers but potentially complicit. The voices swirl around the bed, disarming the quiet domesticity of the cosy slippers and cuddly toy, charging the rumpled linen and adult clothing with memories of childhood and adolescence, lightening-strike eminders that the intimate spaces of home can be dangerous places. As Emin (quoted in Kent, 2001, 24) suggested of My Bed: 'It looks like the scene of a crime as if someone has just died or been fucked to death'.
This multi-vocality is characteristic of Emin's blanket pieces which stitch together intricacies of love and distress, sexual thrill and sexual terror. Garden of Horror (1998) weaves this mesmerising spell, its broken grammar and lack of punctuation giving rise to multiple ambiguities of pleasure and pain: 'You don't fuck /me over/ you gently lift me out of bed/lay me on the floor/and make love to me', 'Whats your ideal of betrayal', 'Welcome to my garden of horror/and you know I love you'. Using the language of the 1990s, Emin address her audience directly through the voice, not necessarily or exclusively her own. To interpret her art as the artist speaking about herself is to reduce or even to refuse its impact, to narrow it down to the expression /confession of one woman's problems, a self-confessed slut at that. It is perhaps inevitable that Emin's engagement with sexual politics is voiced through an individualised rhetoric. If this can dismissed by linking it to the ethos of the 'me' generation, it is not dissimilar to the earlier address to sexual politics in the art of Barbara Kruger. Installed in New York and the Tate, My Bed became a powerful feminist statement.
The modality of a personal voice deployed by Emin may be difficult to accept for a feminism persuaded by the analytical logic and distance of Mary Kelly's work. Emin's rhetoric and self-representations are risky strategies, but they may be among the only ways of speaking the sexual politics of feminism in a muted situation without a public movement. It is I suggest this articulation of feminist sexual politics which so annoyed some of her critics. Richard Dorment's complaint (1999) — '[w]e find here no particular vision, nothing universal…we learn nothing, understand nothing about ourselves' — is an all to familiar complaint about a feminism which has little appeal for a partial masculinity proposing itself as universal.
The presence in contemporary art of everyday, domestic objects such as a bed is now a commonplace of contemporary art, even if contemporary critics rarely ask whose everyday domesticity might be re/presented. Many of life's key experiences and rites of passage — being born, sleeping, dreaming, having sex, giving birth, and dying — happen in bed In an era of profound anxieties about life and death and the boundaries between them, in the century of AIDS which has seen the return of tuberculosis and the persistence of malaria, in a period in Britain which has been characterised by chronic crises of a national health service in which access to life-saving treatment can be a lottery and a hospital visit hazardous even fatal, the bed, the mortuary slab and operating table slide into one another in the work of several contemporary artists. Rachel Whiteread's numerous bed pieces placed on the floor, inviting yet denying rest, cots by Permindar Kaur or Mona Hatoum, Richard Hamilton's brutal Treatment Room of 1984 (Arts Council Collection, London, recently exhibited in Protest and Survive at the Whitechapel Art Gallery) or Bill Viola's Science of the Heart of 1983 (shown in Spectacular Bodies at the Hayward Gallery) play on, prey on, the oscillations between life and death, the body's presence and absence. None have the comforts usually associated with the bed in consumer culture of the 1980s and 1990s with its boom in home decoration and plethora of styles from the minimalist to the ornate. One of Sarah Lucas's most complex pieces about sexuality and sexual difference is Au Naturel of 1994 in which a sagging, stained mattress is propped up against a wall. Impossible to sleep or rest upon, its surface is interrupted the objects placed upon it: a bucket, melons and a cucumber. So long a stage for the performance of the female nude, upturned the mattress becomes the site for the play of fantasies and cultural representations as the artist's trades with her audiences the crude sexual stereotypes in circulation in contemporary culture.
My Bed also offers markers of sexual difference, such as the men's and women's underwear. The scattered objects point to encounters in heterosexual sex; the Polaroids signal pleasures once taken, perhaps to be resumed. Numerous little indicators announce the passage of time: the cigarette butts, the empty bottles, the depletion of the candle. The installations in Tokyo and New York offered supplementary readings. In both locations a rope noose was suspended from the ceiling; in dollar bills were placed beside the bed and the piece installed adjacent to a wooden coffin box. These are equivocal signs and spatial juxtapositions which promise the pleasures of sado-masochistic sex and auto-eroticism, intimate sex tourism and payment, portend violent abuse and death, recall a children's game and suggest a form of execution or suicide. In New York My Bed was shown alongside The Hut, now also in the Saatchi Gallery. Although both are distinct pieces, I want to bring them back into conjunction to locate them in narratives of transit and displacement in which the bed becomes less and not only a place for resting, sleeping, dreaming, dying, a space of fear and/or pleasure, horror and delight. To return to some of the key themes of the later 1990s, home and homelessness, is to propose My Bed as a temporary halt en route in which the discarded objects point perhaps to the transience of a zone in space as much as a lost moment in time.
My Bed was made and exhibited during the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act of 1999, the most recent piece of a substantial raft of legislation in Britain in the 1990s designed to harmonise policies across the member states of the European Union. From the White Paper of 1998 to the bill becoming law in the following year, apocalyptic visions of waves of immigrants pouring into Britain were allied with spectres of illegal entry and bogus claims.iv Legislation attempted to deter movement across borders and it introduced a harsher regime for those seeking asylum in Britain. Their living conditions, as numerous agencies testify, have steadily worsened to the extent that they now comprise a critical category in Britain homeless population. As the numbers of asylum seekers were seen to rise, asylum became the flash point for the major social trend of the 1990s, the movement of peoples from outside the European Union to Britain (Carvel, 2001, 12). Homelessness has been a major issue in the later twentieth century, whether defined in terms of accommodation or the broader debates about migration and diaspora (Sarup, 1994). Shelter, a charity particularly concerned with homelessness, defines this state not just as sleeping rough, but as having access only to temporary, inadequate or unsafe accommodation. Young women also constitute a vulnerable group, at risk of homelessness and sexual predation.
While I have already characterised this moment in terms of a rising ethos of individualism, its spatialisation is equally significant. In the 1990s, countries within the European union were preoccupied with the making of a common European identity. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the failure of Communism and appeals to join the EC from states which had previously been regarded as oppositional, have been seen as provoking the refiguration of European identity. A 'return to Europe' aimed to manage variable rates of economic prosperity and uneven patterns of growth and to unite a group of diverse nation states, peoples, societies, religions and ethnicities, with long histories of rivalry, conflicts and competition. Analysts of the 'new Europe' argued that, given these profound differences, two key strategies were devised: a policing of the boundaries was accompanied by an emphasis on culture, a common European civilisation and shared identities. Phil Marfleet (1999, 30) explains: 'During the 1990s the EU has moved somewhat closer to attaining an inward coherence. It has done so almost solely on the basis of a culture of exclusion. In an earlier era, Europe asserted itself by preparing for military confrontation with a threatening East; today it projects the ideology of cultural incompatibility'. In the making of 'Fortress Europe', Islam has become the new enemy, within and without. As he suggests such ideas propose not simply difference but disruption and danger to European culture and civilisation. Sarah Collinson (1996) demonstrated that as anxieties about security, threats to democracy and fears of insurgency were transferred from soviet countries to the Islamic states of the middle east, the Mediterranean from the straits of Gibraltar to those of the Bosporus, was defined as a key boundary and subjected to heightened surveillance. This reconfiguration of the edges of Europe has drawn the line at Turkey, a predominantly Muslim state on the margin of the EU bloc, currently excluded from membership. and rejected on a number of grounds including cultural incompatibility.
This is not to say that Emin's My Bed expresses this historical moment, any more than it expresses the artist. But it is to re-situate the work within the debates of the moment in which it was exhibited and familiar to many of the Turner Prize audience and to suggest some possible connections which arise from the work's co-location in London. The cases suggest transit and movement, yet chained together they become unmovable, immobile. Scuffed and worn, they carry a trace of past movement and perhaps pre-figure that which is to come. In the London installation they spoke of a life lived out of cases, re-casting the objects around the bed as ephemeral, sentimental possessions which can be harboured in transit, packed up at will. Not new and even second-hand, with many of the items in My Bed they participate in a junk aesthetic which re-cycles and re-uses.
A sense of movement and transitoriness was heightened in New York with the juxtaposition of My Bed and The Hut. The latter re-assembled a beach hut at Whitstable once co-owned by the artist and Sarah Lucas. In contrast to the precariousness of Thomas Hirschhorn's temporary structures intensified by an urban context, the hut in its seaside location was at risk from its borderline location at the water's edge where land washes into sea and sea laps into shore, a holiday location which is equally a national frontier, an entry point and a barrier, a gateway and limit (Bennington, 1990). Emin's hut has little of the dramatic power of Lubaina Himid's monumental paintings in her Beach House series. Nor is it, as are these paintings, haunted by memories and histories as political and global as they are personal: 'The beach house stands on shifting sand constantly visited by shadows, winds and waves. … The beach house is a site of conflict. Invasion and departure. Lost hope, abandoned lives, decimated civilisations. ...The beach house as a place of refuge' (1996, 153-5). Nevertheless installed in New York, Emin's hut came with an evocative trace of its histories. And while it could signify something of the picturesque quaintness of British culture, its ambivalence -at once temporary and enduring, fragile and weather-hardy — heightened a sense of transit and transitoriness for My Bed. These resonances were however halted when The Hut entered the Saatchi Collection where it has been written into the narrative that 'Tracey Emin has a story to tell' (de Cruz, 2000, n.p.), retitled The Last Thing I Said to You is Dont Leave Me Here, and cast in Ant Noises 2, the exhibition in which it made its first Saatchi appearance, as a weekend retreat for the artist and boyfriend.
Yet to the return to the artist is not necessarily to recycle these all too familiar stories. The child of a Turkish father, Emin grew up in the International Hotel, run by her mother in the seaside town of Margate, having spent part of her early life in Turkey. These connections are not lost in her work and indeed are brought into the circuits of its viewing by the artist herself. Her sojourns in Turkey and her seabathing with her father — on another shore line — were revisited in the videos shown at the Tate. Crossing Europe from one edge to another was the span of her space at the Turner Prize show; her exhibition set up dynamic contrasts and diasporic identities shaped between a secular/Christian state on the western frontier and a Muslim state at an eastern margin, enjoyed as a holiday destination by many Europeans but not a part of the EU. In a national gallery which was, some months later, to encounter profound difficulties in rebranding itself as Tate Britain, Emin elected to show My Bed not with Psyco Slut but with No Chance which features the union flag. Even if, as Sarah Kent has suggested, it carries particular significance for the artist, this national symbol inevitably carries supplementary meanings. As much as it summons national identities, this over-written, over-stitched and reconfigured textile work called into question the imagined community of the nation and New Labour's promotion of 'Cool Britannia'.
It is all too easy to see Emin's art as the outpourings of a tortured soul and much harder to take it as serious, troubling work about migration, identity and sexual difference. 'Tracey', the institutions which produce her, and the yBa phenomenon just get in the way. Yet she is uneasily placed in the discourses of the yBas which, for Kobena Mercer (1999, 53-55), constitute 'defensive and, above all, regressive responses to the bewildering effects of globalisation', trading in stereotypes of Britishness in a period of 'multicultural normalisation' and the cultural management of diversity. At the same time Emin has not been accommodated in discussions about diasporic art and internationalism. To continue to view her art in general and My Bed in particular through the frames of the dysfunctional female artist, 'bad girl', and young British artist is to miss the point and the charge of an extraordinary and awkward work.
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Thanks first to Joanna Morra, Marq Smith and Craig Richardson who kindly invited me to present an early version of this paper at the annual conference of the Association of Art Historians in 2001 in a session entitled 'The Awkward Works'. I'd especially like to thank Honey Luard and Sophie Grieg at White Cube, Juliet Grey at Lehmann Maupin, and Philippa Adams at the Saatchi Gallery for their generosity in helping me to access material and for providing the images. My Bed is reproduced courtesy of White Cube, Lehmann Maupin and the Saatchi Gallery. Warmest thanks too my MA students for stimulating discussions.
"Tracey Emin's 'My Bed'," Deborah Cherry.