In January i visted the Tate Liverpool which was showing Tracey Emin’s bed. This is something I’ve always wanted so see. As well as being hugely controversial at the time, winning the 1998 turner prize and so becoming a further catalyst for the Stukist protests in response to the earlier work by Damien Hurst, it is a work that fascinated me. Although not a piece of photographic art I believe there is still much of relevance for the photographer.
Emin assembles each installation herself. In a literal sense, this comprises an unmade bed and adjacent blue floor mat. The resulting ensemble is untidy in appearance and scattered with personal everyday items such as empty cups, discarded underwear, packaging for cigarettes, pregnancy tests and medicines. As a viewer, the initial response is mild revulsion or an urge to tidy up. I heard someone in the gallery say ‘Art? If my daughter left her room like this she’d get a clip round the ear!’ If honest, many of us might cast a judgmental opinion on how scruffy some people are.
But then the mind becomes more curious about the possible stories behind the discarded items. They tell us a lot about someone. How they live their life, their issues, social envirnonememt and perhaps mental outlook on life. Are they promiscuous? Depressed? An unwanted pregnancy? Did they leave the bed unexpectedly in a hurry arising from some great personal upheaval?
The detritus is the essential part of the work. It reveals a lot about us – like a detective going through the waste bin. Our personal experiences, predudices and opinions fill in the gaps to make a story. Conversely, had this been a normal bed – neatly made with everything tidily away in a drawer – we would have no clues to work from. Who is this person?
Looking at this from a photographic perspective it highlights the masks we wear as people. We always ‘make our bed’ before showing ourselves to anyone – by putting on a smile for the camera. We make ourselves ‘look presentable’ with lipstick and the like. But those wrinkles we try to hide from the camera reveal our true character. Our story.
When people say ‘that’s a nice picture of me’ do they actually mean ’my mask is in place – I appear happy and slim on this photo, it does not highlight my insecurities?’ The image meets their ideal self image.
I believe Emin was exceptionally brave to create this work. She was prepared to look openly and frankly at all the issues in her life and, quite literally, lay them out on the bed for everyone to see. It is a form of self portrait – ‘an unflinchingly personal self portrait’ ( Pennington, 2016). I feel that I know her (at that point in time) much better for having seen it.
A good photographic portrait shows us the subject’s own unmade bed. We see the real person, not the veneer.