Loneliness and Isolation; Understanding and Expression through the work of Sophia Coppola, Sophie Calle and Tracey Emin
Where Troubles Begin and Logic Dies, My Bed by Tracey Emin
“Bed shows the absolute mess and decay of my life”
In the 1990’s the Young British Artists came to prominence after Charles Saatchi gave patronage to various artists at Damien Hirst’s Freeze Art Show, this entrenched London as the buzzing new centre of the art world. Tracey Emin recounts the zeitgeist of the time in a recent interview: “Back in the 90s, it was all about cool Britannia and the shock factor” Although this world of new artists, galleries, art magazines and art audience was already very busy, Emin achieved a remarkable ascendancy as an artist-celebrity and media star. My Bed was made by Tracey Emin in 1998 when she was living in a council flat in Waterloo. It shows her real bed at the time in all its embarrassing glory, with used condoms, cigarette butts, dirty underwear and empty bottles of vodka accumulated around the crumpled stained sheets of the bed. It was first displayed at the Tate in 1999 when it was nominated for the Turner prize and the polarising work caused such a media frenzy that it pushed the gallery’s visitor numbers up to a record high.
Consisting of a rumpled, unmade bed surrounded by very personal discarded waste, a half-squeezed tube of K-Y Jelly, a used tampon, soiled tissues, empty vodka bottles, cigarette cartons and underwear stained with menstrual blood. It was a representation of a period of depression for the artist where she had recoiled from the outside world and rejected it’s standards for behaviour and societal norms.
Existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus wrote about the idea of being a stranger in the world without any true meaning. A stranger for Camus was someone living in the world who was forced to exist in a Christian way even though the individual did not want to be a Christian. The Stranger (1942), set in Algiers and written by Camus, introduces us to a man who cannot see the point in love or work or friendship, not unlike like some symptoms of a depressive period. He shoots a man by accident and is sentenced to death, partly because he shows no remorse for what he has done and doesn’t seem to care of his fate one way or the other. He is in a listless, affectless, alienated condition where he feels cut off from others. Camus describes this as ‘anomie”- someone who cannot share their sympathies and values. The opening line of the book already tells us that the protagonist, Meursault is in a state of grief and depression: “MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” He sees hypocrisy and sentimentality everywhere and cannot overlook it, he cannot accept the normal explanations given to explain the education system, the workplace, relationships or the workings of government. He is highly critical of high society and its pinched morality. This character says what he is outright, refuses to lie, does not hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened.
In 1999, YBA Tracey Emin challenged society in a similar fashion, refusing to pretend any longer, frightening the public with her brashly honest and infamous work of art; My Bed. It is an honest depiction of the aftermath of weeks of depression and confronted the classic ideal feminine boudoir which was addressed in an article for The New Yorker in 2015:
In 1999, My Bed was shocking to reviewers and gallery visitors, whom it helped to draw in record numbers to the Tate, not just because it presented what was an incontestably squalid mise-en-scène. In contrast to other women’s beds as represented in the Western artistic tradition—such as that of Titian’s Venus, with its suggestively mussed sheets— Emin’s bed bore the marks of blood, sweat, and, most likely, tears. The bed could certainly be interpreted as having served as a site of pleasure, but it was also suggestive of a psyche steeped in doubt, self-neglect, and shame. The bed looked like the residuum of a lost weekend, yet it also intimated that the bed’s occupant felt herself to be lost, too.
In various interviews during this period, Emin describes her mind frame at the time of making My Bed as being at a point in her life where she felt so depressed, she did not get out of her bed for four days. She hadn’t been eating properly for weeks beforehand, was drinking to excess on a regular basis and could not sleep at the time because she had not been eating. This represents a vicious cycle of self- neglect that many young women also go through, but which had never been publicised previously in such a blatant fashion. She explains in an interview:
I went out, got absolutely paralytic drunk and didn’t get out of bed for four days. I thought; If I don’t drink water soon, I’m gonna die, but also, I was in this weird nihilistic thing, I thought; well if I’m gonna die, it doesn’t matter.
She describes this time as a complete breakdown and that when she eventually got out of bed to drink some water, she looked at the bedroom and could not believe the mess and decay representing her life that she saw before her. Life had become meaningless, a state which the existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche discusses in his notes The Will to Power (1901):
Let us think this thought in its most terrible form: existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any finale of nothingness: the eternal recurrence. This is the most extreme form of nihilism: the nothing (the “meaningless”), eternally!
She envisioned the bed and its whole messy glory in a white gallery space almost immediately, it had shocked her so much. “I had to move the bed and everything into a gallery space… had no idea the fuss it would cause.” A bed without a body, it was nonetheless a naked self-portrait of the then 34-year-old Emin.
Like the character of Meursault in The Stranger, Emin was up against heavy public scrutiny for her actions. My Bed caused an uproar, critical and popular, receiving criticism because it was too self-indulgent or not real art. When asked by Melvin Bragg on The Southbank Show in 2001, “Some people suggest, well anyone could make a bed like that and call it art. What is your reaction to that?” Tracey answered this question in her typical, straight-forward, bold and assertive fashion, “To that comment? Well you didn’t, they didn’t, no one has done that. To me, it wasn’t a joke.” My Bed, when it was first made, conveyed not just the specificity of Emin’s own experience of depression, but also spoke to the experience of many other woman who came of age in a similar cultural climate. Its implied occupant was an autonomous sexual actor—Emin’s birth control pills were part of the installation—as well as someone who risked emotional pain with every relationship willingly entered upon, and who knew to expect external and internal judgment. “We’d made our beds; we’d have to lie in them.” Emin’s bed was an interior, self-critical work, but it also enabled its creator to assert her power and self reliance. It speaks of loneliness and depression but also about how some can pick themselves up from these experiences, and Emin shares hers with the world, taking the unspoken and the unspeakable, and creating an installation that is full of visual interest and human vulnerability.
It’s most recent owner through auction, Count Christian Duerckheim says of the bed: “I always admired the honesty of Tracey, but I bought My Bed because it is a metaphor for life, where troubles begin and logics die,” Emin is a natural storyteller and her work is deeply confessional. My Bed is also a constructed piece of art, the bed is a ready made whereby she brings in the contents of her bedroom and challenges the intellectual pomposity of the conceptual art world. Women had made confessional pieces before such as Louise Bourgeois who is generally recognised as the mother of confessional art. One of her best-known works is Maman (1999), a giant sculpture of a spider that she described as an ode to her mother and Yoko Ono does not shy away from exposing her personal struggles either, including her fight for custody of her daughter in Plastic Ono Band’s “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)”(1971), but we hadn’t seen any of them talking frankly about failed love affairs, slut-shaming and abortions and getting drunk during interviews.
Now aged 53, Tracey Emin is an established figure, a Professor of Drawing with The Royal Academy of Arts, in a new phase of her life, but she is still never less than fascinating. My Bed as an installation returned to Tate Britain in 2015 for the first time in 15 years. Interviewed recently about My Bed, she spoke affectionately of it, explaining that she regards the work as “a portrait of a young woman, and how time affects all of us.” Its reinstallation at the Tate after a fifteen-year interval confirms its status as a landmark work of contemporary art, it has been loaned to the gallery for at least the next decade by Count Christian Duerckheim, who paid £2.5 million for it in 2014. Speaking at the unveiling of the work at Tate Britain, Emin admitted to feeling “a bit tearful” after seeing it installed: It’s fantastic, it’s like the work has come home. Weirdly enough, it was actually first shown in Japan but it made itself when it was at the Tate, and the response people had to it is part of its identity. My Bed now symbolises a distinct part of Emin’s past life, like a time capsule of that era. Speaking at the time of auction on BBC, Emin explains:
When I was going through all these things, y’know, there’s condoms, contraceptive pills, cigarettes, vodka, stains, tiny underwear, all of these things are to do with being a girl and coming through some kind of transition, a going through something, some cathartic state, I don’t live like that anymore.
There are things on that bed that now have a place in history for Emin; “even forms of contraception, the fact that I don’t have periods anymore, the fact that the belt that went around my waist now only fits around my thigh”. Since its new installation at the Tate Britain, My Bed now deserves a place in art history. It no longer symbolises the brash hype of the Young British Artists of the 1990’s. Girls and young women can still relish in its true relatability as a depiction of a depressive period, but it does not have the impact that it once had. This time around therefore is different culturally; it is now being displayed as part of 700 years of British Art, displayed among works in the permanent collection at the Tate Britain, The Turner prize however was all about fresh and new work back in 1999. This shows how quick we are moving culturally nowadays, that a work of art that was shocking in its time can become a relevant part of art history after less than twenty years. This work of throw away debris, unpleasant mess, turned out to be not-so-throwaway after all. Curator Elena Crippa echoes this sentiment:
It’s wonderful to have it back at the Tate and Tracey was very thrilled to have My Bed coming back here. It is a very important moment for her as an artist as well as for us as an institution,” she said. “It’s a new moment for My Bed and a moment to reassess it. It is not just about the media hype, it is about looking at the formal qualities of the work and thinking about the work in more historical terms alongside other major figures.
In an interview for Tate-shots, Emin described the process of getting My Bed ready to go back on display at Tate Britain and climbing beneath its sheets to restore them to the correct degree of disarray. It was difficult, she said, because the fabric had stiffened over time and that’s exactly how we can all feel about this work. “It’s sad and depressing when I’m reinstalling the bed, like a time-capsule of my past. All of the things around the bed no longer relate to my life”
Loneliness brings us to the abyss, as Nietzsche describes, and forces us to make a decision. The temptation to eradicate unpleasant loneliness is irresistible for many people, and they seek out any experience that will enable them to forget about it sometimes in negative ways such as drinking to excess as Emin once had. There is an existential safety in living a “relevant” life, being connected to the centre of society, having a respectable job, a family, a few material comforts. In the Will to Power, Nietzsche refers to these individuals: the lower species (“herd,” “mass,” “society”) unlearns modesty and blows up its needs into cosmic and metaphysical values. In this way the whole of existence is vulgarized: in so far as the mass is dominant it bullies the exceptions, so they lose their faith in themselves and become nihilists. Many find meaning and fulfilment in just such a life but that path may also be chosen because freedom and individuality can be viewed as a threat: some would rather turn away from a life that holds out the hope of creativity and fulfilment than endure the existential insecurity that it would require of them.
There are those individuals like Tracey Emin, however, who peer into the abyss and do not cower as she proved to the art world in 1999. This piece of social history is deeply personal, it’s part of why she matters as an artist. My Bed, with its dirty sheets is now more of a time capsule making it powerful in a different sense, more autobiographical than confessional. We all need emotional markers that show we have moved on in our lives. As its moment passes, so does the relevance for many of our own emotions in real time. My Bed also makes us take a look at how far we’ve come in talking about depression and in 1999, Tracey Emin offered us an intimacy, a snapshot of her loneliness that almost physically hurt.
Ciara Rodgers, 2017
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