That bed: a review of Tracey Emin and William Blake at Tate Liverpool

It’s over 20 years since Tracey Emin’s My Bed first caused a sensation, and when Tate Liverpool put it on display in 2016, I was keen to see what the fuss was about. But when I reviewed the show for the Northern Soul website, I discovered there were as many mucky corners in my own mind as there were in Emin’s twisted sheets.

My Bed by Tracey Emin at Tate Liverpool © Pete Carr
My Bed by Tracey Emin at Tate Liverpool © Pete Carr

When you’re raising kids, it can be difficult to decide on the right moment to bring them face to face with life’s nether regions. When should you have the drugs talk for instance? And when do you bring up the subject of sex? And how do you know when it’s time to sit them down and make them watch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet?

My first-born’s Blue Velvet moment came just a couple of weeks ago. My wife and youngest son were away so, once we’d had tea and were settling in for a night of telly and crisps, I slipped my deluxe collector’s edition of probably my favourite 1980s film from the shelf and made sure he knew what we were in for.

“This won’t be like when we used to sit on the sofa together and watch Dumbo,” I told him. And then in order to demonstrate that this wasn’t going to be entertainment – this was part of his education – I issued the directive that indicated I meant business.

“Phones away,” I said. We both had a desperate last gulp of Facebook then stashed our Samsungs out of sight.

Blue Velvet is about all kinds of transgressions, but a key theme is that of peering into a forbidden world. It’s what we do as we watch, and it’s what young protagonist Jeffrey does as he hides in a closet and gazes into the apartment of a woman he’s been following. He is an innocent, but one for whom the delicious possibility of corruption is tempting him towards a Dennis Hopper-fuelled fate. It isn’t giving much away to say that Jeffrey has a grim night in store, and it’s the urge to put his eyes where he shouldn’t that gets him into such a murderous scrape.

Whether Lynch’s Oedipal muck-fest was necessarily the best bedtime viewing for my son isn’t the point of this story, though trust me, it was fine and he’s now a more upstanding member of society for having seen it. The point is that Jeffrey’s illicit peek into that darkened, deep-red apartment full of feminine detritus remains with me when, a week later, I enter a darkened, deep-red gallery at Tate Liverpool and am confronted by Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998
My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998

During the days leading up to my Tate Liverpool visit, I mentioned to a few people that I was going to see this work. Everyone knows about Emin’s bed of course. Originally made (unmade?) in 1998, it gained notoriety as part of the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition and, judging by my friends’ reactions even now, its infamy hasn’t faded yet.

I don’t ever remember people being quite so keen to tell me how much they disliked an artwork before, which is no mean feat when you remember that last year’s Tate Liverpool summer blockbuster was dedicated to the original “my child could do that”-dauber Jackson Pollock. In fact the prevailing mood among my friends was so negative that I was primed for a visceral reaction. What I didn’t expect though was the shamefaced sensation that a latent voyeuristic tendency had been suddenly released and, in the context of a very public gallery, I’d been Lynched.

My Bed is on display at Tate Liverpool as part of their In Focus series, a strand in which they usually concentrate on a single artist. This time though, things are different. In this case, Tracey Emin’s work – the bed plus some drawings – is paired with a collection of images by the 18th century English poet, painter and visionary William Blake. This, apparently, was at Emin’s suggestion, and while the gallery literature does hint at “surprising links between the two”, we are mostly left to make any connections for ourselves.

But back to My Bed. It makes me feel distinctly uneasy, but not because I don’t like it. That “peering through a crack in the door” feeling is still with me and I can’t shake the sense that my gaze is tainted, that I shouldn’t really be here.

The bed stands towards one end of a dim gallery, the crimson walls and low light creating a boudoir ambience – a little dreamlike, a touch surreal. There’s a violent twist of sheets in spasm across a grubby mattress; around the bed there are crumpled tissues billowing like snow drifts, an ash tray spilling dog-ends, vodka, Orangina, a toy dog that probably harbours fleas. It’s very literal, and perhaps that’s why some people don’t like it. It’s a moment in time solidified; it’s the transient poetry of the everyday frozen in space. Beds are places where we think we do sod all – and yet really, aren’t they places where we actually do so very much?

I like art that freezes moments and emotions, that can transform an instance of neurological biochemistry into its attendant physical trace. I like the Boyle Family’s literal-minded Journey to the Surface of the Earth – their famous fibreglass portions of field or beach or cobbled street across which armies have fought, children have played, lovers have run. I like Mark Leckey’s archaeological sift through discarded media in search of memories triggered and emotions released (his wonderful Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD is currently doing precisely that as part of the Liverpool Biennial). And that’s why, for all my unease and the sensation that I’m peering into someone’s private space, I decide I like Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

I feel I’m in the aftermath of someone else’s dream.

William Blake, Pity, c.1795
William Blake, Pity, c.1795

I drift on to the Blake artworks displayed around the walls, but rather than encountering them with sharply focused eyes, my retinas still smoulder with the after-image of Emin’s prosaic materials – those fag packets and johnny wrappers, those knickers and tights. Blake shows me souls wrenched free from their worldly moorings, chained bodies that seem about to petrify and become part of the earth. Rather than connections, I see contrasts – works of imagination soaring above Emin’s physical husk. And it seems to me that proximity enhances them both.

“Ink, tempera and gold on mahogany” reads the caption next to one of Blake’s paintings. I smirk at the apparent extravagance and return again to My Bed with its mattress on plywood, its vodka bottle on rug. I notice how time has rendered its background detritus less throwaway than would once have been the case; the passage of almost two decades has already turned the pile of Polaroid photos into a vintage curiosity, and one day this whole setup will seem as out of time as a National Trust property’s bedroom tableau.

So this is dream excavation and it’s time travel, both novel activities that any visitor could enjoy. But I must be honest: thanks to the long shadows thrown from Blue Velvet’s gloomy corners, it churns dark feelings in me too – an unsettled acknowledgement that I’ve traversed forbidden borders, that I’ve brought along a gaze that’s all too male.

Because if My Bed has left me feeling dirty, which it has, that didn’t come from Tracey Emin. It came from me.

Text © Damon Fairclough 2016

Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus ran at Tate Liverpool from 16 September 2016 until 3 September 2017.

This article was originally published by Northern Soul in September 2016.

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