Tuesday 15 September 2015

Task 23: Tracey Emin’s bed at Tate Britain

I've been asked a number of times over the past few months where the idea for my sixtyat60 challenge originated from. Time to clear up that particular little mystery! Several summers ago I was having lunch with my friend Hilary, and she happened to mention that she was in the midst of putting together a wishlist of sixty cultural activities to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. The list sounded amazing and a lot of fun......so much so that I couldn't resist squirrelling away the idea for myself. The twelve 'culture vulture' tasks that kick off my own list were inspired by Hilary's original concept - and so who better to accompany me on a culture vulture task than my paragon of inspiration Hilary?  

The setting for Task 23 was Tate Britain, a beautiful neo-classical building near the Thames at Millbank.  Its exterior oozes culture and it was looking at its very best against the backdrop of glorious September sunshine and the bluest of blue skies last Thursday (see photo below - please ignore tourist in jeans unwittingly taking centre-stage). 

So why did I want to see Tracey's bed? Quite simply, curiosity. What was it about this installation that had shocked and polarised opinion 17 years ago? How could a messy bed generate a current price tag of £2.5 million? And what was the human story behind the installation (ever the psychotherapist me...)?

Tracey's My Bed was installed in its own small gallery at the far end of the building.  Here's our first sighting of it. Anyone stepping over the brown line around the bed would set off an alarm, although there was no warning of this, so it went off every couple of minutes and everyone just ignored it.

Hilary asked me for my initial reaction to the bed. I had to confess that my instincts as a one time mother of three teenagers were kicking in.  On the face of it the installation looked very sordid and student-like. I wanted to straighten up Tracey's slippers, recycle the empty booze bottles, strip the sheets and throw open the windows. I remember reading that a cleaner had once hoovered the piece of blue carpet by mistake and frankly I could understand why she did so.  

Then we began to become intrigued by the items strewn around the bed. There was a soft toy dog, loads of different tablets, a sachet of ketchup, a packet of blister plasters, a razor, a mirror - not just the used contraceptives, dirty underwear and KY jelly that journalists always like to highlight.  We were also struck by the 1998 timewarp - no mobile phone, tablet, kindle or charger, almost unthinkable in 2015. And another random thought - all those cigarette butts and packets, yet not a sign of matches or lighter??  

As we became drawn into the detail of the installation, we got to thinking about the state of mind that Tracey Emin had been in at that time. A relationship had just broken up and she was in a state of suicidal despair. She must have been in her mid-30s at that point, which seemed to give the scene added bleakness. We agreed that her ability to step back and observe the bed as a conceptual piece of work at a point when her life had felt so intolerable, together with her willingness to expose her inner turmoil to the world, was nothing short of impressive. 

Tracey Emin commented recently that whilst in the 90s 'My Bed' was all about cool Britannia and the shock factor, she thinks it now shows how time affects all of us (she says the black leather belt on the floor of the installation used to go round her waist and now only fits around her thigh). Certainly a quick eyeball of my childrens' bedrooms in their own homes these days shows change over time - not a single soggy towel on the floor anywhere now. 

Hilary and I stood by Tracey's bed and talked about it for over an hour - perhaps that's an indicator of its £2.5 million value?  Here's the evidence that we really were there (we weren't standing on the bed, honest).

And finally, how many cigarette packets could we see littered around Tracey's bed? The answer is...........three packets.

So a brilliant first visit to Tate Britain for me (I can't wait to go back and look round the other galleries) and a really interesting insight into 90s BritArt and its doyenne.  A big thank you to Hilary for a wonderful afternoon of musings - I'm already looking forward to our next cultural expedition to the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings!

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I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Alzheimer's Research UK. For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at https://www.justgiving.com/Vivien-Hunot  

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