Home > A closer look > The Impact of Tracey Emin’s My Bed
The Impact of Tracey Emin's My Bed
A closer look 21 Jun 2022

The Impact of Tracey Emin's My Bed

Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” proudly displays the artist’s dirty laundry in public. The artist’s most famous piece of art was created in 1999. It ignored society’s expectations of women by demonstrating the reality of the female experience at the turn of the millennium. Whilst creating quite the outcry, this conceptual art piece created a lasting impact. We are still writing about the piece some two decades later. In this article, Artsper hopes to delve into the significance of Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” in order to analyze its legacy.

Tracey Emin at her exhibition “Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 – 14 January 2018. © Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary.

Emin’s bed

When Tracey Emin exhibited her bed in the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, she set a new benchmark for confessional art. She conceived the installation, entitled “My Bed” (1998), after a long binge in bed. This occured following a depressive period brought about by a messy breakup. When the time had come for Emin to finally get out of bed, she was left with the overwhelming feeling that what she had created was a work of art, so to speak. She examined the mess she had created. Consisting of crumpled tissues, period-stained clothes, cigarettes, empty vodka bottles, a pregnancy test, lube and condoms surrounding her bed, she decided the world must see it. 

Though Emin ultimately did not win the prestigious Turner Prize, losing to Steve McQueen, “My Bed” became a media sensation and launched her career that catapulted Emin to fame, becoming a household name.

It is important to state that much of the discussion surrounding the piece at the time was critics’ dislike. The Guardian newspaper journalist Adrian Searle wrote that the piece was an “endlessly solipsistic, self-regarding homage” to the artist who he called “a bore.”

Some referred to this form of assemblage art as resembling a crime scene. Yet “My Bed” also elicited more touched responses from observers. Some seemed to connect with the artwork’s striking depiction of vulnerability. Twenty years ago when mental health was still a taboo subject, an unapologetic statement from someone who wasn’t in the best head space but wanted to be honest about just that, seemed to warm the hearts of many.

A woman’s experience

Born in London in 1963, Emin grew up with her mother and twin brother in Margate on England’s southeast coast. Far from growing up in the idealized nuclear family, Emin’s father was married to another woman, and divided his time between his two families. When she was 7, her family suffered economic hardship when her father’s local hotel business failed.

Emin experienced several traumatic events throughout her teens and twenties. She was raped at 13 years old, and had an abortion after falling pregnant at 18. These hardships faced at an early age presented her with the drive that fueled her artistic practice. It is ultimately her experience as a white, heterosexual, working class, British woman that Emin draws upon in her artwork.

Tracey Emin, ‘I love you’ (2015) © Tracey Emin/ DACS 2016

The motif of the bed in art and literature

Whilst art historians have analyzed “My Bed” as an extremely personal extension of its owner, the bed as a general trop is a much propagated powerful symbol depicted in Western literature and art. As a cultural reference, the bed is present at every stage of life from birth, sickness and ill-health to ultimately, our death. The bed has been the subject of multiple explorations in art, representing an ambiguous realm between something personal, intimate, and yet common to all.

Most often associated with passion, throughout history the bed has also been linked to childhood, death, disease and other more unseemly acts.The bed can be found in some of the most well-known works of Edvard Munch (“Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed”), Vincent Van Gogh (“Bedroom in Arles”), Édouard Manet (“Olympia”) and William Blake (“Pity”). Emin’s bed, however, offers a particularly feminine angle on those motifs; her work elevates the anxieties of life as a woman to monumental status. Thus, this work resonates with so many.

An age of unapologetic artist—the YBAs

Emin studied fashion at the now-defunct Medway College of Design in Rochester (never completing her degree). She later joined “The Medway Poets”, a punk-poetry performance group. She earnt a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Maidstone College of Art in 1986. After this, Emin began focusing on building a career as an artist.

In 1993, Emin teamed up with fellow artist Sarah Lucas to open “The Shop”. This was a temporary gallery in London’s Bethnal Green neighborhood. The painted magnolia walls displayed not art but instead, offered T-shirts and mugs customized by Emin and Lucas. They threw parties and became a hub for Young British Artists (YBAs). The group included good friend to Emin, Damien Hirst. It consisted of artists who began exhibiting together in the late 1980s. The group received patronage from collector and gallerist Charles Saatchi, who coined the name. Most were educated at the Goldsmiths school of the University of London. Many participated in the 1988 Damien Hirst–curated exhibition “Freeze.”

Drawing stylistically from Minimalism and Conceptualism, the YBAs often focused on the darker aspects of contemporary life.

“Freeze” opening party, showing (left to right), Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume. © Phaidon.com

Later that year, Emin held her first solo exhibition at the White Cube Gallery in London, titled “My Major Retrospective 1963–1993.” The exhibition included an array of personal items such as journals and a quilt, giving viewers a glimpse into her life and past.

The lasting legacy of the “bed”

My Bed continues to divide public opinion, Emin being labeled by some art critics as a “biographical documentarist” only concerned with “the minutiae of her narcissistic personality.”

To sum up the impact of Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” in one word, it would be “honesty”. “My Bed” remains a self-portrait that doesn’t veer from the messiness of depression and heartbreak. In particular, it appealed to viewers who connected their own painful experiences to those implied by Emin’s installation. 

In 2017, Emin recreated “My Bed” for an exhibition at Turner Contemporary in her hometown of Margate. The gallery hung paintings by the archetypal, 18th century, British landscapist J.M.W. Turner around the installation, creating a particularly contemplative atmosphere.

In an interview a few years ago, Emin discussed how her life had changed since she first created the piece. “I don’t smoke, I don’t have sex, I don’t use contraceptives, I don’t have periods, I don’t wear small pale blue knickers that look like one of Turner’s clouds,” she said. “I don’t make stains on the bed like that, like I used to, and if I did, I wouldn’t have a bed like that, the sheets would get washed immediately.” Emin’s experience of womanhood has changed since My Bed, but this work left its distinctive mark on the world and still relates to many women around the globe.