I wanted to get an orange. That's how this all started.
Starting on the 12th of April, Tate Britain will have an exhibition on -- Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1970 -- and I am very excited about it (in particular, I'm pumped to snag one of Roelof Louw's oranges from his Pyramid of Oranges). So excited, in fact, that I thought it opened today.
Behold, my naivete, documented for the world to see:
Anyway, I arrived to discover my folly, but I'd already traveled the forty-minutes by tube to get there, so by GOD I was going to see some art, oranges be damned. I trundled around the museum, aimlessly sort of wandering from room to room, jotting down the names of artists I mean to look up later, but will likely forget (Ithell Colquhoun, Paule Vezelay, Gerald Brockhurst, and Lynn Chadwick among others) when I stumbled across Tracey Emin's 1998 Turner Prize-nominated work, My Bed in the contemporary wing.
"Huh!" I said to myself. "I guess there it is."
I had known that they reinstalled the work about a year ago with two Francis Bacon paintings, and a few of Emin's own more recent works, but I suppose I was still surprised to see it there. I was surprised all around. I had never managed to see My Bed in person before. It's an incredibly divisive piece, and it always seems to creep up in conversations with people who are trying to get me to agree that contemporary art is, as my friend Caroline would say, "Kind of bullshit."
I circled the bed, noting especially the polaroid of Emin on her nightstand (sporting her trademark 'Fight me,' grimace), looked at the Bacon paintings, took the above panorama, and then the security guard sitting behind me chimed in.
"Are you taking a video?" He asked.
"Oh -- uh," I started. "No -- it's a panorama. Am I not supposed to take photos?"
"No, it's fine. I'm just curious. Are you an artist?"
"Art historian. Kind of," I shrugged.
"I watched you. You looked at the wall, you looked at the paintings, you looked at everything. That's how I could tell that you were an artist."
"Oh. Do you watch a lot of people looking?"
Unless we are Sophie Calle, I think we forget sometimes that the security guards at museums are not only looking at art all day long, but they're also looking at people looking at art all day long.
I asked him how people normally react to seeing Emin's bed, to which he responded, "Oh, you know, some people come in and make fun of their girlfriends, they say, 'That's you!' and they laugh, some people come in and look and look and look -- like you."
"And what do you think of it?" I asked, and he grimaced, and then it was my turn to laugh.
"I cannot stand it," he said. "I take pity on this woman. It's terrible that she would do this to herself over a boy, and put all of it in the museum. It's a horrible thing."
"I can get that."
It's true. I do get that. A lot of people (my friend Caroline and this security guard included) have problems with Emin's bed: it's gross, it seems lazy, it feels too personal, or there's no discernible technical artistic skill to compare one's own talents against. A classic victim of the, "I could do that," declaration and derision, My Bed goes beyond that -- this isn't a Cy Twombly or Agnes Martin piece where all a viewer might feel they lack is a paintbrush and a canvas. Just about everyone has a messy bed, and they're not selling for £2.5million. So what's the deal?
Well, here's the deal (and this is what I said to the security guard):
Sure, yes, Tracey Emin had a mental breakdown, maybe over a boy, whatever. She spent four days in bed, she was depressed, she thought she was going to die, and at first look, we might think that this is what Emin is trying to tell us -- that a psychotic break like that is horrible. But I don't think the whys and hows of her depressive episode are important at all, because that's not what it's about. When speaking of the work, Emin says that it was when she finally, after four days of sleeping and drinking and feeling sorry for herself, she crawled her way to her bathroom and got herself a glass of water and turned to look at her bed, she had a moment of clarity. She realised that she could get up and move on and leave these feelings behind her, and this bed in its state as we see it today is the past she left behind.
This bed had carried her. It hadn't judged her, and it hadn't hurt her. It had kept her off the floor until she could get up herself, and putting it in the gallery space allowed her to honor it and to remember that moment of clarity and the choice she made to get out of bed. It's a snapshot of her recognising her own self-efficacy.
Tracey Emin's bed isn't about the lying down -- it's about the getting up again.