As of May 2015, Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize nominated ‘My Bed’ (1998) sculpture is back on show at the Tate Modern in London. Bought in 2014 for £2.5 million, the bed is now on a ten-year loan to the gallery. In honoUr of this, I decided to look at other depictions of the empty bed in contemporary art, and the way it is used to represent vulnerability and the artist’s ownership of their own insecurities.
The bed is a frequent and poignant image, recognizable by all and incredibly personal to whomever sleeps in it. Most are born in a bed and most will die in a bed. It is a place for making love, and periods of illness are spent in its warm embrace. It is a sanctuary, and it can be a cage. Marcel Proust famously spent most of his life in one, sick and incessantly writing, neglecting all other aspects of his life.
Because of the strong emotions a bed can signify, it makes it an evocative subject for artworks.
The bed is a space of solace that we can if we choose, share with those we love. It is an incredibly intimate place and one which is unseen by all but a select few. It signifies regeneration, and is somewhere we go at our most vulnerable moments. We love in a bed and it is where we go when we are ill. Perfectly designed for the human body, beds differ very little throughout history and across continents. Any differences are mainly aesthetic, and there has been very little change to the fundamental elements of the bed since the first recorded use of one in Homer’s The Odyssey. The bed is a place we are most ourselves, we are vulnerable and unguarded, and where we are most human. Sleep is a thing that no human can do without, and the forced abstinence from sleep is a common form of torture.
The bed is a personified representation of the person who uses it, much like Yves Klein’s Anthropometries paintings, it is the human body is what creates the abstract shapes. The bed is a mold that records the movements of the night; all of a person’s dreams are represented in the folds of a blanket. For this reason, artists utilize the bed to show the unguarded subject at their most exposed.
In 1999, two Chinese artists, Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi, decided to climb into the bed, an act that breached not only the gallery rules of not touching artworks, but also the social norms of never entering another's bed without invitation. This artistic rape was an attempt to demystify the object, under the illusion that they weren't really doing anything wrong.
Emin's bed is an unmade and dirty double, complete with all the detritus of her life strewn about it. Filthy knickers, condoms, cigarette butts, vodka bottles, and dirty slippers surround it. The colour of the sheets exemplifies the weeks of grime that has built up, and nothing has been cleaned before she placed it in a gallery for all to see. This literally ‘lived in’ bed was Emin’s home for a few days during a bout of suicidal depression after a breakup, and one from which she thought she would never recover. Amongst this array of refuse is a stuffed seal. A solitary figure of hope and innocence amongst the chaos.
In 2002, artist Tammy Rae Carland created the work ‘Lesbian Bed #3’, which was above-view photograph of an unmade bed. The bed is skinlike in hue, a fresh pink like that of blushing cheeks. Shadows dissect the bed, thrown from a window that is situated out of frame, above the head of the bed and to the top of the photograph.
One pillow is creased and appears used, whilst the most forefront and prominent pillow seems unused. The crease created by long periods of being folded is still clearly evident. This suggests that the couple to whom this bed belongs slept tightly interwoven, either sharing one pillow or one nestled cozily in the crook of an arm or the neck.
The main shadow thrown from the window takes the form of an inverted cross, conjuring up images of religious persecution towards homosexuals and playing with the suggestion that homosexuality is ‘against god’. The point at which the head would sit upon the cross is the least creased area on the entire bed, suggesting clarity of thought, which contradicts and nullifies this earlier point. The bed is unmade and quite literally ‘uncovered’ without quilt or blanket.
The smaller shadows that crisscross the surface resembles the bars of a tightly meshed cage, an idea that resonates with the feeling one has when repressing true emotion, something that many homosexuals still have to do today. The creases across the surface of the bed form the ‘greater than’ sign (>), and are chevrons that naturally bring the eyes towards the right of frame, leading us forwards, suggesting a progression of thought.
This photograph is beautiful in its loaded simplicity, it’s openness and honesty make us question homosexuality and how it is perceived. This work calls into focus the emotions of a socially ostracized and sometimes repressed individual, showing us that they are no different than the rest of the world’s population, and that they need to sleep in a bed like we all do. Shapes that hint at religion make us remember the turbulent past that homosexuals have experienced at the hands of religious ideology.
All of this has been cleverly hidden inside an inoffensive image, which makes it an accessible comment on sexuality. It works as a Trojan horse, accessing out subconscious and showing very plainly that homosexuals are nothing special, for this could be my bed or your bed or your parent’s bed. We are all the same and we have the same needs, to be loved, to sleep, and to sleep with whom we love.
In 1994 Sarah Lucas made Au Naturel, a sculpture utilizing decaying readymades to personify a Male and Female character from a sheet-less mattress.
The mattress is dirty and torn, and it looks well used. Bent at what would be the waist, the orangey tint and the folds created in the bending give it the appearance of a flabby unwell belly with many rolls. A bucket and two melons depict the female, whereas two oranges and a stiff cucumber represent the male. The bucket is comically large, and its size is greatly exaggerated in relation to the size of the cucumber, suggesting sexual failure and the inability for the woman to perform.
This artwork is at its core an artwork about gender, but more than that it is an artwork about sex and sexual inadequacy. The signified vagina is much too large for the penis, which is roughly in scale with the breasts, testicles, and stomach rolls in the personified mattress. The vagina is represented by an object that is used to carry water, and is dry. The barrenness of the bucket contrasts with a virile cucumber comprised of almost entirely 95% water.
The organic objects in this work will decompose with time, the liquid in the breasts will dry up, and the cucumber will wilt, having never spilled its seed. The way that the mattress is folded creates stomach rolls, which are more prominent on the 'female' side of the bed. This artwork speaks to us on an incredibly intimate level, and one of a sexual nature. It exposes how we make ourselves vulnerable in order to fully love another, and some of the possible worries people may have in doing so.
In 1992, British Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread made the sculpture Untitled (Air Bed ll). Cast in polyurethane rubber, the surface resembles the skin of the recently deceased. This air bed is stood at a perpendicular angle to that at which it would be suitable for sleeping on, something that bizarrely suggests that it is being stored like this rather than let down. A temporary object made less temporary, both in this method of implied storage, and the fact that it has been cast and placed in a gallery. This method of placement inside the gallery also suggests that it is not a space for rest, but an object for contemplation. To invite someone to see our bed is a privilege. It is a space for deep contemplation, and a place where we dream.
To expose to the world your bed is a bold statement, you are exposing your very being. 'Laid bare' is the most apt description of these artworks, and the one that seems to sum them all up.
Emin's bed may not be pretty, but the act of exhibiting it is an incredibly beautiful thing, and the regeneration and solace that this bed signifies is an inspiration to us all. For the period that she spent in that bed was spliced with unrest, she contemplated suicide. The real beauty in this bed is that she beat this particular bout of depression, and her exposition of it was her way of purging her soul, it was a method of cleansing that she allowed the whole world to see.
By signifying this with such a recognisable and universal object, Emin makes the work instantly recognisable and easy for all to identify with.
She demystifies both the art object, and by association, the artist. This work is unpretentious in its representation of the artist, nothing is gilded and nothing is sugar coated. She is showing how the artist is the same as the rest of us, with her own fears and problems.
Were Emin's suicide to happen, the bed is the most likely location. In Britain the most common form of suicide in women is overdoses of medication or poisoning, both likely to occur in a bed. Emin’s bed signifies the strength of the human spirit, the suicidal feelings she was battling were beaten, and she refused to let them win. The bed is empty, and forever it will remain so.
The stuffed seal, and all it represents, has won.