Tracey Emin makes her own crumpled bed and lies in it, on Merseyside

The artist’s renowned 1998 installation My Bed – which she always builds herself – is about to go on show at Tate Liverpool

Tracey Emin throws her knickers on to the bed. She’s not quite satisfied, so she retrieves them and has another go. It takes five increasingly athletic throws and a lot of laughing until the pale blue underwear is in just the right state of casual abandon. For this is no ordinary bed. It is THE bed.

The bed that Count Christian Duerckheim bought for £2,546,500 from Christies in 2014 and has loaned to the Tate. The bed that has become the most enduring icon of 1990s British art, now that Damien Hirst’s poorly preserved shark looks like a shrivelled nautical antiquity. My Bed, as Emin’s 1998 readymade is titled, is set to go on display at Tate Liverpool, bringing its freight of vodka bottles, used tissues and fag butts to the north-west for the first time, and initiating a unique artistic ritual.

Tracey Emin at work recreating My Bed in Liverpool.
Tracey Emin at work recreating My Bed. Photograph: Jonathan Jones/Guardian

Emin always makes her bed herself, and for the first time she’s letting a critic watch. I am spectating at the rebirth of a work of art, its transformation from a set of carefully packaged objects into a spooky scenario of sex, death and despair. The first time she created My Bed, at a show in Japan in 1998, Emin mentions as she works, she included a noose “with a hangman’s knot” suspended above it. By the time it was shown in the Turner prize exhibition a year later, she’d removed that gory detail, but for her this artwork will always be the “ghost” of a time that felt like “the end”, when her life was disintegrating around her, around her bed.

It certainly looks like a crime scene when we enter the long, low gallery in the Albert Dock where a bare mattress on a wooden plinth waits to become art. The walls are painted bloody red. Powerful lights are trained on the mattress. On two long trestle tables the remains of Emin’s life in the late 1990s are arranged in carefully labelled plastic bags like forensic evidence.

The collection is hilarious. “CONDOM PACKET AND CONDOM PART – VERY FRAGILE”, says the felt-penned label on one bag. The condom packet inside is filthy, the “condom part” much more so.

“BAGGED TISSUES”, another is labelled. The crumpled tissues inside are nearly two decades old. Still, they’re quite inviting compared with the contents marked “BAG OF PLASTERS, BANDAGES, SANITARY PAD”. It turns out that Tracey Emin is not too keen to touch some of the components of Tracey Emin’s bed. Up close, this stuff really is rank, a lot dirtier and nastier than it can appear once the bed is artfully arranged and tastefully lit. Emin herself partially covers one disgusting item - some old condoms by the looks of it – because she thinks it really is too nasty.

Conservator Karin Hignett passes on a Tate request, which Emin complies with, to arrange a pair of scissors so that the sharp end is invisible and to put a pill where it can’t easily be seen by children. Yet as she positions an ugly toy with a head like an evil Sesame Street character on a plastic pole, the memories come back. She and her boyfriend were drinking in a hotel in Prague and he wanted to go out and buy another bottle. She would only let him go on condition he brought back a present – and so he got her this grotesque toy.

The power of My Bed, it strikes me hearing this, has everything to do with time. Other famous readymade works of art are either coldly timeless – no one thinks of Marchel Duchamp’s (remade) porcelain urinal as old, even though it has the date 1916 scrawled on it, and Carl Andre’s bricks could have been bought at a builders’ yard yesterday – or, like Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde, age in a way that weakens their impact. My Bed has instead turned into a Proustian time machine. It precisely preserves the stuff of Emin’s life at a very particular moment, and this means it gets ever more atmospheric, resonant and mysterious. It is gradually turning into the Pompeii object of the 1990s. There’s even a yellowing copy of the Guardian from September 1998. All our yesterdays. It goes into the accumulating wreckage beside the bed, along with an Orangina bottle whose contents are so brown and murky I thought it was diseased piss.

Condoms and a condom packet, one of the preserved items for the installation.
Condoms and a condom packet for the installation. Photograph: Jonathan Jones/Guardian
An item for Tracey Emin’s My Bed
An item for Tracey Emin’s My Bed. Photograph: Jonathan Jones/Guardian

Emin builds her bed as if she were painting an expressionist scene – which is, today, exactly what she does spend a lot of time doing. Her (free) show at Tate Liverpool juxtaposes her works with those of William Blake. It was her idea. At one end of the gallery some superb 2014 nude drawings by her cavort sensually beside Blake’s masterpieces.

Meanwhile, as she recreates My Bed, art handlers are hanging Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno. Hell is coming to life. Infernal desires, dreadful dreams are smoking up in this red-painted warehouse room. Sometimes when she makes My Bed, the artist has to lie in it, squirm in under the yellowed duvet, to get the rumpled bedclothes looking wild enough. This time, she’s happy with the way they fall in a randomly sculpted cascade of ridges and troughs.

It looks “baroque”, she comments as she drops a pair of tights in – and she’s right. It looks like a bed painted by Caravaggio. Emin thinks of great sex as being like a crucifixion, she tells me, and she insists the art handlers hang Blake’s Crucifixion near the bed. It is finished. Stuff has become art. And not some dry intellectual work of conceptual art, either. My Bed is a visceral monument to being alive. It is a mirror of its maker. Emin is pleased: she reckons this is the best bed she’s done. On the wall, Blake’s sinners in hell swarm and suffer the torments that her magical readymade suggests with burnt-out fag butts and a tube of K-Y Jelly.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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