Tracey Emin's messy bed goes on display at Tate for first time in 15 years

Artist wants visitors to view her once shocking installation My Bed as ‘sweet’ moment of history and ‘a portrait of a younger woman’

Emin: ‘Bed shows the absolute mess and decay of my life’

Tracey Emin’s best known work, her 1998 monument to the heartache of a relationship breakdown, My Bed, has gone on display at Tate Britain for the first time in 15 years.

The work, which Emin now describes as a portrait of a young woman, was bought last year by the German businessman and collector Count Christian Duerckheim, who has loaned the artwork to the Tate for at least the next 10 years.

Emin, 51, had expressed her wish for the piece to go to a museum and described the Tate as “the natural home” for the work. However, the gallery could not afford to bid at the Christie’s auction where My Bed eventually sold for £2.54m, more than twice the top pre-sale estimate.

The auction last July was the first time the artwork had gone on sale since it was bought by Charles Saatchi in 2000. The sale opened at £650,000, and, after frantic bidding, was bought minutes later by the YBA dealer and owner of the White Cube gallery Jay Jopling, on behalf of Duerckheim. “I always admired the honesty of Tracey, but I bought My Bed because it is a metaphor for life, where troubles begin and logics die,” Duerckheim later explained.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed
Tracey Emin’s My Bed installation returns to Tate Britain for the first time in 15 years, as part of the BP Walk through British Art display. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA

Speaking at the unveiling of the work at Tate Britain, Emin admitted to feeling “a bit tearful” after seeing it installed: “It’s fantastic, it’s like the work has come home. Weirdly enough, it was actually first shown in Japan but it made itself when it was at the Tate, and the response people had to it is part of its identity.”

She added: “I think now people see the bed as a very different thing. With history and time, the bed now looks incredibly sweet and there’s this enchantment to it. I think people will see it differently as they see me differently. And there are things on that bed that now have a place in history. Even forms of contraception, the fact that I don’t have periods anymore, the fact that the belt that went round my waist now only fits around my thigh.

“Back in the 90s, it was all about cool Britannia and the shock factor and now I hope, 15 years later, people will finally see it as a portrait of a younger woman and how time affects all of us. I am still very proud of it and I am grateful that the right person bought it.”

Close up of My Bed (1998) by Tracey Emin,
Close up of My Bed (1998) by Tracey Emin, a snapshot of the artist’s life after a traumatic relationship breakdown. Photograph: Ray Tang/REX

The piece was made by Emin in 1998 when she was living in a council flat in Waterloo. It shows her real bed at the time in all its embarrassing glory, with used condoms, dirty underwear and empty bottles of alcohol strewn across the crumpled stained sheets.

My Bed was first displayed at the Tate in 1999 when it was nominated for the Turner prize. The polarising work caused such a media frenzy that it pushed the gallery’s visitor numbers up to a record high. It was bought the following year for £150,000 by Charles Saatchi, an avid collector of YBA art. The piece then went on display at the Saatchi Gallery, then at County Hall London, and Saatchi is also said to have displayed the bed in his own dining room.

My Bed has now been installed as part of the newly rehung displays of the Tate’s permanent collection. Emin herself was very involved in how the work was to be presented, and it sits in a gallery alongside two Francis Bacon paintings, his 1951 Study of a Dog and his 1961 Reclining Woman, as well as six of her drawings from 2014 that Emin gifted to the Tate to mark the occasion. As with all of the Tate’s permanent collection, the artwork will be available for the public to see free of charge.

Artist Tracey Emin.
Artist Tracey Emin. Photograph: Ray Tang/REX

Emin said part of the reason she had been so keen to have the work back at Tate Britain was to have a chance to change people’s original perceptions of the piece.

“It’s really important to me to show it in context,” she said. “When I showed it originally at the Tate Britain as part of the Turner prize, nobody even bothered looking at the work that surrounded it, even though there were my watercolours, my drawings. So, what’s really great by having the Bacons around it, people will look at the Bacons and they will understand the connection with the bed and my other drawings. They will see the bed is art and that, with these incredible artworks around it, it is in good company.”

The sentiment was echoed by curator Elena Crippa. “It’s wonderful to have it back at the Tate and Tracey was very thrilled to have My Bed coming back here. It is a very important moment for her as an artist as well as for us as an institution,” she said. “It’s a new moment for My Bed and a moment to reassess it. It is not just about the media hype, it is about looking at the formal qualities of the work and thinking about the work in more historical terms alongside other major figures.”

Crippa added: “It is a very different cultural presentation of the work. In 1999, it was displayed as part of the Turner prize, so it was all about being fresh and new, whereas this time, the desire was to contextualise My Bed as part of 700 years of British art and is displayed alongside other works in the permanent collection. So, we discussed this with Tracey and what would be the most suitable companions, and she was involved in selecting the paintings that would be shown alongside her work. Francis Bacon was a very immediate answer, because there are wonderful reference’s between their work. There is this sheer vitality of the body that moves in spaces combined with a sense of internal turmoil. I think the coupling really works very well.”

Crippa said she was confident that the work still remained as powerful as it was 15 years ago, and said the Tate expected it to be a very popular addition to their newly rehung galleries.

“I think it certainly holds its power and it was a wonderful experience to see it literally unfold in the room,” she said. “It’s still an incredibly vital piece but the main difference now is that it has become a very significant piece in the trajectory of a now very established British artist. So, I think the status of the work has changed historically but certainly hasn’t changed in terms of the impact of the piece.”

Following its display at Tate Britain, My Bed will be shown at the Turner contemporary in Margate, Emin’s home town, followed by Tate Liverpool.


Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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