In Bed with Tracey Emin & Stewart Home
By Andrew Scott-Bolton.
On 18th of this month the Hayward Gallery launched a major retrospective of Tracey Emin’s work subtitled Love is What You Want featuring work stretching back over twenty years including painting, drawing, photography, textiles, video and specially commissioned sculpture to stand outside the gallery on the South Bank.
Tracey Emin, from the early nineties part of the tight clique of Young British Artists that included Sarah Lucas, Damian Hirst, Gary Hume and Angus Fairhurst, first came to the wider public’s attention with her 1999 Turner Prize-nominated installation My Bed. The installation instantly became an iconic art work; argued over, jumped upon, and it attracted endless column inches in the broadsheets and tabloids alike. The bed, Emin’s own, taken straight from her home and installed in gallery space, was unmade, sheets stained, reeking of trauma, self-pity and willful sluttishness. Surrounded by used condoms, knickers stained with menstrual blood, overflowing ashtrays, vodka bottles and other prosaic detritus of ordinary life, the bed stimulated the prurience of a delighted press who worked up a lather over its naive punkish qualities and attention-grabbing filthiness. The Guardian ran with the headline “How this bed turned from work of art to modern icon in less than two weeks”. The Telegraph in turn asked “Is it art?” Culture Secretary Chris Smith joined the fray and accused the Turner Prize judges of choosing ‘shock’ installations that gave Britain’s arts community a bad name abroad. As a result of all the noises off-stage surrounding Emin’s bed, attendance at the exhibition broke all previous records. She did not win the prize, but the nomination launched her career into the stratosphere and brought her instant global fame as an artist. The prize went to film maker and sculptor Steve McQueen for his films Prey and Deadpan, and a video piece titled Drumroll. He was praised by the jury for ‘his poetry and the clarity of his vision’, the ’emotional intensity and economy of means’ and ‘his continuing intellectual and technical evolution’, qualities far removed from those of Emin’s work. It mattered not. The press had a new enfant terrible and from that point on the artist would never need struggle for publicity. McQueen received £20,00 for winning the Turner Prize. Emin’s installation was bought by Charles Saatchi for £150,000, a price any artist would gladly get out of bed for.
My Bed was in fact first shown at the Sagacho Gallery in Tokyo in 1998. In that show a hangman’s noose hung from the ceiling, with works on paper on one blue-painted wall, blue neon signs on another, the bed itself juxtaposed with a wooden coffin and two bound suitcases. The show then transferred to Lehmann Maupin in New York for her first US solo exhibition Every Part of Me Is Bleeding, where it was shown with the blue neon signs Soba Sex (1999) and My Cunt is Wet with Fear (1998), textile works and and a number of other now well-known installations. By the time the work had reached the Tate the way it was hung had evolved again. The Turner Prize exhibition dispensed with the hangman’s rope and the coffin, and the suitcases were pushed up against a wall. The drawings on paper remained, again on a blue- painted wall. Also included were a series of video pieces from the previous three years and the blanket-work No Chance.
The My Bed installation is worth examining in the light of a large group show that Emin participated in three years before her Turner Prize nomination called Yerself is Steam. Curated by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, it was mounted in a temporary gallery on Charlotte Street in the boundaries of Soho over June and July of 1996. Tania Guha for Time Out declared, “Contrary to the usual insipid fare and boot-sale ambience, this exhibition boasts forty of Britain’s best emergent talents. Eschewing thematic coherence, the curators have opted for a Generation X vibe, complete with blaring ’70s muzak… don’t miss it.” Emin exhibited a collaborative piece with Carl Freedman, her partner at the time, called White Dove, a small table supporting four yellow toy chicks on tiny chairs and one other on a bar under a banner with Bar Nietzche written on it. Other artists showing at the exhibition included
Stewart Home is an artist, film maker, prankster, art historian, political activist and most prominently a novelist. His work, both visual and literary, has consistently played with notions of plagiarism, appropriation, identity and leftist politics. Home said of Art Strike Bed, “I believe that there can be no authenticity under capitalism, so the Art Strike Bed was an attempt at radical inauthenticity”‘ This pre-occupation with authenticity, or the lack of it, has its roots in Home’s involvement with Neoism during the eighties. Neoism was a movement, or perhaps more accurately a parodic underground modus operandi that worked collectively, employing pseudonyms, plagiarism, fake and multiple identities and pranksterism. During that decade, as well as publishing Situationist art magazine Smile, Home started making and exhibiting installations as part of the Art in Ruins collective, alongside fellow artists Hannah Vowles, Glyn Banks, Ed Baxter and Stefan Szczelkun. Both his writing and artworks were heavily influenced by the American appropriation art movement. In the late eighties he instigated several Festivals of Plagiarism, and from 1990 to 1993 he called for an art strike, an altogether more nihilist take on Gustav Metzger‘s avowedly political art strikes of the 1970s. Whereas Metztger had intended the strikes as a way for artists to take control of the dissemination of their own work, Home blatantly set out to attack and destroy the arts establishment and the gallery system. In tandem with his agit-prop activities Home started to write successful experimental novels, and over the next two decades he wrote thirteen of them, notably Red London (1995), Cunt (1999), 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess (2002), and Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton (2004). Alongside his fiction he has produced eighteen works of non-fiction, among them Neoist Manifestos (1991), Disputations on Art, Anarchy and Assholism (19997), Jean Baudrilliard and the Psychogeography of Nudism (2001) and The Easy Way to Falsify Your Credit Rating (2005). His latest novel Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie (2010), described as ‘a delightfully scurrilous anti-novel’ by Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph, received plaudits across the board, unusually for an avant-garde novel that juxtaposes penis enlargement spam emails with passages of art criticism and, once again, plays with notions of identity. Guardian critic Nicholas Lezard ended his positive review of the book thus: “Experimental work can be po-faced, stuck up when it contemplates its own daring. What’s lovely about Home is that he uses laughter to make you think.” Today, alongside all his other activities Home manages to fulfill his duties as editor of the Book Works Semina imprint, with its strap line – ‘where the novel has a nervous breakdown. The general rule with Home is it is impossible to record all his activities at any one time without resorting to writing long lists.
In sharp contrast to Home’s Art Strike Bed, Tracey Emin’s My Bed is a work which, like all her oeuvre, is explicitly “authentic”. It is personal, visceral, confessional, and was both praised and attacked at the time for being so. This is consistently true of all her work. Not for Emin critique, intellectual games, cerebral wit or daring experimental pyrotechnics. Back in 1995, exhibiting alongside Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Mat Colishaw and Gilbert & George in a show at the South London Gallery called Minky Manky, curated by Carl Freedman, Emin exhibited one of her best known and loved artworks Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Emin recalls in a telling anecdote how Freedman suggested to her that she make work on a larger scale; “At that time Sarah (Lucas) was quite famous, but I wasn’t at all. Carl said to me that I should make some big work as he thought the small-scale stuff I was doing at the time wouldn’t stand up well. I was furious. Making that work was my way at getting back at him.” This is pure Emin – reactive, emotional and confessional, in her nature as in her art.
In 1999, the year of her Turner Prize nomination, New York Times critic Roberta Smith commented that “the best thing is simply Ms Emin herself…[Emin] tells all, all the truths, both awful and wonderful, but mostly awful, about her life.” Conversely, in the same year, the Guardian‘s art critic Adrian Searle pitilessly informed Emin that whereas once he “was touched by your stories. Now you are only a bore.” Marxist art historian Julian Stallabrass of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a vehement critic of the Young British Artist milieu, described her as a ‘primitive authentic’, whose work he saw as being ever more eclipsed by her fame.
Where Home’s work is always overtly political, debate rages over whether Emin is a feminist artist or not. Reference to her textile works (alongside Louise Bourgeois) is made in Rozsika Parker’s book The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of Femininity, a study of women and needlework from a feminist perspective. John Molyneux, in his essay The Emin Phenomenon or the Phenomenal Emin states that “Emin does not present herself as a feminist artist and is not generally thought of as one,” but goes on to say “My Bed challenges the sexist attitude that makes a disordered bedroom much more shameful for a woman than a man. Indeed there is a sense in which the totality of her art practice and persona challenge the double standards about sex.” Others have challenged the notion that Emin’s perceived ‘transgression’ of the feminine is feminist in nature, instead preferring to interpret it as personal rather than political. It is a debate which continues. It might well be argued in fact that Home is a more feminist artist than Emin. Malcolm McLaren, who read the book on his deathbed, though perhaps not the most reliable of critics, is quoted as describing Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie as “feminism with balls”. Home himself certainly sees the book as feminist, and on his own website post advertising the book asks, “why does the art world hypocritically promote female creative talent but simultaneously fail to accord wimmin artists the respect given to their male counterparts?”
What strange bedfellows Emin and Home make. Two artists so utterly different that they are almost each other’s opposites, if such a thing were possible. What they do share perhaps is a punk attitude, but not much else. Emin is truly an artist of her time, whether you rate her work or not. Like reality television she is uncomplicated, exhibitionist, soul-baring and embarrassing . She has become an art establishment figure, measured in fame and money, Tory-supporting and angry about paying higher rate tax, political only in a Daily Mail sense. Home on the other hand remains anti-establishment, avant-garde and a communist. His work is oblique, opaque, avowedly non-personal and overtly political, as likely to attack anarchists and counter-culture figures as capitalism or the monarchy. Where Emin is mercurial and sexually traumatised, Home is detached and playful. Emin tells you her truth, and Home challenges you about the nature of truth and its perception. Emin is television, Home is internet. Emin public, Home essentially private. The only other thing that unites them is they both made bed installations that make powerful statements about their own artistic positions.
Which leaves only one final question: Did Emin appropriate Home’s bed installation idea for her own ends? If so, what a very Home thing to do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Scott-Bolton lives in south London and works for Divine Agency and Club Integral, promoting live and recorded music. He wrote the forward to Paul Duncan, Selected Paintings, and has contributed catalogue notes for photographer Anthony Oliver and sculptor Andrew Plant amongst others. He co-authored and co-produced a radio drama series and regularly co-presents the Club Integral Radio show, both broadcast on Resonance FM. He recently contributed to Quite Contrary – Translations into the Obverse, published by Snakeperch Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 20th, 2011.