Tomorrow Christie’s will sell one of the two most famous works of art made in the last 20 years. When I interviewed Tracey Emin about “My Bed” last week she said that she didn’t really make it: that it made her. It did. It also made headlines in newspapers that had never written about art before. “Is it art?” was the gist of many a fist-shaking, harrumphing editorial. And why not? Right up there with “To be or not to be?”, it’s a pretty good question.
“My Bed” was first shown in Japan in 1998 and attracted a ripple of opprobrium. Not because of the used condoms tossed beside it or the bloody knickers or that vodka bottle, but because Tracey’s slippers were, frankly, a bit dirty. Each to their own. When the work came home and was shown as part of the Turner Prize the next year, despite not winning the cup it became one of the most popular pieces and most biffed punchbags the contemporary-art world had seen since Constantin Brâncuși’s “Bird in Space” (proclaimed “raw metal” rather than sculpture by US Customs in 1927) and that old piss-taker Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917 (which was, of course, a urinal). That Emin’s bed sits comfortably in this company shows the power of her intent as an artist and her potency as a maker of unforgettable images; things that cut through learning – or a lack of it – and demand simply to be seen.
Besides the work, the artist is ever interesting. Apparently Emin wouldn’t originally meet Charles Saatchi, who ended up buying the bed for £150,000, because of his politics (his advertising agency had masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s election victories in the 1980s, although it seems Emin has updated her politics since). In the end she made a bargain with the collector in which he could have it if he also shipped another of her works, a beach hut, from California. In this detail, I get a sense of an artist with principles but also one that was beginning, like her contemporary Damien Hirst, to become a canny dealmaker.
Emin cared where her bed ended up and it’s clear that she’s still emotionally invested in the work now. I sensed a little wistfulness in her glances at the piece as we talked, as she referred to it and to the straitened circumstances in which she made it (or it made her). “I had to get into the bed and fluff up the duvet this morning,” she said, “and it felt good to be back.”
Tracey’s ubiquity ensures she only needs the one name, like a Damien or a Grayson; she’s become something of a national treasure in the UK. If she’s not yet an éminence grise in the art world then perhaps she’d like to be an éminence cerise, as an often brilliant female artist (rather than an artist that happens to be female) and a fiercely intelligent and disarmingly charming communicator.
I hope tomorrow night, when the hammer goes down on “My Bed”, that the new owner will put it somewhere the world can see it. It’s a stark self-portrait, a potent totem of recently past times and an absorbing and moving work of art.
Robert Bound is Monocle’s Culture editor.