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harbinger | noun
har·bin·ger | \ˈhär-bən-jər\
1. one that initiates a major change: a person or thing that originates or helps open up a new activity, method, or technology; pioneer.
2. something that foreshadows a future event : something that gives an anticipatory sign of what is to come.
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Is art found in the musical sfumato with soft edges and lingering tones in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? Is art found in the simple, rich and rigorous impasto that emerges from Van Gough’s Starry Night? Or is art found in the opulently gilded and extravagantly patterned portrayal of intimacy in Klimt’s The Kiss?
Time and time again, we have pointed out the “dichotomy” of good and bad art even when one does not exist to define the other.
At the end of the 1980s, a generation of artists determined to reject the artistic traditions imposed on them by academia emerged to present an entirely new and, at the time, rather shocking aesthetic: the art of confession.
Art became highly subjective, privileging the personal over the universal, often taking alienation as a theme, and recognising that no subject matter was off limits.
The works of Tracey Emin exemplify this change in the art world against a backdrop of the increasing popularity of reality TV, as well as the rising prevalence of social networks, and public personas. Emin’s work is, therefore, not only personal but also performative, since it displays her own experiences and invites viewers to relate and plunge into these evoked sentiments by taking on the role of a mediator between her experiences and her form of expression.
In particular, her controversial piece, entitled My Bed, was first created in 1998 before going on to be exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999 as one of the shortlisted works for the Turner Prize. It is a powerful self-portrait that doesn’t veer from the messiness of solitude and vulnerability, seeing that the work was inspired by a sexual yet depressive phase in the artist’s life when she had remained in bed for four days without eating or drinking anything but alcohol.
The work depicts the result of a heavy depression: sheets rumpled and stained with urine and other bodily fluids, surrounded by dirty underwear, contraceptives, cigarette packs and empty vodka bottles.
The symbol of the bed usually alludes to some sense of warmth, comfort, and rest, yet here, Emin has presented it as a place of rejection, abuse, and loneliness. The viewer is therefore confronted with an extremely uncomfortable scene, made unsettling not only by its apparent frankness but also by the lack of explanation or clarification of its presence, leading the viewer to question and reconstruct the identity of the absent owner.
More interestingly, the symbol of the bed, which has long been a propagated and powerful symbol depicted in Western literature and art, has always represented an ambiguous realm between something personal, intimate, and yet common to all.
This is evident in the works of artists such as Edvard Munch, where the bed symbolizes mortality in his Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed. Vincent Van Gogh by omitting shadows in his Bedroom in Arles symbolizes a location of sanctity and tranquility, while in the works of Edouard Manet, the bed symbolizes sensuality in Olympia.
In contrast, Emin’s bed offers a particularly feminine angle on these motifs, where her work elevates the anxieties of life as a woman to monumental status. My Bed has to be perceived in the context of Emin’s background, especially the fact she was sexually assaulted at the age of 13; five years later, the artist became pregnant and had an abortion – two crucial traumatic events that framed her practice in the realm of confession.
When the work was initially created it not only conveyed the specificity of Emin’s own experience of depression but also spoke to the experience of any woman who came of age in a similar cultural climate.
With its intimacies and possible connotations of rape, abuse and the destructiveness of guilt, Emin’s work breaks open traditional patriarchal structures of representation. Additionally, In presenting a piece so expansive in its ability to conjure a full narrative about depression, self-harm and eventual redemption in contemporary society, when the expression of pain and suffering was so often stigmatized and deemed taboo, Emin sublimates her troubles into art in order to gain some semblance of autonomy and self-reliance.
Though the work speaks of loneliness and depression, there are myriad undertones of hope such as how the owner’s detachment from the bed highlights one’s capability to pick themselves up from these experiences.
When reflecting on the creation of the work, Emin herself stated that “I just saw it (the bed) in a white space, I saw it out of that environment and, subconsciously, I saw myself out of that environment, and I saw a way for my future that wasn’t a failure, that wasn’t desperate. One that wasn’t suicidal, that wasn’t losing, that wasn’t alcoholic, anorexic, unloved.”
Emin discussed how her life had changed since she first created the piece, going on to state “I don’t smoke, I don’t have sex, I don’t use contraceptives, I don’t have periods, I don’t wear small pale blue knickers that look like one of Turner’s clouds. I don’t make stains on the bed like that, like I used to, and if I did, I wouldn’t have a bed like that, the sheets would get washed immediately.”
Emin’s experience of womanhood has perhaps changed since My Bed, but this work has left its distinctive mark on the world and still relates to many women around the globe.
It is through Emin taking the unspoken and the unspeakable to create an installation that is full of visual interest and a powerful manifestation of human vulnerability that her work has played such a catalytic role at the turn of the millennium, ignoring society’s expectations of women by demonstrating the reality of the female experience that was considered offensive. More importantly, it is through making such a moment a work of art that opens up a needed discussion: the art of making ‘bad’ art.
The art of making ‘bad’ art
Throughout history, we have constituted ‘bad’ as something that is neither beautiful, nor delicate, nor otherworldly. Yet, we often forget that art is the purest form of expression and self. Thus, Emin’s work that challenges societal conventions, that incorporates autobiographical elements, that offers raw, unromanticized depictions of the less glamorous aspects of life, is perhaps one of the best examples of art one can find.
Whilst it may seem easy to disregard Emin’s work as lazy, chaotic and ultimately pointless, the simple truth is that her experiences are mediated in some way through the art that she produces and how effortlessly her art is able to strikingly imitate life.
The fact that there is a process of production involved with the making of the confession in her oeuvre, shows that her art is constructed at least to some extent. Regardless of the apparent immediacy of expression that is present throughout her body of work, My Bed is the product of a journey in which thought and purpose are inevitable.
It is not often that we see such a raw, honest and authentic reflection of one’s state of mind, especially at the lowest points. The beauty of the work lies beyond the unrefined chaos that we see, but rather in the intention, the message, and the effect this piece has on us as viewers.
And so, that leads me back to my initial question; What is art?
Art is more than the beautiful broken colours in Monet’s impressions of the fleeting light reflected off water lilies. Art is more than the skillfully interwoven hues of paint that De La Croix employs in his presentation of the French Revolution. Art is more than the expressive, simplistic style in Picasso’s cubist perspective on the human anatomy in his Portrait Of Dora Maar.
In Tracey Emin’s My Bed, we realize that art is about expression, meaning, and the authenticity of human emotion.
In using such an evocative installation, Emin not only illustrates the active and almost rebellious voice she takes on as an artist but emphasizes the beauty in chaos, in sentiment and in depicting the feeling of feelings.
So perhaps the underlying beauty of the work lies in its inherently “bad qualities”: the lack of careful mediation and refinement, the plethora of discarded domestic items, and the almost unoriginal idea of using one’s bed as a way to tell a story. The work we see is an aftermath of a traumatic emotional breakdown, yet we are able to relate to the absent owner and look at our own experiences.
In its neither beautiful, nor delicate, nor otherworldly presentation of Emin’s state of mind, My Bed epitomizes the intricacies of the artist’s struggle. In its ability to challenge societal conventions, to incorporate autobiographical elements, to offer raw, unromanticized depictions of the less glamorous aspects of life, Emin masters the art of making ‘bad’ art by adopting a strong voice, telling a story, and confessing her pain to the viewer.
Born in 2006, Megan is a student from Hong Kong studying in the UK. She is interested in all aspects of the arts, especially how it can be used as a medium to explore different perspectives.
In her free time, she loves reading and writing. With an avid interest in linguistics, she speaks English and Chinese but is currently learning French, Latin, and Korean.
Megan joined Harbingers’ Magazine as a contributor in 2023. As a self-published journalist, she was quickly promoted to the role of the Culture Section editor. She is also working on creating a Harbingers’ podcast she will host and produce.
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