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Review: Tracey Emin & William Blake in Focus, at Tate Liverpool

Tracey Emin & William Blake in Focus

Tate Liverpool, September 2016-February 2018

It’s all about Me!: Tracey Emin’s My Bed comes to Tate Liverpool

Words, Alison Little

Tracey Emin, one of Britain’s leading female artists, characterised for making biographical artworks, brought ‘My Bed’ to Tate Liverpool last week.

Tension mounted over a year since the announcement was made that it was to come to the North of England for the first time; there was a flurry of press attention. However, there were not the cries of the late nineties of ‘The stinking Bed’ and the endless rhetoric of late night comedy shows referring to the installation and Emin as the focus of mock-like humour.

‘But is it Art?’ was being branded around when it was first shown at Tate Britain for the Turner Prize. Two decades on this question seems to have disappeared. What was started by Duchamp in the use of ready-made in the early part of the twentieth Century, developed by the Italians with the famed ‘Arte Povera’ in the seventies, is finished off with Emin and the YBA movement and it seems they have been accepted as Art by the gallery going public of the twenty-first century.

Will it create the same stir in Liverpool as it did at Tate Britain almost twenty years ago? Are masses of visitors to trail, to glimpse ‘My Bed’ in the same way they did to the Turner Prize in 1999? Has Emin mellowed into her fifties? How do her exhibits work with Blake collection from the seventeenth and early eighteenth Century?

Selling for just over 2.5 Million at Christie’s in 2014, Count Christian Duerckheim, the new owner, loaned ‘My Bed’ to Tate for the next ten years. Tracey Emin created ‘My Bed’ in her flat in Waterloo in 1998. The actual bed and it’s contents come from her bedroom of the period. The work is a response to a relationship breakdown, during which she spent four days in bed crying, in mustering the energy to get out of bed the scene she returned to was re-created in the artwork.

The bed itself is the stage for the contents which represent a destructive lifestyle. Men and women’s underwear scattered across the bedding, items of contraception and KY Jelly representing sexual activity. The Polaroids indicate pleasure through the time they were taken and the possibility of returning to these times. The heaps of used tissues indicating the days spent crying when she considered herself to be ‘Suicidally depressed’. The passage of time is shown through the cigarette butts, the empty bottles and the excrement present on the bedding.

The exhibits in the installation came from Emin’s original bed. Things which are now obsolete, contraception and branded goods which no longer exist in the form presented. Tampons she no longer needs and a belt which no longer fits. The yellowed newspaper adding to the time capsule created two decades ago. The creation of ‘My Bed’ can be seen as a positive drawn from the negative lifestyle which Emin was living in the nineties, a lifestyle which she has left in the Past.

Has the original Bad Girl of British art still got the power to shock, or has she lost her bottle?

The vodka bottles which used to nestle beside her bed have now gone. Tequila has been exchanged for tea. Slippers lined with condoms and have been replaced by those of the organic cotton variety. Swimming regularly in her local baths as opposed to swarming in the urine stained sheets of ‘My Bed’.

However, the new collection of gouaches are every bit as confrontational as her early mono-prints and collections like ‘There’s something Wrong’. The simple monotone line depictions of herself confront us with the image of a sexually active woman. ‘All for you’ presents us with Emin’s legs sprawled open, her pubic hair on show and her arms held back behind her head, this is the pose of a woman desiring sex, unconstrained by social etiquette, she is letting us know what she wants.

In ‘I can feel you’ her body is staged to suggest female masturbation. In the same way, the Polaroids presented in ‘My Bed’ show Emin thinking of the pleasurable times of previous relationships.

On the other hand, there are indications that Emin has left her negative lifestyle choices behind. In ‘Stay Up’ we have an image of Emin waking with an arm stretched upwards. In this image and the choice of title, she is suggesting she has moved on from her depressive habits of dwelling in bed for days on end. She is pushing herself to get up and get on with her daily activities. A strong collection of gouaches as ground-breaking as her early works but with the experience of a woman in her fifties.

Tate Liverpool’s use of Reds and deep Greens for the walls of the exhibition work too. The red which surrounds ‘My Bed’ draws on the death-like scene Emin creates, originally describing the scene she saw in her Waterloo flat as ‘It looked like someone had been f**ed to death’. The Blake’s surrounding Emin’s gouaches compliment the monotone work, which carries through with the paintings of Blake, where minimal colour is applied.

The parallels between the two artists, born two hundred years apart, are shown through their pre-occupations with birth, death dreams and sex. Like Emin, Blake stood against the constrictions of the society of his day, with a liberal approach to sexual freedom shown through the works presented. A brave and possibly ground-breaking exhibition from Tate through the mixing of old and new masters.

Much of the debris of her life has dated quickly over two decades, Polaroids almost non-existent, the branded contraceptive and sanitary items modernising with the decades, the yellowed newspaper appearing as some kind of museum artefact. The new gouaches complimenting ‘My Bed’ showing Emin to be a sexually confrontational as ever. But, true to style, it was simply all about her.

An exhibition not to be missed, on show at Tate Liverpool until September 2017.