By Deb A.
Stained, littered, unflinchingly honest, Tracey Emin's My Bed debuted at the Tate in 1999 to reactions as messy and visceral as the sheets it put on display. The piece is now back in Tate Britain, this time surrounded by Francis Bacon paintings rather than her own drawings, and starkly lacking its original shock value. Now that our collective fingers have loosened from our pearls, it is possible to take a deep breath and more clearly examine the work's true power: what is the meaning of this rumpled pile of bed linens, cigarette butts, contraceptives, bodily fluids, and vodka bottles, now that so many taboos around women's sexuality have been broken, or at least repeatedly dented?
Emin's answer is clear: "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 young woman and how time affects all of us."
The bed, in which Emin stayed for several days during a period of depression triggered by relationship issues, is part of a wider tradition of exposing an intensely private element of an artist's personal life. Toward the end of the twentieth century, this became known as confessional art.
Louise Bourgeois is generally recognised as the mother of confessional art. One of her best-known works is Maman, a giant sculpture of a spider that she described as an ode to her mother: "She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."
Mona Hartoum's Light Sentence grew from her sense of dislocation after being unable to leave London to return to her home in Lebanon after war broke out there in 1975: "The movement of the light bulb causes the shadows of the wire mesh lockers to be in perpetual motion... you have the disturbing feeling that the ground is shifting under your feet."
Yoko Ono does not shy away from exposing her personal struggles, including her fight for custody of her daughter in Plastic Ono Band's "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)". Ono herself is clear that "if you go back to all my albums, they're all confessional."
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