Tracey Emin's "My Bed"

Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998) (Image via Wikimedia)

What if art historians applied the same scrutiny to a contemporary installation by Tracey Emin as they did to a Renaissance masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci?

The Oxford University professor Martin Kemp, a well-known expert on da Vinci, has done just that. According to The Daily Mail, Kemp was curious to find out whether Emin had actually lain in “My Bed” (1998), a relic from “four sweaty and desperate days” she spent getting over a breakup in her London flat. He imagined that if the artist had really slept in the now-$4.3 million bed, it would probably stink — at least a little.

“Discussions [about Emin] tend to be about autobiography, about feminism, obvious theoretical things, all of which are relevant,” he told the newspaper. “Nobody has really looked at these as I would look at versions of a Leonardo painting,”

Kemp pored over photographs of the work’s current and past installations, including its debut in Japan and its 1999 Turner Prize exhibition. Each object, down to the very last cigarette butt, is usually arranged according to detailed instructions that ensure the messy bed will always appear messy in the same exact way. But the art sleuth noticed some abnormalities.

Instead of natural creases caused by a warm body, he found “rumpling” that seemed artificially produced. The pillows didn’t look as though a head had actually lain in them. That all sounds relatively unsurprising, but Kemp also noticed that the base on the very first version seemed made from a different wood than later ones. “It’s not just some things not arranged scrupulously … They’re actually different items,” he claimed.

Kemp concluded that “My Bed” has undergone various incarnations. “It’s clear that the detritus of Emin’s legendary four days in bed has been reconfigured a good deal,” he said. Which raises the question: if Emin never slept in the current bed at all, is it still the same artwork?

Her rambling answer is equally weird/confusing/clever.

“In a way it’s a self-portrait,” Emin told the newspaper. “It’s like a ‘Descartes-ian’ theory of the soul: the candle burns, but the wax still remains in a different form… As I get older my face changes, my skin changes … Every time I reinstall the bed it will always be different. [After my death], the people… will install it differently because of the nature of how I haunt the room … The bed is the physical ghost of my own existence.”

Deep stuff.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

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