Charlotte Hadfield

Understanding Mental Health: Understanding ‘My Bed’

An inventory of some of the items surrounding the bed:

Something with the word ‘Persona’ written on it

A closed belt


A chopstick

A photograph

A tea light




An old rattle?

A Polaroid


Used tissues

Russian Vodka

Absolut Vodka




A McDonald’s Ketchup

Things falling under each other

Tracey Emin’s menstrual blood


‘Even my beds messier than that’ said a child looking at Tracey Emin’s bed displayed for the world to see on the first floor of the Tate Modern Liverpool. ‘So it’s a bed, not art?’ she continued. Her mother replies to this pondering, with a rather simplistic explanation: ‘it’s art because it’s been out in a gallery darling.’ The child’s older sister tilting her head slightly, exclaims ‘I like it! Why can’t we go in further?’ The mother again trying to minimise what could easily turn into an endless question and answer session replies: ‘because then you’d rearrange it and it would no longer be her work.’


It was precisely this one conversation that I overheard while meandering around the Tate on a sunny spring afternoon that really captured the meaning of Tracey Emin’s work for me. Maybe the child’s innocent comparison of Emin’s bed to her own, was an insightful one. In putting her bed a private place, in such a public one, surely Emin invites or even encourages us, to make comparisons between her bed and our own. If we make such a comparison, we then put ourselves in her shoes, her situation. In encouraging such public interaction, Emin has created something which can engage with different people in different ways, as they choose to either judge or emphasise with her.


This doesn’t however, answer the child’s second question; can a bed be defined as art? Perhaps, in order to understand the bed, like with any piece of art, we need to look beyond it. When making the brave choice to expose this personal piece to the world, Emin must have been aware of the barriers that would restrict the public from stepping within a certain distance of the piece. In both inviting and restricting us, Emin leaves us stuck between what we can see and what we can’t.


If we focus our attention on the items surrounding the bed – such as those I have included in the inventory above, many of us will find at least one item we can relate too. For me, the photographs, the receipts, the tissues, the newspapers, the money – even the McDonalds ketchup are items which often make their way around my bed. Such items portray Emin’s humanity, her consumerism and interest in the world, all of which I can relate too. There are however, items which I also can’t relate to. The multiple vodka bottles, the piles of used tissues, the cigarette stubs – all portray an image of someone who doesn’t care about what people think about her, someone who has lost control.


Let’s take a closer look at some of the items listed in the inventory above.


Something with ‘persona’ written on it.


A persona is something we all have. It is the way we portray ourselves to the world through the behaviour we choose to adopt. It acts as a kind of disguise or mask – something which often fails to represent our true feelings. The piece unlike a persona, hides nothing. In displaying the contents of her bedroom to the world Emin seems to provide us with a representation of her inner self. Emin’s piece could therefore be a comment on how we judge others, suggesting that if like the bed we look beyond someone’s immediate characteristics – their persona, maybe we will begin to see the person properly.


Tracey Emin’s menstrual blood.


How do we react to this? For a female audience this isn’t a totally unfamiliar sight. However, for a male observing the striking blood stained sheets, is this something he has seen before? The blood makes the piece more explicit. Opinions over the blood are bound to be controversial but Emin appears to invite such controversy. Is there anything wrong with revealing to the world something which happens to women every month, despite it rarely being publicly announced or openly talked about? Again, Emin encourages openness and creates controversy in order to fight against it.


As with many pieces of art, if the meaning is not immediately apparent – if it doesn’t jump out and hit us in the face, we non-artsy types are often quick to disregard it. This however, is an issue which is not just limited to art. If a person gets knocked down in the street by an oncoming vehicle and breaks a limb or several, we instantly see this, we quickly understand that they have been hurt. Similarly, if a news story tells us the journey of someone who is dying from cancer, this resonates with us and we can usually on some level at least, sympathise with them. But what about the things we can’t see? What about the suffering we can’t relate too?


Just because you may not keep two different bottles of vodka in your bedroom, that doesn’t mean the stranger in the street, the friend you’ve known for five years or even your future self doesn’t. If we then interpret ‘My Bed’ as a representation of Emin’s own personal state of mind, this choice appears to encourage us to talk out about our own mental state, instead of hiding our feelings away in the parameters of our bedroom.


Prince Harry recently talked to the media about his own suffering with mental health, giving details of how following the death of his mother he largely ignored his own feelings for 20 years, never telling anyone how he really felt. Similarly to Emin’s piece, such honesty and openness gained a lot of attention from the public, encouraging people to address and share their own suffering too. And that for me at least, is what art is all about – having a voice. Having something to say and finding a way to say it. It is through art and the media, that the issue of mental health and the stigma surrounding it, is finally starting to get the recognition it needs.


Although, like the mother tells her child in the gallery of the Tate, we cannot rearrange Emin’s bed ‘because then it would no longer be her work’, ‘My Bed’ is only a representation of Emin’s bed at one point in time. Just like our beds change each day, as we decide to make them, wash them or leave them unmade, we change too. ‘My Bed’ does not define Emin’s life, but her situation at the time.


So, what appears at first to be just a bed, is exactly that – a bed. But our lack of understanding of the bed as anything more, may be exactly where an understanding of ‘My Bed’ resides itself.


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2 Responses

  1. Billie Walker Billie Walker says:

    That kid sounds like me when I went to see it! I really like this article you delve deep under Tracey Emin’s covers!

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