For the British artist Tracey Emin, a bed is not just a place or an object – it is a way of being. Throughout her career, Emin has returned over and over again to what it means to be in bed; for her, bed can be a site of rest, but also of intense emotionality, or of total catatonia. Most famously, in 1999 her piece My Bed – literally her own unmade bed and all of the detritus that had accumulated on or alongside it after a long period of not leaving it – was shortlisted for the Turner Prize.
In 1995, Emin also debuted Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, a tent embroidered with the names of everyone she had ever shared a bed with (both platonically and sexually), at the South London Gallery. This, along with My Bed, is arguably her most seminal work, and both pieces see the artist dealing with the places where we sleep, but where so much else – vulnerability, sadness, ecstasy – happens too.
This theme is addressed in Emin's newest show for White Cube's south London gallery, A Fortnight of Tears, which runs until the 7th of April. Almost all of the work concerns being in bed, and implicitly seems to consider the bed as a locus of lost love, emptiness, depression and insomnia.
The show's first room features 50 self-portraits of Emin in her own bed, seemingly taken on a phone camera (here, and at other points in the exhibition, Emin seamlessly incorporates advances in technology into her practice, and pithily but wordlessly engages in debates about the place of Instagram in art spaces and the merits of selfies as a mode of documentation).
In each of the images, Emin is obviously in bed, presumably during a bout of insomnia, which is referenced in the artist’s statement on the wall before you enter. One of the photos shows her with stitches above her eyelids. In a few, parts of her body are exposed. In bed, she shows us herself as she really is. The images serve to establish the show's main concern: the bed is often a place of anguish, and some emotions are so strong and overpowering that they force us into bed.
After this first room, the show gives way to its main focus – tens of paintings of prone bodies. None of them have detailed faces, but most are surrounded or filled in some way with dark scribbles. The images conjure the sense of being cornered by emotions so physical that they feel like their own entities, or of dissociating from yourself to the degree that your feelings seem like they’re happening outside of you. It’s such a highly specific sensation that to see a whole exhibition digging into it (even at the level of the sheer repetitiveness of its content: the entire room full of photos of Emin in bed, and the many paintings of bodies under such internally destabilising influences echo the relentlessness of depression) is quite overwhelming.
While its base level point is quite simple – that sometimes we feel so strongly it physically floors us – this show is so personal and so focused on individual embodiment that it will resonate with each gallery-goer differently. For me, it reminded me of a time in my life that I still struggle to communicate fully through language. It was a period of great change – I was grieving the death of a close loved one, the end of a relationship and the way of life that this partner had symbolised. I spent a lot of this time in bed, listlessly watching television, eating, sleeping, not sleeping, masturbating, sometimes having sex. While the figures in Emin's paintings do not have faces, they often have visible breasts, and are frequently pictured with open legs, perhaps in recognition of the fact that sometimes when we are emotionally deadened or overcome we seek the extreme bodily sensations of sex in order to experience an identifiable feeling of some kind.
A Fortnight of Tears spoke to emotions which had me lethargically performing my most basic functions as a human, and to the losses which reduced me to doing so. The enveloping largesse of both is embodied physically in the show by three sculptures. The first, 2017’s The Mother, is a huge bronze figure kneeling, holding something amorphous. An imposing presence, almost filling the space where it stands completely alone, it is a powerful comment on the magnitude of loss, looming larger and larger over you as you move closer to it. In another room, two bronze figures lie down on the floor, the simultaneous passivity and active sexuality of the paintings writ bigger than people, bodies swollen by the enormity of what has put them into this specific state.
The particular experience of depression after loss – and its physical effects – can be so big that to some degree it forms a trauma all of its own, and therefore can be hard to express in its fullest terms through words. There doesn’t seem to be much you can say that manages to totally convey the feeling of only half-existing, if that. Indeed, Emin’s paintings and sculptures in this show are the closest communication of it I’ve ever seen. A Fortnight of Tears, therefore, offers some level of release: it is, perhaps more than anything, good to know you are not alone, even in this most lonely and isolating of states.
Despite being inspired by insomnia and literal and metaphorical stasis, this art seems to live and breathe, because its rendering of bodies is so tactile, and the personality that runs through it – unmistakably Emin's – is so strong. She’s a figure who speaks her mind. Sometimes, as in this show’s embrace of the digital culture often viewed as a sideline by art’s elite, this is hugely positive; on other occasions, her positions can feel at odds with her work and persona (her political stances have raised eyebrows in the past, after comments in 2011 where she stated support for Conservative arts policies, though she’s since stepped away from the party following the EU referendum).
In the case of A Fortnight of Tears, however, Emin is occupying her very best arena: the world of emotion, which she is – after a career of over three decades – able to express almost peerlessly, with much honesty and wit. One of the highlights of the show is a painting which reads "NOT TO LOVE THE PERSON YOU ARE WITH IS A CRIME", followed later on by the appearance of a postcard in a glass cabinet, which states "I SAID NOT LOVING THE RIGHT PERSON IS A CRIME", lest we forget her point.
The final room of the show features a film made in 1996. How It Feels is an account of loss, and shows Emin visiting significant places in the story of her botched abortion five years earlier, while discussing her complex – sometimes even contradictory – feelings about it. At one point in this narrative she details spending five days in bed, before the devastating climax, made all the more arresting for the clarity and matter-of-factness with which Emin tells it.
This film colours the whole experience of A Fortnight of Tears in terms of Emin’s motivations, but the show is no less compelling or resonant for this. The artwork certainly has personal roots, but also exists as a lens through which we can view loss and its destructive effects on bodies and emotions in general. My reading of it here, for example, is intensely individual, because there is simply no other way to see this show. Put plainly, it is staggering to see something you had held inside you, but never been able to properly express, not only communicated by one artwork, but by literally hundreds.
A Fortnight of Tears, indeed, but not just tears of pain or sadness; tears too, of catharsis. Tears too, of relief.