Damien Hirst suspended sharks and cows in formaldehyde, but Tracey Emin had “the bed.” The unmade bed. A distressed pile of soiled blankets, discarded knickers stained with menstrual blood, tissues, condoms, empty vodka bottle, and a fluffy toy among much else, it was a horrific, mesmerizing mess; the kind of bed, as Nancy Durrant, art critic and arts commissioning editor for The Times of London, puts it, “any girl would clear the hell up before letting any boy she was interested in anywhere near it.”
The bed, or “My Bed” to give it its proper artistic title, has been put up for auction by the gallery owner and collector Charles Saatchi, now more famous for the spectacularly grotesque breakdown of his marriage to Nigella Lawson than his art acquisitions.
Before this current infamy, Saatchi was best known as the most high-profile, and high-spending, collector of contemporary British art, particularly the headline-hogging, hard-drinking, hard-partying, shock-magnetizing group of artists who came to be known as the YBAs (the Young British Artists), whose fame in the mid- to late 1990s mirrored the ascendancy of Britpop. As well as Hirst and Emin, the group included Sarah Lucas, Marc Quinn, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.
“My Bed” will be sold at auction at Christie’s on July 1, and has been given an estimate price of between £800,000 and £1.2m (approximately $1.35 million to $2 million), which seems astonishingly low given the piece’s cultural impact. Indeed, David Maupin, Emin’s dealer in New York who sold the bed to Saatchi in 2000 for £150,000 (about $252,000), has said he thinks the Christie’s estimate is too low. “It’s historic. It’s priceless.”
The bed was made at a time of Emin’s life when, as she put it, “I had a kind of mini nervous breakdown in my very small flat and didn't get out of bed for four days. And when I did finally get out of bed, I was so thirsty I made my way to the kitchen crawling along the floor. My flat was in a real mess—everything everywhere, dirty washing, filthy cabinets, the bathroom really dirty, everything in a really bad state. I crawled across the floor, pulled myself up on the sink to get some water, and made my way back to my bedroom, and as I did I looked at my bedroom and thought, ‘Oh, my God. What if I'd died and they found me here?’
“And then I thought, ‘What if here wasn't here? What if I took out this bed—with all its detritus, with all the bottles, the shitty sheets, the vomit stains, the used condoms, the dirty underwear, the old newspapers—what if I took all of that out of this bedroom and placed it into a white space? How would it look then?’ And at that moment I saw it, and it looked fucking brilliant.”
She was struck recently, she told Britain’s Daily Telegraph, by “how classical it looked. From a distance, it looked like a painting.”
Emin’s pieces were notorious from the start: At the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997—a totem, controversy-streaked exhibition of the best-known YBA works which later came to the Brooklyn Museum—she showed an embroidered tent called “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995,” which was destroyed in 2004 in a fire in an East London warehouse.
Durrant said the YBAs were “the last distinct art-grouping Britain had produced,” adept at parlaying public interest not just in their art, but art in general. They were much criticized and lampooned for their antics, but the perfect storm of their shock art and rock-star behavior generated an immense populist buzz, for good and bad, about modern art in Britain.
Indeed, “My Bed” became the focus of one of the most high-profile acts of art-vandalism, or performance art, or pointed satire—depending on your viewpoint—when two artists jumped on it and had a pillow fight when it was being exhibited for the 1999 Turner Prize.
Despite the publicity, Emin didn’t win that year: the prize went to Steve McQueen for his film and video works—in recent years he has become a big-name film director, most famously of the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave.
The estimated auction price for “My Bed,” Durrant posited, could be so low because of Emin’s gender, and “the fact she’s not dead.” “She has not been collected in quite the same ‘must-have-that-handbag’ way, yet, as the works of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are collected,” Durrant said.
However, Emin’s past sales augur well. Last October, another of Emin’s bed pieces—this time with a four-poster as its basis—sold for a record-breaking £482,000 ($810,000).
Emin has outpaced other, mostly male members of the YBA generation, by not producing just “the same old same old,” said Durrant. “She is less known now for outrageous behavior, and more for exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, and becoming a Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy.”
As for Emin, she told The Telegraph that the sale of “My Bed” feels “like the end of an era. Saatchi’s had this ’90s thing in his house like a time capsule. Now it’s historical.” As for the wild times that belied its creation, Emin says, “I mean, I don’t smoke anymore, and I don’t think people see it as shocking anymore either.”