Tracey Emin – ‘My Bed’ at Tate Liverpool: Interview with curator Darren Pih
Interview by Matthew Smith
As curator of Tate Liverpool’s new Tracey Emin and William Blake exhibition, Darren Pih brings Emin’s iconic ‘My Bed’ to the north for the first time. The acclaimed artwork is the focal point of the display and is guaranteed to stimulate an interesting debate.
As the showcase opens to the public, Darren talks to Your Move about the significance of such works and the similarities between the two artists who are separated by more than 180 years.
Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ is coming to the North for the first time. Why has Liverpool been chosen as the destination?
There are a few reasons. Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ is on long-term loan to Tate. One of Tate’s roles is to bring the national collection of modern art to a wider audience and ‘My Bed’ is one of the most renowned works of British art of the past two decades.
Tracey has a close identification with Liverpool and a genuine fondness for the city and its people. Although she was born in London and spent her formative years in Margate, I think she identifies with Liverpool’s resilient culture and rich coastal heritage and is genuinely pleased to be presenting her work here in the context of William Blake. She already has two installations in the city which can be viewed at Liverpool Cathedral.
‘My Bed’ will be displayed alongside a selection of William Blake pieces. What similarities do you see and why will they be displayed together?
Tracey identifies with Blake and draws influence from his work. Although it’s true that Blake was somebody working in the Romantic era, I believe there is a really interesting overlap between the two – the shared concern with spirituality, birth, death, and resurrection.
In his own time, Blake was somebody who was marginalised and often regarded as a controversial artist due to his unorthodox political views and his belief in absolute freedom of expression.
There is also something about their prominent role in British culture and society which seems to resonate.
Tracey Emin’s seminal modern art piece defined much of the 1990s’ Young British Artists movement. Why is her installation so contentious, yet so iconic?
Tracey uses her own life experience as a subject for her work. ‘My Bed’ is a very brave piece of artwork because it’s an expression of self and it’s a very personal and probably quite traumatic work.
Art reflects the world but the world can be abstract, difficult and complicated and the work of Tracey Emin reflects that. I think of ‘My Bed’ as being an unflinching self-portrait, which captures the essence of Emin in the late 1990s.
Whatever you think of her work, it will always trigger a response and that is a reason for audiences to come and see it.
As for its iconic status, the bed has a real presence in literature and art history as a metaphor for life, death, illness, recuperation and isolation. All these different major art themes can be traced through to her work.
There are some who say ‘My Bed’ is art, and some who say it isn’t. At what point does an everyday activity become art?
Well, it’s a difficult question to answer. The idea of artistic expression has been changing over the past century. This has been demonstrated by artists like Marcel Duchamp who signed objects which were then immediately classified as art. Similarly, Andy Warhol used existing images from popular culture to explore the relationship between the idea of ‘celebrity’ and artistic expression. The ways in which artists work now have been expanding for a long time.
I believe Tracey Emin’s work is a very honest, primal expression of selfhood with roots that can be traced back to the early 1960s to artists like Robert Rauschenberg. Therefore, it belongs to a lineage in art history.
Emin said that ‘My Bed’ isn’t a ‘viewing platform’. Why is the display considered an ‘experience’ rather than an art viewing?
If you see the work at Tate Liverpool you will see it is quite a theatrical installation. We have painted the walls an intense red and presented ‘My Bed’ alone in a room with relatively low light so it is sat in what appears to be a crime scene.
We have tried to heighten the experience of viewing the work so it gives visitors the opportunity to walk around the display to examine the work in quite a forensic way. In this sense, the work can be considered a forensic self-portrait, so that the experiential aspect is very important for the piece.
Blake and Emin’s work focuses on originality, authenticity and trend-setting rather than re-invention and re-creation. How far can this explain their popularity?
Both artists, if you believe in freedom of expression and political beliefs, represent these shared themes. Blake was radical in his time but at the same time there is something about living a life in a very true, authentic, unapologetic and uncompromising way which explains why both he and Tracey Emin have enjoyed considerable exposure. I feel this is why they are held in high regard by their contemporaries.
The late David Bowie once described Tracey Emin and William Blake as ‘kindred spirits’. In terms of British culture and identity they have a powerful presence, and that should be celebrated.
What kind of message do you hope visitors will take away from the display?
Whatever your opinion of Tracey Emin, this is a unique opportunity to see one of the most emblematic works of the past 20 years.
If you believe in absolute and untrammelled artistic expression, ‘My Bed’ is a milestone work in British modern art.
‘Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus’ at Tate Liverpool will be open to the public from 16 September 2016 until 3 September 2017. entry is free.