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Unmade Bed Exhibit Has London Tossing and Turning

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who has ever looked at the deceptively simple brush strokes of a modern painting and thought, “I could do that,” would certainly have a similar response to Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” installation at the Tate Gallery.

Emin is one of the contenders for Britain’s coveted Turner Prize for contemporary art. Her “My Bed” is a double mattress heaped with stained and disheveled sheets, surrounded by the debris of indulgence--discarded stockings, empty vodka bottles, cigarette butts, a used condom and menstrual-stained underwear.

Seems easy enough to amass. The question is, would you want to?

Or, as the critics and some of the public flocking to an exhibition of the four finalists for the Turner Prize have been asking: When is an unmade bed a work of art and when is it an unmade bed? Dirty laundry aired in public, as it were.

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Emin, 36, established her reputation as a bad girl of British art in 1995 on a tent embroidered with a three-figure list of “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With.” In a live television performance related to that work, she stumbled drunkenly off the stage muttering that she was going home to her mum. The piece is included in the notorious “Sensation” show of young British artists currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

You might say that the shock value of “My Bed” is a bit old hat: John Lennon and Yoko Ono did a bed ages ago, and at least they were in it. Let alone Robert Rauschenberg’s pivotal 1955 Combine painting “Bed,” in which he slathered paint on his quilt and pillow.

“The bed isn’t shocking, you’re not supposed to be shocked by it,” Emin said in an interview at her East End loft. “You’re supposed to relate to it, to say, ‘I’ve been there.’ Or, ‘I’ve never been there but can imagine.’ Or, ‘That’s Tracey.’ ”

The bed was Tracey, or a product of her despair in the summer of 1998, a memorial to the place she laid as a physical and mental wreck “with the most negative thoughts possible going through my head” for many days. It was also the scene of an epiphany.

“I got up and took a bath and looked at the bed and thought, ‘Christ, I made that.’ By realizing how separate I was from it, I separated myself from the bed. I wasn’t there anymore,” Emin said.

When the installation showed in Japan last year, a noose hung over the bed. It is gone now, partly because Emin said she does not “feel like the noose anymore” and partly for health and safety regulations--concern that some deranged student would try to go out with a bang at the Tate, Emin explained.

It is not an unfounded fear given the high incidence of visitor interference with the now heavily guarded exhibit. In one case, housewife Chris de Ville of Swansea rushed the bed with a bottle of disinfectant to mop up what she considered to be filth.

“Tracey is setting a bad example to young women,” De Ville told the Daily Mail newspaper. “It was my duty to clean up the mess.”

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On another occasion, two Chinese performance artists decided the piece was too static. They stripped, jumped on the bed and started a pillow fight before being hauled away by police. The pair was released without charges, “criminal damage to a heap of rubbish being hard to prove in court,” smirked Simon Jenkins in a column for the Times of London.

To Jenkins, a political commentator rather than art critic, Emin’s bed is a work of publicity, not of art, one that “can only stand when propped up by a scaffolding of verbal interpretation.”

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Tate curator Simon Wilson is confident that Emin’s work stands up on its own, but he happily provides an explanation. In fact, he is generally happy that so many people are asking.

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There is no denying that Emin’s bed is a tremendous draw for the Tate. People are talking about it, writing about it and flocking to see it, together with the other Turner Prize entries, to the tune of a thousand visitors a day, 2,000 on weekends. That makes the Turner Prize show at least the 10th most popular exhibit ever recorded at the Tate.

The other British artists short-listed for the prize--to be awarded Tuesday--and part of the exhibit at the Tate until Feb. 6 are: Steve McQueen, 33, for his silent, black-and-white film, “Deadpan,” his short color film, “Prey,” and a sequence of 35-millimeter color slides of a bicycle abandoned in a shallow river; Steven Pippin, 39, for his Laundromat-Locomotion exhibits, originally shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with portions also shown at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, in which he transformed 12 washing machines into cameras to explore the relationship between vision and motion; and Jane and Louise Wilson, 32, twin sisters, for their theatrical film and photography installations of Hoover Dam and Caesar’s Palace.

Curator Wilson explained that the Turner Prize was established to promote discussion of contemporary British art, and that is exactly what is happening with Emin’s bed. Maybe there is a lot of negative coverage, he said, but the Turner Prize is exposing contemporary British art to a wider audience than it would have had confined to low-rent lofts in London’s East End.

Emin is one of a growing number of artists who share an obsession with self-examination and self-revelation. Her adolescence, sexuality and existential conflicts provide the fodder for most of her work.

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“My Bed” suggests “themes of loss, sickness, fertility, copulation, conception and death--almost the whole cycle of human life,” Wilson said.

“The most striking thing about Tracey’s art is that it is a cry of anguish,” he said. “Though it comes out of very specific experiences, they are ones that all human beings potentially or actually go through.”

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Emin was born, with her twin brother, in London in 1963 and grew up in the seaside town of Margate, where she says she had a loving childhood. But at age 13 she was raped and soon after dropped out of school in what she describes as a fit of boredom. She spent the next couple of years in Margate and London discos collecting names for her future artwork.

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She went on to a more classical art education, receiving a degree in fine arts from the Maidstone College of Art in Kent and taking a two-year postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art in London.

The trauma of an abortion caused Emin to give up art for two years, but she recovered to mine her own experiences for a variety of pieces in a wide range of media. She held her first solo exhibition, in November 1993, at a hip commercial gallery here called White Cube, titling the show “My Major Retrospective” because she believed she would never have another.

“My Bed” is accompanied by a wall full of childlike sketches ranging from the humorous to the banal drawing of a small chair that says, “What it looks like to be alone.”

To Wilson, Emin’s art is part of a tradition of feminist works that describe “the experience of being a woman in all its gynecology and sometimes glory.”

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“Aaargh!” Adrian Searle responded in the Guardian newspaper. “Once I was touched by your stories. Now you’re only a bore.”

The bed and other Turner exhibits even made Chris Smith, Britain’s culture minister, question the nature of contemporary art and the Turner Prize. Smith was quoted in British newspapers as saying the Tate was courting “controversy for controversy’s sake” and that the Turner short list was “too narrow” and “unrepresentative of British art.”

Comments such as that make the Tate’s Wilson smile.

“It’s like Oscar Wilde said: ‘When the critics fall out, the artist is in accord with the universe,’ ” Wilson said. As for Emin’s bed, he added,"If there is shell and shot from both sides, she must be doing something right.”

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But Emin said she was so pained and confused by the viscous attacks of the critics that she fled to friends and sunshine in Beverly Hills. Tanned and rejuvenated, she lashes back.

“Some people think I deserve it because of the nature of my work. But that is like saying if you wear a miniskirt, you deserve to be raped,” Emin said.

“Most of these [critics] are anally retentive men unsatisfied with their own lives. They can’t deal with women like me, who do what they want. I earn four times more money than they do working when I want to work and doing what I believe in,” she said.

“They can’t believe my audacity, that I would put a bed with dirty sheets in the Tate and say this is art. They are angry with me because of my beliefs and are battling with my will. They like to say what is art and what isn’t,” she said. “Fortunately, a lot of people don’t read the papers. They make up their own minds.”

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