Home Liverpool In Tracey Emin’s Bed with William Blake

In Tracey Emin’s Bed with William Blake

by John Maguire
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In My Bed with William Blake
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A visit to Tate Liverpool

I have to commend the TATE Liverpool. It helped to transform the Albert Dock in the Eighties. At one point there were talks of draining the dock and adding concrete to make a car park but the former Dockland area in the ‘Pool of Life’ is emblematic of the spirit of Merseyside. The city refused to take the Thatcher regime’s managed decline and fought back to create a cosmopolitan tourist hub.

During his time as director of the TATE, Nicholas Serota has successfully helped visitors to continually reassess the past and explore new ways to experience art. I recall a silent disco in amidst of Francis Bacons which was surreal and explosive. And it was here I experienced what it would have been like to be in Warhol’s factory without the sleaze, narcotics and pain. Serota leaves his role this year in June with the business in a robust state, ready to hand it over to Maria Bradshaw, previously director of the Whitworth and Manchester City Galleries.

Serota initially stated in his vision for the institution that:

Sometimes the experience of Tate should be surprising and provocative but at others it can simply confirm, nourish and give comfort.

He realises both these aims in the exhibition, Tracey Emin and William Blake In Focus. The juxtaposition of the contemporary with the historic is a clever move.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed

I was surprised that you could not smell it before you saw it. I had expected to know exactly when I was about to actually come into contact with Tracey Emin’s notorious installation ‘My Bed’. In a similar way to how it was said that people knew Henry VIII was present in a room before seeing him because you could smell the stench of his gout lingering. Alas, there was no build up; there it was as soon as I entered the space in the Tate Gallery, Liverpool. The mess plonked in the middle of the warehouse interior looked out of place, it looked alien, and it looked disgusting.

There are clear visible lines on the floor around the border of this piece. The white lines are made out of masking tape and nothing else that could be associated with alcohol and addiction. The alarm triggered every few seconds. The guards’ sallow expression and limply muttered warning, ‘please stand back’ illustrated that out of all the invigorating roles in this stimulating gallery, this is probably the most mundane.

Sometimes with modern art it is hard to understand what is art and what is not. I remember being in one exhibition, where the ecstatic rumblings from some culture connoisseurs dissipated into the air, once the realisation that the litter on the floor in the corner was just litter on the floor in the corner.

The bed has not aged well. My personal re-interpretation of the celebrated badly behaved Brit artists can be found in the Walker Art Gallery or ‘the proper gallery’ as my mother calls it. Philistine or truthsayer? You decide. The Little Artists immortalise famous artists and their pieces in Lego. The Lego versions of the bed and Damien Hurst’s pickled shark are playful and clever.

The Orangina in Emin’s piece had clearly well gone past its sell by date. A bile colour that was once orange blends into black grey slime. It makes me balk just thinking about it. I don’t think I’d be able to ever drink the said beverage again. Whilst I am not a fan of this particular piece, I can appreciate Emin as an artist. She knows her game. I find her self-portraits quite captivating. Her detailed sketchbooks are really beautiful and the skillful tapestry embroidery displayed in her installation TENT is calculated and provocative. So I don’t know what it is about the bed I don’t like. Perhaps I can see too much of my younger self and the periodic depressions that I used to suffer from? I identify with a darker side of my personality in the debris of alcohol, chaos and creativity.

William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20)

The experience of seeing Blake – which I have 12 times – is mesmerising. You are in the presence of genius. Each piece is a distillation of ecstasy in paint format. The exhibition highlights the visionary’s excellence and craft in his compositions. I could wax lyrical for pages but I am going to limit myself to solely one of my favourites.

A bulk of a man stands side on a wooden stage with two curtains. Four stars around the composition with a figure, a muscular torso with strong legs. A spine morphing into dragon features, a Roman nose, claw like figures, pointed ears and a flickering tongue. The creature’s left hand is clasped around a bowl that at first glance looks like a mirror. A fixed stare, blank eyes, skin leather brown with worn creases. It took me a while to realise it was not a mirror he was staring at. Thinking it a looking glass I immediately related it to the modern self-obsession that I’d previously written about in the piece about the Walker Art Gallery and the painting Echo and Narcissus.

I love that this shared exhibition will bring people who would not come and see the work of William Blake to be exposed to the master and vice-versa, that Blake fans will in turn see Emin’s work. Both artists work share one distinctive theme: expressions of the psychological elements that make up the artists’ state of mind at the time of creating.

That said, I would strongly advise not taking your mother or anyone who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I had to hold my Mum back as she really, really needed to make the bed, run the hoover over the floor and tidy up. The universal trait of motherhood – well, definitely Scouse Motherhood – to always sort things out. Everything in its place and a place for everything, even for Tracey Emin!


Tracey Emin and William Blake In Focus is on at Tate Liverpool until 3 September 2017


Detail from William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea from Wikipedia [Public domain]


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1 comment

Sandi Hughes 19 June 2017 - 8:40 pm

LUVIT John x

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