Radical Unto Death – Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ #1

A dinner party question: What is the most radical work of Art – Literature, Film, Music, Architecture, et al?

Firstly, what is meant by Radical? In short, it is when a thing is most unlike itself whilst still recognizably remaining so. In other words, it is the farthest point into its own non-existence leaving whatever trace or quality we know it by to recognize it as such. I also take radical to be the most stomach-churning, mind-numbing, thought-provoking, viscerally-unbearable thing. And to anyone’s ears, this might sound like a description of something deeply disturbing, horrifying and gory; an analogy to the spectacle of what has come to be known as horror, but that would be a mistake. Because whereas the attempt of Horror is to provide you with an Image that is irrevocably Outside, so unlike anything we’ve come to know as to be the epitome of conjuring a deep nausea. On the contrary, I say, the Radical is the thing that is most known to us, most familiar, most gone unseen, most me. And in this respect, it sits closer to feelings of uncanniness. A zombie is an artificial re-creation of what we think is the Human, yet the Un-Human is something deeply connected to what it means to be Human yet still not quite. The line between Non-Human and Un-Human is a concavity where the uncanny lives. It is to recognize oneself in the image of the other as something deeply not-me, yet-me. As we will come to see, the radical reveals a horrifically curious Truth only known to ourselves.

And so, what is it to Art? Well, Radical Art is not to radicalize and make uncanny those objects with which we consider to be Art, but Art itself. The question here is: What is an Artwork most farthest away from being Art yet still considered as such? 

There are certainly some worthwhile contenders (the irony here being that its even a thing to contend with..). But whats important about an era for which we have yet to escape its grasp – beginning with Duchamp’s infamous transgression of 1917, taken seriously into 60’s conceptualism and finally flourishing and stiffening with the 90’s YBA – is in what can be salvaged from a wreckage that is PoMo-Injected Contemporary Art if and, more importantly, for when we are to dispose of it? Nothing, really. But it would be unfair to suggest the wreckage itself, with all its mangled corpses of nostalgically re-engineered movements, isn’t worth something in and of itself as a study of Radicalism – in very much the same way we might study any kind of radicalism, be it surgically/cosmetic, commodities/design, and even violence/beliefs, without endorsing them.

Artworks under the siege of the Museum (which will be my focus) produced between the 60’s and now are examples of Art at its most radical, remaining for us today an apocalyptic vision, a glimpse towards the End of Art. And therein lies objects at their most radical, provocative, and severe always with a slyly smile as it voyeurs upon itself a steady decline towards its own non-existence.

Among others, John Cage’s 4’33, Piero Manzoni’s Artists’ Shit, Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven, Damien Hirsts’ A Thousand Years are all notable works that come close to what I mean by Radical Art, yet the topic of this discussion focuses on Tracey Emin’s My Bed. 

What Emin has managed to achieve – not necessarily through creation but of the acceptance of an audience – is to provide something so unutterably common to the masses, so commonplace as to be invisible, so familiar as to be un-worthwhile, so close to our own lives and reeking with banality that it provokes within its spectators, its witness to tragedy and its voyeurism to somatic and fantastic traces of the erotic left over in the sheets, a ferocious jittery sensation of rage and anguish as to acknowledge that something so close to our hearts, our laurels, had even the slightest of capacity of making for itself wealth, fame, status. The content of the Bed is not important, any object would have worked; but the point is, to speculate, art for the non-artist is a thing out of their potential, out of their grips, reserved only for those who dine on themselves as artist; beyond themselves. Yet Emin has broken this social contract to what it means to be both Artist and Art. She presents, first of all, that art-making is not exclusive only to the ‘Artist’, and nor is Art reducible to its capacity for conceptual/technical brilliance. Emins’ bed shows that to be is to be Art – by presenting to an audience an object that lay in their back pockets, under their bottoms, under their noses. It also reveals another fact to art-making which is exclusive to the Artist; to be an Artist is to be a manager and provider of the spectacle and the Event. And it is the Event which gives rise to the status of the artobject. The creative potential thus revealed to the audience first and foremost resolves in a self-reflexive disgust – a guilty imagination. Its transgressive in the pure sense because it turns its problem back unto yourself – you become the thing that is most disgustful as the reflection of the image that provides it for you. You’ve let yourself down. One is felt to be a unfettered disappointment once realizing one has gotten up from their own bed, bright and early, traveled wide and far, paying for food/drink/transport/tickets, to climb all the way upstairs into a little room to just be presented with yet another bed except more valuable. We are presented here with the ontological inequality of beings.

Emin’s Bed is Art most unlike Art. Yet what difference is there from Duchamp’s Fountain?Because his piss-pot has nestled its way into history as to never be able to crawl its way out. It has been stylised by historicity and sentimentality. 

And it is because of Style that the Artists I mentioned above do not travel into the radical concavity that Emin does. I will now briefly explain why:

What could be more radical than John Cage providing Nothing itself? It does seem to be the very brink of self-destruction, except it doesn’t conform to the kind of radicality i’m referring to. Instead, in place of silence, it presents a background of transcendent mystical appearance’s which does exactly the opposite to the kind of radicalism I hoped to explore. Instead, like Emin’s Bed, of providing you not only with the image of your own discomfort, your own mortality, revealing an uncanny truth both eerie and enticing, Cage’s 4’33 takes you away from yourself into a kind of secular prayer. Ironically, one would think the moment of self-redemption would be in the form of empty silence disguised as prayer but the artifice of the Artistic Event capitalizes and stylises the process. It becomes then an in-genuine search for an experience of an experience.

Stylisation also looms over Koons with his large scale hyper-realist glam photographs with him and his then former pornstar ex-wife participating in display’s of overt sexual acts. Pure, unadulterated performances/spectacles of vivid organs coupled together. No eroticism, just bodies. Pornography. His images are alluring, fetishistic fantasies with which we wish to be drawn too without the repercussions of guiltily toying with taboo.

And if Koons’ Made in Heaven plays with the moralism of its audience, Hirst makes immoralism his work. It may be the first time any critic would decide its not a work of Art based on Ethics. And of course, Hirst is all style, all glam, pop, punk, rock & roll, death, mortality, religion/atheism/belief, ambiguity, vulgarity, excessiveness, factory production. Hes Capital C Capitalism. Now, A Thousand Years in my opinion is a good work. The only good work by Hirst, maybe. Yet the merit, in this context, to his other sculptures is in their re-imagination of the readymade. They’re are what I would call Post-Industrial readymades. Highly polished, factory made constructions that only have quality or artistic value solely in their looking good – in their ability to be made using lots of money. Hirst presents to us just what money can do!

To conclude, the uncanniness of art is not in its content (what artists provide us), but in its form (of where we are comfortable in saying this does not conform to art). Yet the content of Emin’s Bed is its Form. Its a direct disruption of what it means to be art that shakes our very understanding of it and our inability to make and organise meaning from. Unlike the stylisation of other works, it doesn’t take you anywhere, to some Other experience, other reality. It presents you with itself as your reality. Not only does it exist in the same symbolic universe as you, but that it has ontological priority over you – for why else would your bed be at home and this one here? The uncanniness to this radicalism of art reveals a Truth within ourselves, a truth for which we yet do not know. Maybe a temporary symbolic emptiness or angst. Much like the feeling of Anxiety as presented by Heidegger resulting from not feeling at home in the world. The anxiety we will as response to radical things is in the not feeling at home with oneself. Again, its presents the uneasiness as belonging to you! The object of the uncanny is thus only a mirror to the unfamiliarity of ourselves, the un-recognisability of our bodies, the mystery of the riddles to our deep unconscious.

If Art is escapism then Emin doesn’t set you free.

 

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