Preview: Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus

Working centuries apart, artists William Blake and Tracy Emin had more in common than you might imagine, as a new Liverpool exhibition reveals

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Seventeen years after it was first shown in Britain, Tracey Emin’s My Bed has lost none of its ability to shock or provoke debate.

“Every time that I go into the gallery there’s always around 20 or 30 people just standing there talking about it,” says Darren Pih, exhibitions and displays curator at Tate Liverpool, where Emin’s best known work is currently on display – the first time that it has ever been exhibited in the north of England. “Whatever you think of Tracey Emin and her work, it will trigger a response and generate conversation, and that’s exactly what we’ve found here.”

Created in 1998 following the traumatic breakdown of a relationship, My Bed famously consists of Emin’s unmade real-life bed at the time, complete with soiled sheets and surrounded by used condoms, dirty underwear and empty bottles of vodka. Nominated for the Turner Prize the following year, it caused an instant media frenzy, polarising opinion over its artistic integrity, elevating Emin – who has two pieces of work on permanent display at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral – to a household name, and even provoking an “outraged” mother of three from Swansea to drive 200 miles to London and attempt to clean it up.

“If you believe in artistic honesty and think of My Bed as being an unflinching and absolutely unflattering self-portrait, it’s a very sincere piece of work and a very brave piece of work,” believes Pih, who has sought to contextualise the work by juxtaposing it with a series of paintings and drawings by visionary 18th century poet and artist William Blake.

On paper, the two artists appear to have little in common but, while Blake and Emin worked centuries apart in contrasting styles, Pih says they share several important attributes that lend their work a powerful duality that is enhanced when placed side by side.

“There’s something very uncompromising about the two artists. Like Emin, Blake was somebody who was very controversial in his time and was regarded as being mad, in fact. He wasn’t orthodox. His work also uses themes and ideas of nakedness – these nightmarish visions that comment on identity and that can be interpreted within the context of the life cycle and menstruation.”

Despite living in drastically different times, Emin and Blake’s art also shares a strong sense of spirituality, with both artists unafraid to confront hypocrisy and taboo subjects in their unwavering quest for personal expression, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassed it makes audiences feel.

“It’s limiting to just try to make sense of a work based on the time in which it was made. If you open up the potential meaning of Tracey Emin’s work to something more historical and think about the symbol of the bed as this most intimate private space – a space that we all retreat to for respite – that embodies these spiritual themes of the transience of life and nakedness and nightmarish qualities, new meanings emerge. Audiences have responded really positively to this show.”

So will Emin, like Blake, still be remembered in hundreds of years’ time? “I think so,” says Pih. “If you look at her expanded practice, she’s a sculptor. She’s a painter. She’s a writer. She’s a filmmaker. She’s a great figurative artist. There’s something about using the body as a source of knowledge, which goes back to performance art in the 1960s, that makes her and her work highly interesting.”
Tracey Emin and William Blake: In Focus is at Tate Liverpool until 3 September 2017

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