Bedtime story: Tracey Emin faces questions about her notorious sheets


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An Oxford academic’s claim that Tracey Emin never slept in her famous and extremely valuable bed has revived the debate about what is “real” in art – whether a work of art is anything other than what the artist wants it to be.

When My Bed was sold at Christie’s earlier this year to an anonymous buyer for £2.55m, it was marketed as the artist’s “real, wooden bed”. Emin herself has always said the twisted sheets were the end result of four days spent there, after a relationship broke down.

However, Professor Martin Kemp says the folds in the sheets do not reflect the contours of the human body, the pillows do not look slept on, while the organic detritus supposedly left on the sheets, including faeces and vomit, would be “a nightmare” to conserve. At the very least, they would give off a distinct whiff. By way of response, Emin has conceded that the bed has “gone through many transformations” from having been reassembled so often. In a sense, questions over whether she slept in these sheets do not affect the integrity of her creation. They are what she perceives them to be, so My Bed is indeed her bed. At the same time, some of the people who have queued to see this bed are bound to feel a tinge of disappointment. A fuzzy yearning for authenticity and uniqueness is ingrained in human nature. We want Whistler’s portrait of his mother to be his actual mother, not a mother-like figure.

There are parallels here in the debate among religious people over the Turin Shroud. The church authorities are always careful to say that the chief value of this sheet lies in what it signifies, but many ordinary believers would say to hell with the significance – was Jesus buried in it or not? Perhaps Emin should clear up any arguments over the “reality” of her bed by sleeping in the sheets all over again.