What Would Tracey Emin’s Bed Look Like Today?

Tracey Emin’s bed had condoms, vodka, contraceptive pills and period-stained tiny underwear, but what do our beds say about life as a 20-something in 2014? Photographs by Sophie Davidson


by Sophie Cullinane |
Published on

Sixteen years ago, Tracey Emin was in the midst of a nervous breakdown after a bad break-up. Unable to cope, she crawled into bed in her council flat in Waterloo and didn’t get out for four days.

The detritus of what she left behind when she finally came round – discarded period-stained kickers, empty vodka bottles, condoms, cigarettes – would become My Bed, a Turner Prize-shortlisted piece of art that has proved as divisive as it is infamous. (We’re still talking about it 16 years later, for one thing).


Charles Saatchi bought My Bed for £120,000 in 2001 and has owned it ever since. But last week, it was announced that he’s now planning to sell it through Christie’s auction house for an estimated £800,000-£1.2 million.

Emin describes it as ‘half like a crime scene’ and ‘everything about being a girl,’ and it certainly feels like a social artefact – a physical snapshot of one moment in Emin’s life. It’s not an overstatement to say it was also a physical snapshot of women at the time.

So 16 years on, what do our beds look like? And if we were to look back at that bed in another 16 years (that’s – gulp – 2030, people) what would it tell us about our lives, right now?

Well, for a start, the prospect of ever being able to lock ourselves away without any kind of human contact for days at a time seems laughable. Emin might have been able to go to ground for the best part of a week, but now there are a myriad of different ways that people can get in – be it on social media, with texts or Skype. And we’re not fighting it, with 63 per cent of 19-29 year olds admitting to going to sleep with a smart phone or tablet in their bed.

‘I actually find it difficult to fall asleep without having everything – a smart phone, a laptop and a tablet – nearby,’ explains 21-year-old fashion history and theory student Jihane Dyer. ‘I’m a light sleeper, so I can hear my phone vibrating with messages and emails all night – and I obviously find myself checking who they’re from and keeping myself awake – but I’d rather that than allow myself to feel totally cut off.’

Every single bed we photographed, however different, was characterised by a snaking tangle of chargers and wires leading underneath the duvet. Our beds have become communication centres. There seems to be some truth to that cringeworthy media adage that we are the generation of young women who are forever ‘switched on’ – even when we sleep.

Jihane Dyer, 21 year-old student ‘Everyone now keeps their phone, tablets and laptops in their beds’

And that’s not the only difference. For a start, Tracey was living in a council flat which, with a distinct lack of affordable, social housing available, would be a pretty unlikely living arrangement for a single young woman now.

More people now rent privately rather than from councils or housing associations and the number of people living in private rented accommodation has risen from 2.2million in 2002/03 to nearly 3.9million last year.

And those are the lucky ones – more than 25 per cent of young people now share a home with their parents. Even living on your own is a rarity – more people than ever are living in house shares into their thirties and forties.

Alice Conteh, 21 year-old student

What being part of ‘generation rent’ has meant, however, is that we’re much more accepting of our lot and as a result no longer see rental or council accommodation as a temporary fix.

Tracey’s bedroom was bare and minimalist with plain sheets and a grubby carpet. Probably, to hazard a guess, because she didn’t expect to be in that small council flat in Waterloo for long. But, resigned to their inability to get onto the property ladder any time soon, the women we spoke to treated their rental accommodation as more of a long-term prospect.

‘When I was at uni, I had hardly any furniture or decorations in my room because I thought I’d just be moving around and maybe buying a place of my own,’ explains 26-year-old producer Kate Whistle. ‘But I’ve been renting for years now and have no real prospect of getting on the property ladder, so now I want my room to be full of lovely things so I can make it my own.’

Let’s not also forget that we’re part of the Instagram generation. Even our beds are an extension of our own personal brand. ‘I make assumptions about people’s personality on the basis of how they keep their beds and bedrooms generally. It really says something about the person.’

Alexandra Wright, 27 year-old dancer, ‘I think a lot of women have abandoned traditional forms of contraception’

It’s also worth noting that the empty bottle of vodka by Tracey’s bed wasn’t replicated in any of the rooms we saw. It’s no surprise. Yes, Tracey was in the middle of an emotional breakdown, but she also came of age as a YBA in the 90’s, when ‘ladette’ culture was at its boom and drinking to excess was a badge of honour.

We saw weed, wine and even prosecco bottles, but we certainly didn’t find any hard liquor. This fits – statistics suggest that levels of drinking are decreasing among young people, even in comparison to women just a decade older.

‘Yeah we drink, but it’s also important to look like you’ve got your shit together,’ explains 26-year-old press officer Rachel Clive. ‘You can’t be seen by your work colleagues – who all have you on Facebook – being blind drunk and making a mess of yourself. It’s just not really seen to be as cool as it once was, despite the fact drinking to excess obviously does still go on.’

Even if we do still booze, our hangover cures certainly seem to have changed – where there was once Orangina by Tracey’s bed giving her that much-needed sugar hit, there is now a carton of coconut water.

Rebecca Eastman, 22 year-old intern

Tracey’s My Bed was controversial at the time because it included blood-stained, used condoms, but prophylactics of any description were conspicuous by their absence by the beds we photographed. Again it’s a sign of the times – a third of women now say they don’t use condoms because they ‘ruin the sensation’ and others view ‘going bareback’ as a badge of honour, so it seems like condoms really have become a thing of the past.

‘I think the priorities for young people have changed,’ explains 24-year-old accountant Sophie Amory. ‘People are more worried about preventing pregnancy than they are about preventing disease. People now seem to act now, test later. It’s silly, I know, but it’s how most of my friends are.’

Sophie Amory, 24 year-old accountant, ‘Maybe the boozing hasn’t changed, but our attitude towards it definitely has’

But then some things haven’t changed at all. ‘I’ve seen it dozens of times, but My Bed is still incredibly powerful to me because I’ve been there,’ explains Rachel Clive. ‘I know how Tracey felt when she got out of bed – that doom and anxiety without any real sense of direction of where she was going and what she was doing. She hid in that bed and it ended up saving her, what 20-something girl hasn’t wanted to do that at some point in her life? She’s right – the artwork is everything about being a girl.’

Jess Commons, 27 year-old editor

Love this? You might also be interested in:

Tracey Emin: Her Bed Was ‘Everything To Do With Being A Girl’

Housemate Auditions: The Hunger Games Of The Renting World

‘We're Too Skint To Drink’. One Reason Why Gen Y Is Going Teetotal

**Follow Sophie on Twitter [@sophiecullinane


This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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