once defiled, denounced and degraded, where does the bed lie in photography today?
Ahead of her upcoming exhibition, Pillow Talk, at London's Palm Tree Gallery, art curator and Girls Only founder Antonia Marsh examines of the politics of the bedroom as a space within art.
"Bed becomes a forum in which struggles in a relationship are defused or intensified. Sex isn't about performance; it's about a certain kind of communication founded on trust and exposure and vulnerability that can't be expressed any other way… Sex becomes a microcosm of the relationship, the battleground, an exorcism." Nan Goldin,1986
This statement comes from Goldin's ceaselessly influential book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which visually chronicles the search for intimacy amongst her group of friends and acquaintances during the late 70s and early 80s in New York. In Goldin's photographs, her subjects perch forlornly on the edge of their beds, staring into the sunlight that peeks through the blinds at them. They lie naked, hands between their legs, surrounded by dirty sheets and old notebooks. They sleep, embrace, fight, confront, display, watch, fuck, cower, listen, read, talk, play, smoke, relax, stretch, think, regret, project, shoot up, cry, and kiss. For Goldin, this plethora of daily and nightly activities, both physical and psychological, are presented as one single dance of fluid communication and emotion between individuals. Out of Ballad's 127 images, 50 were shot in the bedroom, a place where the most personal of human activities and emotions play out; as a photographer of intimacy, this arena became one of her most productive and rewarding spaces to shoot in.
The bed has long been employed as a symbol in art history, it's been used to represent innocence, desire, love, madness and death, reaching from Madonnas swathed in the virtuoso draperies of Renaissance frescoes and languid pre-Raphaelite figures falling off their berths, to swirling Impressionist strokes of dark paint revealing an even darker mindset. And no report on the bed as a motif would feel complete without a mention of Tracey Emin's seminal defiled 1998 installation, where the putrid representation of a self-portrait of the artist stood proudly and self-consciously in the Tate.
Before her, in 1972, Stephen Shore's American Surfaces saw brightly coloured but dirty motel room beds maintain a pictorial hierarchical equality with his portraits of television sets, friends, meals and signage, while Daido Moriyama's monochromatic full-bleed images of the same subject across the globe in the Tokyo underbelly of the 80s and 90s coat the pages of his books in heavily contrasted thick photographic grain, allowing the darkness of his content to become textural. In contrast, Ted Spagna's lifelong self-inflicted and semi-scientific assignment to study human relationships based on their sleeping patterns using stop-motion photography from the ceilings of couples' bedrooms, conveys a totally subconscious and involuntary intimacy to the viewer. Similarly, Tammy Rae Carland's 2002 Lesbian Beds seeks to display the familiar creases left behind in the morning regardless of sexual orientation precisely in the absence of their authors.
One particularly recognisable and reposted image, Juergen Teller's photograph of a snoozy Kate Moss with unusually greasy pink hair and badly bleached roots poking out from the crispest of white sheets, has been stuck, un-stuck and re-stuck on the wall of every flat I've inhabited over the past decade. There's an irresistible playfulness in this photograph: we are privy to a cheeky grin that perhaps we don'tknow Moss best for, and this insight into sitter-photographer relationship, this level of intimacy, solely afforded by their location in the bedroom, is attractive. The voyeur wonders where are they? whose bed is this? is she naked? are they sleeping together? are they just friends?
But what is it about the bed that time and again draws the artist to immortalise the characters it hosts and the scenarios it provokes between its sheets?
In Pillow Talk, a new exhibition featuring the work of 24 young photographers and one visual artist, the cornucopia of physical and emotional activity that takes place in the bedroom is chronicled, considered and celebrated afresh. Both photographer and subject(s) are brought together in this sacred arena, and it affects both one and the other. "I've always found the bed to be a space that reveals the most honest side of those I'm close to, something I strive to capture within all of my work," says Sam Hiscox, whose image shows his unaware girlfriend Skyping her best friend in Australia, in her knickers.
At the heart of Pillow Talk is the bed as a personal space: whether impressions made by figures as if portraits suggested by their missing subjects, messy still lives accidentally created by tousled sheets, intimate studies of friends, lovers or other couples, candid snapshots of sexual activity, or the documentation of seedy hotel rooms; these images remain mysteriously voyeuristic in their representation of a space so irrevocably private and sacred. As Goldin wrote, a bed can symbolise a vivid cross-section of the state of your life and mind, or it can present an arena where hidden truths or more obvious chasms in your relationship become apparent. There is no space more private, more intimate or more concealed from the outside world.
For Marcel Castenmiller, whose often heartbreaking photographs of his last relationship provide nostalgic fodder for anyone who has loved and lost, "As a photographer I would see the bed as it's own individual location. There is the bedroom and then there is the bed. When someone is on or in a bed it almost seems as if the world around them becomes a blur, like floating on a life raft in the middle of a foggy ocean." But now we live in a culture wrapped up in the entrails of social media, what were once gloriously hallowed private spaces, have now become insatiably public. Have incessant selfies pushed the bed into an equally commodifiable studio space for our own smartphone photography projects?
What Pillow Talk instead proposes is the bed as a space of psychodrama. As Pillow Talk contributor Jono White insists, "A bed becomes an imprint of a photographer or his/her subject's raw personality." Jono White explains, "People's cleanliness, tastes, hygiene, etc. can all be laid out for everyone to see." The rawness and honesty with which these photographers lay out the intimacies of everyday life cannot be found with a quick scroll through a feed, or beneath an Instagram filter. The tension, grit and candour that permeates these images remain sacred in this magical zone of sleep, dreams and sex and offer the viewer an insight into their own lives, mirroring interactions they are able to relate to themselves. As Danish photographer Fryd Frydendahl explains, "The bed can be a place of comfort but also a place of sadness because of its vulnerability." What can be found in these images, is a safe space where we each lose control in a colourful display of closeness, honesty, personality, pain, love, anxiety and affection that is unparalleled in any other room of the house: one of our last private domains.
Pillow Talk opens at Palm Tree Gallery from February 11
Text Antonia Marsh
Images courtesy the photographers