Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 [The Tent] by Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin

Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 [The Tent], 1995; destroyed 2004, Appliqued tent, mattress, and light, Formerly owned by Charles Saatchi; destroyed in Momart warehouse fire, 2004, All rights reserved DACS / Artimage, London and ARS, NY 2018. Image courtesy White Cube

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A Tent of Meetings

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Sheona Beaumont

Tracey Emin’s tent rose to public prominence at the height of the Young British Artists movement in the mid-1990s, being included in the Royal Academy’s 1997 Sensation exhibition. Featuring the names of family members, lovers, and friends (and two numbers to represent two foetuses) sewn in patchwork in the lining of the tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With was received with a mixture of ridicule and disgust.

Leviticus 15’s stipulations for bodily cleanness concern situations of intimacy between men and women. Emin’s tent examines the realness and messiness of close living. Both the biblical text and the artwork have generated polarized responses centred wholly on sex. Yet in fact both are also concerned with bodily functions and relationships that are non-sexual. Emin explores companionship with another when pregnant or simply asleep; the text attends to genital discharge in general, not just in sex, making the quest for a pure relationship before God its key concern (and opposing the cult of fertility prevalent in Israel’s neighbouring cultures).

In both text and artwork, the value of intimacy is preserved, together with its detail. Leviticus 15’s washing of body, clothes, and furniture after contamination, the point-by-point counting of days and hours, and the sacrificial presentation at ‘the door to the tent of meeting’ (vv.14, 29) hold a fabric of reconciliation in view—among people and between people and God. In much the same way, Emin’s material lettering, stitching, and the tent-form itself, convey a circumscribed wholeness, and suggest an attempt at reconciliation with her past, in a space with resonances of sanctity.

Our initial moral instincts might want to contrast biblical proscription (Bird 2015: 151) with artistic exhibitionism. Divine commands seem like arbitrary and inhuman impositions; Emin’s feminism nothing but their defiant ‘correction’. And of course, the Mosaic Law’s radical new standard of relationship—holiness—between the Israelites and their God contrasts with Emin’s human reach for a human bridge across gender, age, and non-sexual/sexual categories. But this would miss the remarkable intimation of the divine that is discernible in both. Together, they might lead us to renewed consideration of the theological horizon of human living itself.

 

References

Bird, Phyllis A. 2015. ‘The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation Concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions’, in Faith, Feminism, and the Forum of Scripture: Essays on Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics (Eugene: Cascade Books), pp. 127–62