Biography 24.1 (2001) 1-14
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The Rumpled Bed of Autobiography:
Extravagant Lives, Extravagant Questions
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson
Our plenary presentation was a slide-lecture drawn from the introduction to our forthcoming edited collection, Interfaces: Women's Visual and Performance Autobiography. We began the Interfaces project several years ago, in response to the remarkable outpouring of self-portraiture in contemporary painting, photography, artists' books, and mixed visual forms such as installations, collage, and quilting that marked the last two decades of autobiographical inquiry in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, and elsewhere. And both of us began using slides of visual self-portraits in autobiography courses to enliven discussion and dramatize difficult conceptual issues of self-representation. Interfaces focuses on women's self-representation, in part because the explosion of innovative work in visual and performance fields often illuminates in new ways the studies we have already done, collectively and individually, of women's autobiographical narratives. Too, some aspects of gendered self-presentation, such as embodiment, are explored and resolved in strikingly different terms in visual and performance media than in written narratives.
Because of pre-publication restrictions on material for Interfaces and permissions costs for artwork, it is not possible to reprint our conference lecture here. Instead, we have expanded on the discussion of a British performance artist, Tracey Emin, whose recent installation at the Tate Gallery in London both flaunts and troubles the question of autobiographical acts, probing the boundaries of "life" and art. Emin's work exemplifies several controversies about autobiography at this cultural moment, and raises provocative questions for both visual and verbal autobiographical narratives. But those questions are [End Page 1] not restricted to the space of the museum, gallery, or video screen, as our subsequent discussion of a recent American memoir, Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, will suggest. Through reading an installation and a memoir side by side as examples of experiments in autobiography at this cultural moment, we want to foreground the gendered politics and ethics of life writing at the edge, a topic that elicited many stimulating and suggestive papers at the conference.
Works such as Emin's and Eggers's, in dramatizing and flaunting autobiographical conventions, may well be at the outer limits of the practice of memoir. But they are important for autobiography scholars who wish to interrogate, as Leigh Gilmore's essay in this issue probingly does, the limits of autobiography at a time when "the rule" is breaking the rule. Hence this essay's title, with its suggestion that the procrustean bed of autobiography is now inescapably a rumpled one--much slept in; still warm, if soiled; and haunted by conspicuously absent bodies.
While Emin's performance piece evoked the metaphorics of the rumpled bed for us, the "bed" of autobiography has also been explored by Alison Donnell in a recent essay on women's contemporary autobiographical practices:
The explosion of criticism surrounding autobiography, and particularly women's autobiography, over the last twenty years, has demonstrated that as a genre autobiography can be likened to a restless and unmade bed; a site on which discursive, intellectual and political practices can be remade; a ruffled surface on which the traces of previous occupants can be uncovered and/or smoothed over; a place for secrets to be whispered and to be buried; a place for fun, desire and deep worry to be expressed. Many of the most influential women writers of the twentieth century have chosen to make this bed and some to lie in it too. (124)
Rumpled, unmade, at this contemporary moment the bed is a generative metaphor for approaching contemporary experiments in self-presentation that mix a grab-bag of autobiographical modes, tropes, and histories. Paradoxically, the autobiographical is a conspicuous staging arena for the public world, if one with a foot lingering in the intimate bed of the personal.
Tracey Emin's "My Bed" and Autobiographical Performance
In 1999 Tracey Emin, a young working-class British artist, was one of four finalists for the prestigious...