“I’m really scared that I’ll think it’s shit. That’s my ultimate fear with my work: what if I end up presenting this stuff that I myself don’t like?”by Hephzibah Anderson / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Martin Creed’s Work No. 1092: MOTHERS © LINDA NYLIND
When Martin Creed was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2001, it showed him something about himself that he’d rather not have seen. “What I hated was finding out how much I wanted to win,” he says. “Prizes are stupid but God, I was a desperate man!” It’s an uncharacteristic admission in some ways—Creed casts himself as an idiot savant rather than an ambitious hustler—but it is typically disarming. He is a master of the confessional interview.
It was a relatively strong field that year and the favourite was Mike Nelson, creator of eerie architectural installations assembled from everyday jetsam including magazines and furniture. Creed’s piece, Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, consisted of an empty room whose lights flick on and off at five-second intervals. Minimalist enough to mean everything and nothing, it was met with an outraged reaction from all the usual quarters. The Sun outdid itself, launching its own award, the Turnip Prize, and a painter named Jacqueline Crofton was banned from the Tate galleries for life after chucking eggs at the exhibit’s white walls.
Flash forward 13 years, and Work No. 227 is part of the Tate’s permanent collection, acquired for an estimated £110,000, while Creed himself is on his way to becoming a national treasure. Last year, he took part in the Cultural Olympiad, and January saw the opening of his first major retrospective, “What’s the point of it?”, at the Hayward Gallery. The exhibition contains more than 160 works, from sculpture and painting to video and neon. Not content to stick within the confines of the gallery’s five rooms, Creed has spilled out onto the terraces and into the Southbank Centre’s performance spaces with a ballet, a gig played with his band, and the premiere of a composition for the Royal Festival Hall’s newly restored organ. There’s an album, too. And of course, there is full-frontal male nudity, vomiting and defecation.
Despite its sprawl, Creed has created an immersive, cohesive experience. It’s also daft, repetitive, derivative. To quote one of Creed’s detractors, Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times, “walking through this show is like walking through the past 25 years of art magazines, spotting the references: Carl Andre’s word poems; Tony Cragg’s stacks; Rebecca Horn’s pianos; Tracey Emin’s neon signs; Kurt Schwitters’s bad portraits; Jeff Koons’s basketballs; Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings; Andy Warhol’s cardboard boxes.” To that list can be added Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman and John Cage. Inevitably for a fashionable contemporary art show, the shadow of Marcel Duchamp also looms.
Yet at the same time, there is something undeniably zestful about the show. Its brightness and noise and good-humour are an appealing seasonal tonic—a respite, too, from some of the art world’s more ponderous practitioners. Read enough convoluted mission statements by artists, and Creed’s literalness begins to feel refreshing. For Germaine Greer, Creed is the quintessence of an egoless artist. Other admirers include everyone from Colm Toibin to Barry Humphries. For critic Paul Morley, he is “a model artist who never stops experimenting.” According to American academic Lori Waxman, “His art is not allegory, not metaphor, not critique. It is tautology.” As for Creed, he says he’s just trying to make himself feel better. So which is he? Genius, chancer or irreverent jester? Just what is the point of Martin Creed?
To interview Creed is to collaborate in a piece of performance art. During all our interviews, the voice recorder on his Blackberry blinked alongside my dictaphone. It’s less about paranoia—he apparently stopped reading his press a year ago—than the need to keep vocal notes lest he hits upon a worthwhile idea as he chats.
It was early January when we first met. He’d begun installing the Hayward exhibition two days earlier and the gallery was in chaos. It had taken 18 months of planning to arrive at this point but there was still nothing to see, so instead we sat in a mirrorlined dressing room in the upper reaches of the Royal Festival Hall. Creed was dressed carefully in grey flannel trousers with leather turn-ups and a satiny black trench coat, belted, though it wasn’t cold indoors. His hair, a wiry grey, is long enough to be tied back and clipped, not altogether effectively, with a Kirby grip.
“I’m really scared that I’ll think it’s shit,” he told me almost immediately. “That’s my ultimate fear with my work: what if I end up presenting this stuff that I myself don’t like?” He laughed a laugh that belonged in a cartoon bubble, a clearly enunciated “haha- ha.” Thanks to the mirrors, his head bounced round the walls. Light came from rows of chubby, theatrical bulbs.
Martin Creed: Works, a near-encyclopaedic survey of his output up until 2010, includes the transcript of an interview session in which he was quizzed by art-world worthies like gallerist Alison Jacques and artist Jeremy Deller. When Deller asks, “What makes you laugh?” his response is typical: “(Laughs)… erm… oh God!… lots of things… (Laughs)… er… och!… it’s too difficult a question… erm… I dunno… it’s difficult to say… you know… lots of things… I’ve laughed quite a lot today… (Laughs)…”
The transcript from my own time with him looks similar. His speech is filled with ums and ers, each sentence attempted over and over as he interrupts himself or else peters into silence. Certain words, “world” being one of them, he draws out, stretching it to three syllables with an extravagently rolled “r” and a walloped “d,” as if he were filling it with wonder: “wo-rl-d.” It confers a bluff naiveté that’s enhanced by a Scottish accent unadulterated by his decades of southern living.
Since the early 1990s, he has numbered all his artworks. He began with number 3, and today he is nearing 2000, though he’s purposefully skipped a few digits along the way. Everything he considers a work receives a number, be it a self-portrait or a performance. Sometimes a work receives a title, too, which tends to double as its description. Number 158, for instance, is, Something on the left, just as you come in, not too high or low. It is, of course, hung just as you enter the exhibition.
He resists the words art and artists. “I am trying to do things I find exciting. You know, that make my life better,” he told me. “But that definitely involves other people, and that includes wanting to be loved, and finding it exciting to meet people. Also, I must get a kick out of putting things in front of people, or whatever, in my exhibitions, or whatever you want to call it.”
He’s also fond of waxing philosophical on the blindingly obvious, from the futility of forward planning (“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future so how can you really prepare for it?”) to vomit (“Vomiting is a good example of trying to get something from the inside out”). Is he being wilfully obtuse? Ineptitude has so often masqueraded as knowingness in the contemporary art scene, it’s hard to be certain. Apropos the show’s title, “What’s the point of it?”, he readily acknowledges that he doesn’t know the answer, he just likes asking the question.
Creed was born in Wakefield in 1968. When he was three, the family moved to Scotland where his father, a silversmith, taught at the Glasgow School of Art. His mother is German and he and his older brother were raised as Quakers. On his mother’s side, a procession of preachers and pastors marches back through the generations, but his paternal grandmother was a concert pianist. “I grew up with the idea that art and music were the highest pursuits that you could do.”
The family didn’t own a television until Creed was 12. Instead, his was a childhood of music lessons, books and trips to art galleries on the continent. But Creed was not an awkward outsider at school. He played football and rugby until he was 15, when he renounced athletic pursuits to “do art and literature and all that.” He read poetry and discovered a love of James Joyce. “It wasn’t exactly Goth but yeah, it was long coats and big hair,” he told me. It was, after all, the 1980s.
In 1986, Creed went directly from secondary school to the Slade School of Fine Art, bearing a typical sixth-former’s portfolio of landscapes and still lifes. “Looking back at it now I just think, fuck, I was so young, but at the time I was desperate to get away from home in order to be myself. Scotland was my tribe but I used to suffer because I’d think, ‘Oh, but everyone’s just like me, I don’t have an identity.’”
Sitting in a life drawing class a few months after arriving at the Slade, he found himself feeling “uneasy.” In other studios, students were “throwing baked beans at the wall and just having a laugh.” This appealed, so he moved out of the life classes and joined a studio run by Tess Jaray, an abstract painter and printmaker who became a surrogate parent for the rest of his time there. After graduation, he even worked as her assistant.
Those first years out of college he spent “dodging and weaving,” on—mainly—and off the dole. He does recall selling a piece of work from his first group exhibition in London, an installation of masking tape cubes bought for a corporate building, each one made up of hundreds of layers of tape, similar to Work No. 67: As many 1” squares as are necessary cut from 1” masking tape and piled up, adhesive sides down, to form a 1” cubic stack, on show at the Hayward. It took almost a decade for him to feel as though he was getting anywhere, and all the while, artists he’d met as a student were finding a splashy kind of fame: Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst. “That really helped people like me,” he said of the YBAs, onto whose coattails he was eventually able to grab. “In those years you could be in shows in the whole world just because you were a British artist.”
One of the challenges with Creed’s retrospective at the Hayward is structure. You expect even a mid-career retrospective to tell a story and, as curator Cliff Lauson explained to me, “There’s not an overarching narrative to his career. It’s not as though there will be a room of early work and then his blue period or something like that.” In its place was the imperative to present every kind of work Creed has done. The aim was to make each room feel as dynamic as the next, said Lauson.
It was day 10 of the installation, still almost two weeks from opening night, and Lauson was stood in the lower galleries, in front of a table cluttered with glass cleaner, superglue and a plastic tub containing all the Lego blocks required for the tower that is Work No. 792. The most interesting aspect of Creed’s practice, said Lauson, is “just how un-categorisable it is. He’s a boundless artist in a way.”
I looked around. Some of Creed’s work was so difficult to categorise it had to be labelled “Artwork, do not remove!” The gallery had the feel of a giant warehouse, its floors strewn with crates, discarded packaging and snaking electrical cables. The lighting was dim and some areas were fenced off by cats-cradles of tape striped red and white like candy cane. Through this strange terrain, the specially trained art handlers moved, speaking in hushed voices, punctuated now and then by gentle hammering or the whir of an electric screwdriver. All were wearing disposable blue plastic gloves of the kind encountered at the dentist.
Many of the works in this exhibition were executed on site. Earlier, at the private entrance, I’d signed in below the artist himself. For name, company and person visiting, he’d written his name in insistent upper-case triplicate: CREED, CREED, CREED. Now he was pacing the lower galleries in his black trench, hands jammed in his pockets and a Margitte-like bowler hat on his head, three men with paint rollers had been at work in the upper galleries since 10am, covering an entire wall in red diamond shapes.
Of course, some of these works exist in the world in a more permanent fashion. Work No. 1000, the multiple, multi-coloured broccoli prints, already filled one wall in a neat grid. The gigantic neon MOTHERS sign was in place, too. Mounted on a steel beam, the piece rotates just above head height when switched on.
Other pieces had yet to be unpacked, and paper copies hung as placeholders. The difference wasn’t always obvious, as with the to-scale printout of a photograph of Work No. 384: A sheet of paper folded up and unfolded. Elsewhere, it was clearer. Tacked to a far wall, the monochrome command “DON’T WORRY” awaited replacement by its glowing neon original. It wasn’t advice that Creed himself was heeding. “Aye, I know,” he said tensely to a handler. “If the tables were here… Aye, maybe we shouldn’t rush.”
It had been a decade or more since he’d seen some of the works. “I feel like a goldfish,” he’d said back in the dressing room, explaining his worry about reencountering old pieces. “A lot of these works, I don’t live with the reality of them, I only live with the factual knowledge, so seeing things in reality…” he trailed off. Each piece, he believes, is “a thing which you project on to. What you put into the work isn’t necessarily in the work.”
For Creed, it often starts with words. His notebook contains few sketches, unless he’s contemplating a piece of music, in which case he’ll jot down ideas as diagrams. “I’m trying to narrow things down,” he said, “to take away the bullshit or whatever isn’t needed, to try and keep it simple. Sometimes I think that the process of trying to make the work maybe is the work, and maybe the story of the trying and the failing and then trying something else is more exciting, more pleasurable or enjoyable to look at than the actual finished work.”
This is why he turned to music. “I felt that the sculptures I was making failed. What I put into them was nothing like what people got out of them. If you listen to a piece of music being played, you are listening to it being made.” His aim, he says, is to make work that “has the process in it.” Like the so-called blind paintings, that he does working with the paper beneath the table on his lap, hidden from his own eyes. Or his portraits that involve pinning the paper high on the wall so that, tall as he is, he has to jump to reach it.
To some, Creed’s art is a little too easy, too lacking in hard-won craft. But for Creed, anything can be art. He’s a fundamentalist egalitarian and is scornful of galleries—“ special theatres designed for looking at things.” One particular dislike, he told me when we next spoke, the day before the show opened, is work hung at a level that makes people look up and thus feel small. Yet his credo overlooks the fact that ambitious, audacious art does quite the opposite. When we look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we are uplifted—it’s sublime, transcendent. Our awe is ennobling.
Almost a fortnight had passed since my last visit and the space was transformed. The spinning MOTHERS sign revolved through the air with a low whoosh. The red diamonds extended across two walls now. There was a sense of excitement and expectation. From the middle of the lower galleries, Creed surveyed the almost-complete exhibition. Not untouched by the changed atmosphere, he’d traded his black mac for a woollen biker jacket in cherry-red plaid. “I am or have been very excited about it,” he said, “but as it’s got closer to the opening I’ve just got more of a manic kind of fear and I’m tired and can’t think clearly. But I think probably behind that is just a huge fear and desire for approval or something like that. It’s just like doing an exam at school basically.”
There is more than something of the overgrown schoolboy about him. The FT’s Peter Aspden picked up on it in his response to Work No. 245: All of the bells in a city or town rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes, Creed’s contribution to last year’s Olympics celebrations. “Nothing better symbolises the infantilism that seems to have afflicted the contemporary art world,” he wrote. “It is the idea on the back of an envelope ennobled to resemble something meaningful.”
Yet that same quality infuses Creed’s work with a mischievous glee, a whimsical lightness of touch. While a piece like Work No. 79: Some Blu-Tak kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall seems childish, Work No. 592, a composition for harmonica and elevator, played inside a lift, seems childlike. Emblazoned on a banner outside, the show’s title—a manifestation of heavy-handed existential gloom in the hands of a different artist—is swamped by the sheer pinkness of its background.
Does he feel the public gets his work? “I don’t think that there is anything to get,” he said. “To me, the important thing to say about the work is that it’s for people and therefore it’s a background to people, you know? People are the most important thing. I think the wall paintings, for example, are a good background for people. It’s a nice place to be photographed.”
If you approach Creed’s work in the right mood—as decoration, as entertainment—you’ll find plenty to beguile. What you won’t find is anything that feels lingeringly dangerous or disturbing. As for x-rated material, it’s fleetingly interesting to watch people watching videos of actors walking onto white sets and vomiting or defecating, but otherwise the experience is as dull as waiting for a bus. After the vomiting/defecating, you step directly into the gift shop with its display of one-off T-shirts, hand-painted by Creed’s assistants. £50 each, machine washable at a low temperature.
Creed’s popularity is a reflection of what we’ve come to expect from contemporary art. He is a figurehead for our lowered expectations, a man who talks of “doing” rather than “making” art, who has an office rather than a studio, and who forgets that process is only valuable if the end results are sufficiently compelling. A century has passed since Duchamp declared that anything could be art, and Creed’s own particular brand feels like conservatism masquerading as radicalism. Aesthetically, it has a pleasing if limited neatness, but intellectually, it’s arid. Diverting though it still can be, this retrospective illuminates the hollowness of his work.
Creed’s practice arose out of a rebellion against the Slade’s traditionalism. Almost three decades later, his way has become the establishment’s. So if he were an art student today, what would he be doing?
“I did art as a subject because I thought it was the field where I could pretty much do what I wanted,” he told me. “But it’s funny, aye, I went to art school and did life drawing and I’ve got back to life drawing now.” Of course, he has a rationale for it—something to do with it being a kind of performance because there are onlookers— but how subversive it would be if he were simply enjoying the forgotten pleasure of capturing another person on the page using only a good eye and a steady hand.
Two days after opening night, a handful of the paying public meandered through the exhibition’s rooms. A mother was telling her small child not to step through Work No. 129: A door opening and closing. “Don’t go in there, that’s art,” she said. The child’s father bent down and asked her why she thought the door was opening. Corinna, a painter in her sixties, had some ideas. “I think he’s just trying to disturb your positioning, to make you think about where you are,” she told me. She had been a fan since his solo exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre in 2000. “There’s some great jokes, too. Tiny ones,” she added.
Others seemed to agree with her about the tiny jokes. I heard no laughter but did see some half-smiles. There appeared to be more talk between the guards and the public than usual, too, and not just demands to put cameras away (so much for Creed’s hope that the show become a giant photo booth). A man in a wheelchair rolled up to a piano that the guards take it in turn to play—Work No. 736—and quizzed the guard on duty about his performance, wanting to know if he found the notes stuck in his head at night. Did he take requests, someone else wondered.
The atmosphere that afternoon was one of mildly curious amusement, a readiness to be charmed. Or at least to play along, and that included trotting out jokes of their own. After contemplating Work No. 1806, a wall prettified with vertical strips of different kinds of gaffer tape, a woman turned to her teenage daughter. “Do you think that would work in our living room?” Wallpaper. It’s surely the highest compliment for a man who likes to think of his work as “a background for people.”