For his first retrospective, the Scottish artist and musician Martin Creed took over the entire Hayward Gallery: the elevator, staircases, and all three terraces—even the toilets. He would like his art works to function like music—being nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Maybe that is why you either love or hate Martin Creed—like music, his work arouses inflamed debates.
If the works are songs, than the whole show is a gig: welcoming the spectators is a menacing spinning oversized neon sign spelling ‘Mothers’, encompassed by thirty-nine metronomes, ticking away into a perfect cacophony. The lights are going on and off (the controversial 2001 Turner Prize-winning work). A door is opening and closing; a car is bursting into action and a piano is slamming all on their own; there are even black heavy theatre curtains, mechanically animated of course. Not to mention the colourful wall paintings covering almost every wall of the gallery, forming a background set to the works themselves.
Martin Creed, Work no. 200, 1998, What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery, 2014 Installation view; photo Linda Nylind.
I was looking forward to his second most famous work: Work No. 200 Half the air in a given space (1998)—a room filled with balloons taking half of its space. Creed hates adding things to the world, and prefers to work with what already exists in the gallery. And what is more available than air? Entering the balloons room was described as a childlike lightness as well as claustrophobic, but it’s difficult to feel either of these when all you are trying to do is avoid the hairs that had stuck to the static-electricity-emanating-balloons.
Creeds repeated mantra is that he finds it difficult to make a decision, so he prefers to choose nothing or everything. That’s why he loves limitations, order and instructions. He is organising and arranging things – chairs, boxes, cactuses, and even dogs – from big to small, stacking some into his typical Ziggurats, which seem like contemporary versions of minimal sculptures. Similar to Matthew Barney’s famous Drawing Restraint series, Creed’s ‘blind paintings’ were painted without the artist seeing the outcome of his movements, and the ‘jumping up paintings’ were made, well, while jumping up to reach a canvas hanging high above.
But Creed is never choosing nothing, or everything. That would be impossible. A choice is always made from a very specific supply. The huge brick wall on the terrace, a special commission, consists of the eighty different kinds of bricks that the UK suppliers Wickes and Jewson had to offer (Work No. 1812, 2014). In his twenty-one monochrome paintings (Work No. 944, 2008), he bought all the coloured pens available in a store and made one drawing with each. These actions have an element of criticism of consumerism—often overlooked in his works.
Martin Creed, Work no. 1092, 2011, What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery, 2014 Installation view; photo Linda Nylind.
Creed is at his best when he turns from the universal, minimal, simple gestures into the contingent, political, site-specific and context-based art. His famous neon slogan ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’ is usually read as a mathematical formula ending in zero, meaning that art adds nothing to the world. But as a work originally installed at the facade of Tate Britain in the opening of the building, it seems more like an avant-garde-style declaration that there is no separation between art and life.
When exiting the show, you are not just passing through the gift shop, but also through the dark room where the infamous ‘sick and shit films’ are projected, showing people literally acting upon these titles in a white cube space. The ultimate artistic act, as Creed believes that making art is trying to face up to what comes out of you. Art is not nothing, art is not shit. It is a contingent, unexpected, inseparable, messy part of life—just like the dark hair sticking to the white balloons.
(Image on top: Martin Creed, Work no.1812, 2014 , What's the point of it, Installation view; © photo Linda Nylind / Courtesy Hayward Gallery)