Eleven months ago, Martin Creed started a year-long residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) bringing monthly creative interventions to the non-gallery spaces in and around the building. During this time, work on display by Creed, cohesively called “Martin Creed Plays Chicago,” has ranged from the hard-to-miss neon marquis Work No. 1357 (MOTHERS) spinning in the museum’s front plaza, to a brand new four-track record by Creed and his band, CHICAGO (Work No.1370). The residency gave Creed’s faceted practice a lot of exposure by positioning old work in new contexts of the museum and the city, and bringing more recent work, like his ballet, to new audiences. As Creed's residency in Chicago comes to an end, it's a good time to reflect on his diversity of media and his unique brand of conceptualism that consistently challenges artistic hierarchies and traditions and explores his own playful curiosities about universal human actions and emotions.
Work No. 1020 (Ballet,) choreographed by Creed in 2009, was a culminating piece of Creed's work in Chicago, making its US debut at the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater with dancers from the original Sadler Wells production. Poised between his band and the five dancers, Creed begins a nervous-seeming monologue, part stream of consciousness, part poetry, by telling the audience, “I don't know how to start. I don’t like to start. When you start, all potential is lost.” As he paces around the stage gesturing, sometimes wildly, the five dancers mimic his movements in succession. It’s an old game that can be found in Youtube videos of his lectures and performances of the past, but this comedic self-examination, made more exaggerated by the waves of gestural tics from the line of copycat dancers, is even funnier live, where Creed’s offbeat charm really shines through.
Moving to a piano on the side of the stage, Creed breaks down the thought process behind choreographing a ballet reduced to the five basic positions created by master dancer Pierre Beauchamp in late 17th century France. Without art objects, or “things,” as Creed calls them, all that’s left behind is the movement and noise humans make. He plunks notes on the piano to correspond with each position, and the dancers move like marionettes to illustrate the elementary concept to the audience. Somehow hops and splits find their way into the dancing over the next hour and a half, diverging from the five positions, and the music moves into melodic, lo-fi punk tunes by Creed and his band, spread across the stage in a diagonal line. Playing a counting song, an alphabet song, and several love songs, most from his album Love to You, Creed’s voice adds a syrupy tier to the staccato chords, drum beats and the movements of the dancers.
Martin Creed, Work No. 1190, Half the air in a given space, 2011. Installation view, Hyde Park Art Center, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York, Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
During a particularly grating song, a strobe light effect freezes the dancers’ motions, possibly referencing Creed’s controversial Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227: The Lights Going On And Off from 2001, where he received one of the contemporary art world’s most prestigious prizes for flicking a light switch on and off in an empty room. The ballet's visuals also include screenshots of numbers, words and letters, and excerpts from Creed's films, including the aptly titled Shit Film (2009), where a girl enters a white room, lifts her dress and makes what Creed has described as “the first sculpture.”
The same fascination with reduced, formalist aesthetics and demonstrations of incremental order found in Creed’s ballet is all over his other residency works, including stacked sculptures made from boxes (Work No. 916) and Legos (Work No. 792), household nails (Work No. 1355) and cacti ordered by size (Work No. 960), geometric wall paintings in the MCA’s atrium and café (Work No. 798, Work No. 1349, Work No. 1351) and Half the air in a given space, balloon installations in public places like Chicago’s historic Water Tower and Garfield Park Conservatory (Work No. 204, Work No. 210, Work No. 268 and Work No. 1190). The repetition of these themes might be the least appealing thing about Creed’s work, but on stage it’s less maddening and more entertaining in part because of the naturally insistent, incremental nature of dance and music.
Martin Creed, Work No. 1020, 2009. Shown in performance at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK, 2011 Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York.
Calling Work No. 1020 a ballet is a technicality. The piece is more of a “best of” Martin Creed mixtape, set to his contemporary take on classical choreography. Stripped down and compact, Creed’s music is usually simple but always smart and catchy, and it carries the rest of his work through the layered mess it becomes on stage. Nursery rhyme-like wordplay is a favorite in Creed’s lyrics, for example, “from none take one add one make none,” and the similarly formulaic, but more sweetly crooned, “I’m the one for you/I’m your two.” Musically, none of it strays from what characterizes the best of Creed's work: playfulness and restraint. Respecting Creed’s refusal to see strict divisions between his many practices, “Martin Creed Plays Chicago” allows a colorful lullaby to the emotional self (“I’m feeling scarlet/I’m feeling loose/I’m feeling maroon/I’m feeling puce”) to feel as monumental as the large-scale neon sculpture outside of the museum.
(Image on top: Martin Creed, Work No. 1357, MOTHERS, 2012, Installation view; Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York. Installation view, Martin Creed Plays Chicago, MCA Chicago Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.)