Martin Creed At The Hayward Gallery
“I already thought things change depending on where you exhibit them, but the extent to which that takes place is, to me, almost laughable. The extent to which it doesn’t feel like the same … it is physically the same object, but it feels like one little thing in this bigger work, which is the show.”
The show is big. A serious retrospective, it spans the quarter century of Martin Creed’s career. Hayward Gallery has a rep for staging immersive, blockbuster – some might say crowd-pleasing – shows.
On the face of it, Creed’s retrospective, What’s the point of it?, slots neatly into a programme of exhibitions that has seen an interactive recreation of an artist’s bedroom (in Jeremy Deller’s mid-career retrospective), hallucinatory and boundary- pushing video art (in Pipilotti Rist’s 2011 exhibition Eyeball Massage) and last year’s wildly successful Light Show, the second most-visited in Hayward’s history.
Some of Creed’s works do conform to the physicality – novelty, almost – that has come to signify a type of contemporary art exhibition; one is greeted, on entry, by the colossal and intimidating Work 1092: Mothers. Elsewhere, on one of the numerous sculpture terraces, a car spontaneously goes from a state of inertia to a blaring, honking machine, without a driver (Work No. 1686). The real ‘money- shot’ (or maybe that’s ‘value-for-money- shot’) is Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space, which sees half the air in a part of one of the upper galleries given physical volume in the form of many white balloons, through which visitors are invited to wade and stumble.
These works are here, drawing crowds, but they do not constitute the entire breadth of the exhibition. It offers much more; it attempts a comprehensive look at the oeuvre of one of the most important artists working today.
Creed’s concerns are reassuringly human. The art he makes is often ordered, or systematised. Indeed, all of his works are named numerically, in order of their creation (starting with number 3). The systems extend to self-imposed rules, consciously applied by the artist: “I think rules are more or less like a framework,” he tells us, on the top floor of the Royal Festival Hall, “like, the rules of football are a framework that enable the players to express themselves in a contained way. If the rules weren’t there, they’d just take the ball – I guess like football used to be – and bloody run home with it, or whatever.” Knowledge of these rules or frameworks also allows us, as the audience, a way in to some of Creed’s less explicit works. “If there are rules in the work it’s only to help, it’s got a functional role, like to help the presentation of the work or something like that.” The audience, then, is kept in mind? “Aye, because the audience and me are like two sides of the same coin; it’s for everyone’s benefit.”
This attitude reflects the generosity of Creed’s practice; though superficially minimal (the exhibition guide cites 60s minimalism as a key influence to the young artist), he rejects the term ‘conceptual art’. Certainly, the cold associations many have with the ‘conceptual’ are dissipated by the warmth of Creed’s works.
Throughout the Hayward show the audience is offered a kind of solace; comfort, almost. “Don’t Worry”, says one large neon light piece (Work 890: DON’T WORRY). Easier said, though, than done. Acid-yellow neon is not necessarily the most reassuring medium. But then ‘Don’t Worry’ is a platitude; to be told it is to be told nothing. Besides, Creed’s attitude to comfort is conflicted: “In my experience the realisation or experience of comfort is often accompanied by a kind of safety, which segues into boredom – things being the same, boring, dead. Watching TV with a cup of tea next to you, plate of biscuits, you know?” Creed contradicts himself with this – one of the first works in the exhibition is a sofa – but contradictions are rife in Creed’s practice. Besides, he acknowledges the appeal of tea-and-biscuit comfort: “Life is often a tussle between wanting comfort and feeling like that’s a sort of dead end.”
Creed’s contradictions are symptomatic of a larger motif of dualities that flow throughout the retrospective. Really, contradiction seems like too negative a word to describe the push-pull, on-off forces alluded to or literally manifested. An inability, or unwillingness, to operate in any sort of binary way of either/or underpins Creed’s works. Mothers, for example, is at once intimidating and ridiculous, frightening and deeply humorous.
It’s maybe this humour that makes his contradictions easy to swallow. He laughs often during our interview, but also spends a lot of time staring ponderously into space.
"Life is often a tussle between wanting comfort and feeling like that's sort of a dead end"
During our talk it becomes clear that he’s not unconditionally pleased with the Hayward exhibition, or rather, that it has affected him and his works differently than how he perhaps expected.
“It feels very weird to walk around here with all these things that I remember making; they’re like weird copies of the things I made. I made that thing, way back then, and it was the most important thing in the world, at that time. Now there’s this kind of alien copy of that thing in the show. It’s just one element, part of a bigger theatre show – it’s not the same as it was back then. The work is just not the same work, even though it is.
“It’s funny, because this is supposed to be quite a definitive exhibition. It’s got a little bit of everything that I’ve been trying to do, but it’s not definitive at all. All it does is open up more. By trying to pin something down, you just create more problems.”
It’s easy to see why he might feel this way. The volume of the exhibition necessarily recontextualises a lot of the works. The show has been well curated, but ambitions of inter-work democracy are a little optimistic. Pieces like Work No. 79: Some Blu-Tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall are easily missed, and Work No. 127: The lights going on and off, which won Creed the Turner Prize in 2001, is altered somehow.
Indeed, this work might offer the clearest insight into specifically what Creed is trying to articulate, re: his feelings about the show. The light’s cycle is, in the Hayward, on a 30 second loop: 30 on, 30 off. The iteration of the work which, in part, won him the Turner prize, operated on a five second loop, enough time to cross the room it occupied and see it in both of its phases. Did he change it especially for the Hayward? “No, the original work was 30 seconds. There are different works, variations, but the 30-second work was the first one I made. It was in a group show, the lights went on and off, and I designed it to give a chance to see stuff during that 30 seconds of on.”
Here, though, the 30 seconds of on give us the chance to look properly at some of Creed’s other works. A selection of different sports balls, 1000 prints of the cross-section of broccoli, a video featuring a chihuahua and an Irish wolfhound, tables piled one on top of the other, in order of size, from biggest to smallest. All, recognisably, works by Martin Creed. The point here being that The lights going on and off, a deeply simple idea, the physical manifestation of a contradiction (on or off? Both.) is irrevocably changed by what it is that it illuminates. It interfaces with its own cousins (or siblings, or whatever), not, as was intended initially, with strangers’ work. It’s interesting that Creed doesn’t seem entirely convinced by the new [proverbial] shadow it casts, “Seeing the works together does not look like what I thought it would look like; I don’t know what I thought it would look like, but it’s a different feeling.”
Perhaps, Crack wonders, this is related to feelings of, for want of a better word, loss. A loss of ownership of the artworks? “Yeah, they’ve been taken away from me a bit but I think that’s probably quite helpful, because there’s nothing worse than keeping things in your attic. Or worse than that, keeping your children in your cellar. That’s the worst scenario for a work, is that it’s the equivalent of a child that you’ve kept in the cellar that grew up really fucked up. Maybe that’s a helpful aspect of the exhibition; it gets stuff out of the house.”
Fritzl references aside, Creed’s domestic allusions are interesting; a kind of domesticity abounds in this show. On the second floor a pyramid of loo rolls is next to a curtain that draws itself. Back downstairs, cardboard boxes are arranged neatly into piles, biggest on the bottom to smallest at the top; aesthetically they echo the ziggurat paintings scattered around, but they read almost as shrines to middle-age, to a disposable income. One starts, at the bottom, with a box for a duvet from John Lewis, rising up through an Yves Saint Laurent shoebox and box for a guitar part to an empty carton of Ryman’s adhesive labels. While a far cry from Hirst’s megabucks “medium-is-money” diamond skull stupidities, these reflect a more modest – comfortable – shift into what could perhaps be described as a kind of financial maturity.
It is Creed himself who introduces the subject of money; “If you earn enough to be able to sit on the sofa for weeks without doing anything, that’s all very well”, he tells us. Certainly these cardboard sculptures seem like the kind of work that could be made from the comfort of the sofa. They are grownup, in a dad-in-shed way, and comfortable, though he rejects it in conversation. So does he find it easier to make work now that he’s financially secure? “I like not being on the breadline, which I kind of was a bit, but then I never wanted to get a proper job. Money can give you a certain amount of freedom, but probably just being real about things is the thing to do.”
Unwilling though he seems to be to admit it (or perhaps he just misunderstands our question – there is, after all, a difference between comfortable and comforting), Creed’s work offers, fundamentally, reassurance. Though it answers no questions, his kinship with the audience – his viewpoint from the other side of the coin – invests his works with an antidote to existential hopelessness.
The final room of What’s the point of it? loops three films: two of puking, one of a woman shitting. It’s a weird way to end the exhibition, and we’re not convinced by Creed’s arguments about shit-as-sculpture and vomit as physical-metaphor-for- creative-compulsion (what’s in having to come out, etc.). The vomit films carry a latent violence, a sort of nastiness that’s not present elsewhere in the exhibition; the force with which the performers stuff fingers down their throats conjures unpleasant bulimic associations. The shit film, though, is funny. It takes the poor lady so long to squeeze it out that by the time it comes it’s almost as much of a relief to the audience as it must be to her.
Our final question to Creed is silly; would he eat a piece of toast, knowing it had started as slightly mouldy bread? Would he pick off the mould and eat it anyway? “Aye, I probably would,” he says. It’s fine, isn’t it? “It’s fine, I can assure you.”
This is the comfort, then, of Martin Creed. He doesn’t always offer reasons or answers, so much as a kind of solidarity. Though the show contains spectacle, the more interesting works address the everyday; here are his feelings, and they’re like ours.