Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Martin Creed: What's the point of it?

Following a perilous incident with some rotating neon letters, Garageland reviewer Mary-Claire Wilson explores Martin Creed's decisively indecisive oeuvre at Hayward Gallery.

Work No. 1092 MOTHERS, 2011

Martin Creed is infamous for winning the 2001 Turner Prize with his Work No. 227 the lights going on and off, the deadpan title of which, as ever with Creed, says it all. 

What’s the point of it? is the first major survey of his art and spans his most minimal moments as well as his extravagant room-sized installations. Creed’s slanted and playful take on what can be placed in a gallery and called art will always be challenging. This is because Creed refuses to make decisions. From this radical stance, nothing can be ruled out, which makes anything possible. His material might be Blu-tack or broccoli. He might paint without looking, or make a sculpture out of toilet paper. He embraces duality and ambiguity. This is the inspiration for his work, its challenge and its reward.

Work No. 79: some Blu-tack on a wall, 1993

The show’s opening piece is Work No. 1092 MOTHERS (2011), a huge wooden beam bearing the word in foot-high neon, revolving just high enough to avoid decapitating anyone. But only just. As well as juxtaposing safety with danger, it forces the viewer to duck as soon as they enter, an affective tour de force; a joke that brings physical jeopardy into the intellectualised gallery space. Films depicting people defecating and vomiting continue to play havoc with our instincts. Pushing duality to its limits, sick is presented as painting and shit as sculpture.

Creed is fond of things that move and change – things that refuse to make up their minds – whether these are biological processes or objects. On the Hayward’s terrace stands Work No. 1029 (2007–10), a video of a penis rising and falling, set against the majestically erect buildings that line the River Thames. Many things go from small to big, or from big to small, like sets of cacti plants, or pyramid piles of boxes, chairs and toilet paper. Things go from on to off, or from closed to open, as in Work No. 132 a door opening and closing (1995), or Work No.990 a curtain opening and closing (2009). Things are repeated yet repeatedly changed in Work No. 1000 (2009-10), a monumental colour series comprised of 1000 prints made with broccoli.

Work No. 1000, 2009-10

While some changing repetitions are comforting, some, like Work No. 112 thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed (1995-1998), are threatening. Repetition can impose order or can suggest chaos and madness. Creed embraces both extremes. His series using the same-sized paper in various ways, torn-up, scrunched, crumpled into a ball and then flattened out, is a case in point. While the result is meaningless, the process is methodical. Order and chaos sit side-by-side. This ethos is perfectly expressed in the neon lettering of Work No. 232 the whole world + the work = the whole world (2000), where Creed uses mathematical formulae to express an impossible equation.

The balloon room installation, Work No. 210 half the air in a given space (1999) appeals to both the child and the scientist in us. The 'jumping paintings’, portraits painted on a canvas too high for Creed to easily reach, and the ‘blind paintings’, portraits painted without being able to see the canvas, epitomise his dislike of choosing, right down to where on the canvas a brushstroke should go. Painted crosses feature ‘because they are neither horizontal nor vertical.’ Even his outwardly cheery neon messages, like Work No. 291 DON’T WORRY (2003), or Work No. 560 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT (2006), contain their opposite. If everything will be alright, there must be a problem currently. To stop worrying, cause for concern must exist in the first place.

Work No. 960, 2008

As for the numbers that differentiate his works, Creed explains, ‘I didn’t want titles and I didn’t want to say untitled.’ Of course. To find out more, you could go to, which is both ‘the official and unofficial Martin Creed website.’ You will find there the warning that ‘this site is neither under construction nor complete.’ Of course. There is no hierarchy of object or meaning for Creed, no absolute truths. His perspective is quite unique in the artistic sphere, where artists, by necessity, impose their vision upon us. Creed is brave enough to say that he just doesn’t know what’s what, and clever enough to show us what not knowing looks like. A wander around the Hayward is a wander around his singular mind. What’s the point of it? will be one of the best shows of the year. 

Mary-Claire Wilson

A sheet of paper crumpled into a ball, 1995
What's the Point of it? is at Hayward Gallery (London, SE1) from 29 January 27 April 2014

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