Review: Martin Creed, Hayward Gallery

The man who put  the on/off switch into art

A show titled ‘What’s the point of it?’ puts the boot into the critics before they’ve even started. Never a bad idea, and perhaps a sign that arch ‘minimalist’ Creed is keen to ask visitors to decide for themselves what it’s all about before looking for explanations from critics and catalogues.

Creed is one of those artists that divides opinion fairly consistently. The cheeky Englishman-cum-Scotsman, 45, is perhaps best-known for winning the 2001 Turner Prize for Work no. 227: the lights going on and off. It consisted of a large gallery room where, guess what, the lights simply went on and off, alternating every thirty seconds.
It was the sort of work that most people hate because it falls into the ‘I could have done that’ category. Ah, well yes, minimalism – don’t you hate it? Those who loved it – me included – had the difficult task of defending it from the haters. Needless to say the tabloid press had a field day – and Creed’s future was assured.
But the truth is Creed pulled it off, and he continues to do so. So suck it up folks.
The Hayward clearly likes Wakefield-born Martin Creed.They have given him the whole gallery to do just what he wants. So it is not a retrospective exactly, although there are many works that have appeared before, including a version of The Lights.
Here we see Creed in all his glory. Works that look simple yet are hard to interpret; works with numerical titles that are merely a serial count of his work, and titles that are deadpan and descriptive. There are paintings; mechanical works that are devilishly clever; and musical work that is playful and original.
You enter the exhibition through a doorway that is part blocked by a second-hand sofa, after which you are greeted by a huge 6ft neon sign rotating on an iron beam which spells ‘MOTHERS’. It stands at 6ft 6inches and swirls menacingly close to your head. Naturally it has been interpreted as a metaphor for mother figures….you do the math.


But Creed is possibly too playful for such simple metaphors. Perhaps we should also bear in mind that the word is also an expletive, or that it is the first word in the name of the former jazz rock band Mothers of Invention, headed up by Frank Zappa, a man who would be a natural ally of Creed, one thinks. The work is accompanied by a line of metronomes along two walls, all beating out a different timing, clattering intriguingly away.

In some ways, Creed seems to be a people’s artists in the same mould as Jeremy Deller – he of the Stonehenge bouncy castle much loved by families on a day out. The best example of this is Work no. 200, half of the air in a given space. Essentially this consists of a room half full of white balloons. You enter the room through turnstiles that ensure that balloons can’t escape, after which you enjoy the experience of being covered in balloons wherever you walk.


I guess you could pop a few if you wanted but of course no one does – art folk are ever fearful of doing the wrong thing on the few occasions that they are actually allowed to touch work.



But being surrounded by balloons can also be claustrophobic so perhaps Creed wants you to enjoy the fine line between fun and fear in such a work. Clearly he likes it because it was first shown in 1998 and he has seen fit to give it another wirl. It is a natural photo opportunity for the media so perhaps Creed is also a natural self-publicist. Anyone who has the balls to put Blu-tack on the wall and call it art, must be something of an attention seeker (as inWork no. 79: some Blu-tack kneaded, rolled into a ball and depressed against a wall (1993)).


Out on one of the rooftops Creed has placed Britain’s most ordinary/popular car, a silver Ford Focus 1.1litre. At first the car is still but every now and again it springs into life activating all its moving bits simultaneously. So all the bits that can open flip open, the wipers wipe, the radio goes on, the lights go on and off (well of course they do), and perhaps some other things you can’t see are moving too. It’s redolent of cars in movies which drive themselves (Herbie etc.) but because it’s unique you can’t take your eyes off it. Creed’s cheek in dropping a car in a place it shouldn’t be is also good value. Who doesn’t love an artist who puts stuff where it shouldn’t be?


Elsewhere, in the same vein, there is a piano which opens and closes itself. A work that will clearly bring joy to any child or adult with a sense of fun. It raises the question: Why do we love it when things mysteriously work themselves? After all, we are surrounded by robotics of one sort or another, but as soon as that aesthetic is applied to ordinary objects we go ga ga.


So Creed is master of the ordinary. He makes the ordinary fun, intriguing and something of an art puzzle. He struggles to be truly original when it comes to videos of bodily parts (a penis growing and diminishing), a woman trying to shit, but who cares? It’s arresting and challenging and can’t just be dismissed as shock tactics, even if its been done before.

So what are we to make of all this? Creed doesn’t help much. In interviews he says that he doesn’t know what art is, which is either refreshing or trite depending on your view. He has also said “I wouldn’t call myself an artist’. OK so Creed is reducing art to just doing stuff and not calling it art. Possibly that is what is required for us to get new meaning from art and for us to look at the world in new ways.


According to Wikipedia has also said that he stopped making paintings because he ‘never liked having to decide what to paint’. We’ve all been there haven’t we? What he goes on to say is that all he knows is that he likes to make things. Which goes some way to explaining his work. He goes on: ‘I make things because I want to communicate with people, because I want to be loved, because I want to express myself.’ He describes himself as an ‘expressionist’.


So far so good. Creed as everyman.
But can everyman ‘get’ his communications? Probably not. That would be too easy, and that would betray his need to be true to himself. Isn’t that the ultimate attraction of art?


The fact is you see some art and you don’t particularly want to meet the artist; but there is other art – such as Creed’s where you most definitely do. Creed is too minimal for some, but who cares, his work is fresh, fun and some very memorable. Long may he want to turn things on and off.

So what do the critics think?

Adrian Searle, The Guardian calls it ‘more a glorious tour of his (Creed’s) mind’ and ‘one of the best solo show’s I have seen at the gallery…an exhibition of extremes and contrasts from the very big to the very small, from the most offhand gesture to the most laboriously executed. It feels as much portrait as exhibition – of conflicting appetites and contrary desires, of doubts and certainties, of whims and convictions.
He goes on: ‘Creed has a thing about things. His art is a repeated exercise in object relations. There is no hierarchy of materials or genres. Everywhere there are things on top of other things: tables, chairs, diminishing lengths of I-beam steel, brushstrokes, cardboard boxes….His art is marked by lightness and a kind of bravery. It is all a matter of timing, placement and contrast.

Tim Adams, The Observer, is somewhat less impressed: ‘Each piece, from the lump of Blu-Tack on a wall (Work No 79) to the blind paintings (eg Work No 1363), you imagine, seemed like a good idea at the time, got the artist’s blood briefly up, but what you are often left looking at is the limp memory of that creative moment. Maybe that’s how inspiration and its aftermath always feels.

And despite Creed saying he is not an artist, Adams sees an attempt to explain art: ‘The vague argument of this retrospective is that art, like life, is essentially an involuntary act: the rising and falling penis apparently has a mind of its own, biology is its own imperative. If you hadn’t got that particular point, Creed dramatises it with video of a woman squatting to leave a turd on a gallery floor and a Technicolor film of a man vomiting in a similarly whitewashed room.’

Adams concludes with a slight put-down: ‘The opening room…might raise a sort of smile, but beyond that and losing yourself in the balloons, split sides are not guaranteed.’

Adrian Hamilton, The Independent, starts off by putting Creed in context: ‘Creed is the artist of irresolution in which he devotes himself to an idea but can then never quite complete it without wondering whether it isn’t all a nonsense.’
Despite Creed’s comments on not being an artist, Hamilton is impressed with his paintwork: ‘The major revelation of this show to me was just how much painting he has chosen to be included, figurative as well as abstract, and just what a good colourist he is. In the past few years in particular he has taken to canvas and paper to brush bright colours in acrylic, watercolour, enamel and oils in emphatic lines and squiggles with striking effect.
He concludes that the show is a ‘tribute to a polymath’ by virtue of the range of kinds of work on show, and encourages visitors to just enjoy the show: ‘Go and enjoy. You will find plenty to surprise, attract and exasperate you without worrying about the deeper philosophical meaning.’I couldn’t agree more.

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