Martin Creed

1 > introduction > page 2

2 > > the lights going on and off > page 4

3 > > > the whole world + the work = the whole world > page 6

4 > > > > half the air in a given space > page 9

5 > > > > > a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball > page 10

6 > > > > > > for piano forte > page 13

7 > > > > > > > conclusion > page 14

8 > > > > > > > > bibliography > page 15

1 > introduction : martin creed and challenging art

Creed and Madonna : 2001 Turner Prize

I have chosen to discuss the work of Martin Creed, the winner of the 2001 Turner Prize. It would be impossible to write an essay on Creed without alluding to the Turner Prize, since he was almost unknown before he was shortlisted. This annual event has always generated much controversy. As well as being the most prestigious prize awarded for art in the UK, it also has become a forum for debate among art critics and pundits. It tends to be treated as a joke by the media, who often denounce the event as “rubbish” and ask the much repeated question, “but is it art?” The idea of ‘rubbish’ was a theme at the 2001 TP more than any other: Martin Creed exhibited balls of crumpled paper that sold for £2,000 each, and Michael Landy’s piece (who wasn’t even short listed) of a full waste bin was accidentally emptied by a cleaner!

The attention given to this event cannot be unexpected. The shortlisted choices (normally four or five artists) must be under 50. This gives the Turner Prize a young image that brings to attention challenging and inevitably non-conservative art. The Turner Prize in the 90’s decade was exotic, fronted by the liberal leftists from Goldsmiths College, London. Their charm was the fairytale story of being the first students to completely organise an exhibition in an abandoned dockside in London – the Freeze exhibition. It stood for rejuvenation, rebirth and the power of the middle class. Most importantly, it stood for the growing anti-Thatcherite mood in Britain. Some of the artists in that exhibition have been short listed for the Turner Prize, some have not. When the Turner Prize reached Martin Creed in the new millennium, the Freeze exhibition seemed like a distant memory. Martin Creed was not part of that generation, and he went to Slade, London. I make this distinction because it’s too easy to stereotype British conceptualists and place them in the same bracket. The Turner Prize has evolved tremendously since its genesis in 1984 and not all creative types are scruffy-haired Bohemians.

One reason why so many generalise about yBas (young British Artists) is the continually challenging nature of the work. Sharks suspended in formaldehyde (Damien Hirst), elephant dung (Chris Ofilli), fifteen-minute videos of police standing still (Gillian Wearing) and Homo-erotica (Wolfgang Tillmans) have all been short listed for the £20,000 prize. The Stuckists (the opposing artistic movement to the Turner Prize) call these objects a “circus of curiosities”. These things generate fuss because they do not fit with people’s vision of ‘art’. But this is art to challenge. Turner, the painter whom the prize in named after, was the most experimental British artist of his day. It is in the tradition of Turner that the shortlisted artists are selected. And experimentation and controversy are no stranger to Martin Creed.

Stuckists : Anti-Conceptualist

He was born in Wakefield in 1968, though he lived in Scotland. From 1986 to 1990 he attended the Slade School, practising sculpture. Since his 1993 work “one inch cube of masking tape in the middle of every wall in a building” was installed in the offices of a London firm, he has had eighteen solo projects in Europe and North America. Creed is a little known character who does not indulge in self-promotion on the scale of his Goldsmith’s seniors. But what he caught the eyes of the Turner Prize judges and won – the reason was not illogical.

Block of : Masking tape

To continue further, it may be of help to define ‘Conceptual art’ – a phrase that can conjure bitter resentment or feelings of frivolity. Conceptual art broadly means ‘art where the concept is the overriding element, where the concept is the reason for creation that consequently decides all other elements (aesthetics for example)’. The phrase ‘Conceptual art’ is mostly associated with the white-wall gallery system, stemming from Dadaist objects, 60’s minimalism and formalism.

Conceptual art’s meaning is often so esoteric that it can seem absurd and immature. This is why so many people outside the art establishment (i.e. the general public) struggle to understand and ‘like’ conceptual art, many remaining baffled by it. Still, Martin Creed received £20,000 for art that, at first sight, seems uninterpreteble and so deliberately ‘offensive’. By interpreting key works in Creed’s repertoire, I intend to explain the thinking behind the cutting-edge work and so justify the judge’s choice.
2 > > work No. 227 : the lights going on and off

Work No. 277 : On/Off

The lights in a gallery room in the Tate had been engineered so that they switched on and off every five seconds. It was the work that made front pages, when there wasn’t coverage on the Terrorist Attacks on America. One British newspaper called it “a recognised form of torture” and explained the work as “ongoing problems with the Tate Gallery’s electrics”. At the same time in the winter of 2001 Ivan Massow resigned from the Tate, calling the Turner Prize “craftless tat”. And at the 2002 Turner Prize, Massow said “we don’t want a repeat of the ‘light’s going on and off’ fiasco”.

Massow : Resigned

I believe the outrage lay in the fact that the room contained no tangible art, because, in Creed’s words, “painting equals art in many people’s minds”. But Creed also states “my work comes out of trying to paint”. This is interesting because he openly admits he “find(s) it hard to make any kind of decision”. Thus, painting (in Creed’s eyes) includes too many decisions, such as colours, composition and line. While other conceptualists would depart from painting during art school because they handed the confidence to express ideas in challenging ways, Martin Creed shies away from painting because of an anxiety attached to creation. “The fear comes from realising ‘I’m responsible for this’ – I don’t want to get it wrong or make something I can’t live with…all I know is ‘I want to make things’”.

This is the pivotal idea in Creed’s output. His key questions are associated with ‘what it means to create’. In Work No.277 all Creed does is ‘make something happen’ with no extra material. The alternation between light and darkness stands for indecisiveness – adding the world, unsure of what it means, what value it has, and then withdrawing back into artistic darkness. This playful expression of an intelligent and simple idea is tightly told, which makes it deserving of the Prize.

In the weeks leading up to the event, there appeared an article in the Times that claimed a little known Italian artist had made the same artwork in Venice during the ‘70’s. However, Mathew Collings pointed out a significant fact of conceptual art: the same work can be repeated, but the idea and its social and political context find priority before it’s materialistic qualities.

Collings : Media commentator, art pundit and author

3 > > > work no. 232 : the whole world + the work = the whole world

Work no.232 : The Tate gallery

The above equation, as Martin Creed’s invention, was commissioned by the Tate gallery in 2000. It was hung on the building’s facade in neon. He has done similar pieces in neon, such as the commission “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” for a children’s hospice. Creed called it “optimistic”. A ‘pessimistic’ version was placed in a gallery, which flickered unnervingly, suggesting the opposite of ‘everything is going to be alright’. In each case, the use of light is a recurring theme in Creed’s work. “One thing I like about neon is that it can be switched off!”, explains Creed.

There are a number of equally valid interpretations of Creed’s equation. It could mean that ‘the work’ has no value, since after working you are still left with ‘the whole world’. Or it could mean that this is what Creed wants the work to be, despite that fact that his patrons place numerical values on his work. The more subtle meaning, is that ‘the work’ is taken from ‘the whole world’, and then dissipates back into ‘the whole world’. You can’t make something without something else to start with. Therefore, the equation is an artistic statement, a mathematical maxim, and since we are dealing with the impossibility of ‘nothing’ and ‘creation from nothing’, it could branch into religion too.

Note that Martin Creed numbers his works: “The titles were pinning the work down, I wanted to treat them equally. So I back numbered them – I didn’t want there to be a ‘work no.1’…I’d feel uncomfortable with that…it’s a kind of fade in!” Here we have more anxiety associated with the value of the work, in short, how the psychology of the artist directly influences the ‘feel’ of the work. In numbering every piece it makes them seem as if they’ve arrived from a dispassionate production line. Kim Howells called the 2002 shortlist “cold” and “mechanical”. It is easy to see how someone unadjusted to the codes in Creed’s work can say this.

Keith Tyson (the winner of the 2002 Turner Prize) is the opposite in comparison. Tyson is curious to scientific ideas, communicating them in pages of expressive preliminary sketches that lead up to pieces of Heath Robinson eccentricity. Tyson is awed by the natural world. Creed does not have this ‘warmth’ or ‘caring’, even confessing, “I don’t feel like an artist”.

Tyson : Romantically enthused by the world of nature

A strong comparison can be made with Andy Warhol, who silk-screened road accidents and race riots onto canvas like a war photographer who develops a tolerance to violence. Warhol was a withdrawn figure who liked to sink into the background, recording surrounding events. One recording is particular telling, when his brother informs him of his mother’s death over the telephone. Since Warhol’s death, the question of whether he did care has remained. Creed has the same introverted and emotionally limited manner.

Race Riot : Example of Warhol’s role as ‘the indifferent machine’. Note, Warhol eventually had a TV program in which he played a robot

Warhol : literally mocks the Romantic intelligencia and their ideals by attacking their greatest exponent, Geothe, through the lens of consumer culture, colour TV, LSD and the Warholian utopia/dystopia that is 60’s America
A generalisation would be that Postmodern artists distance themselves from the eccentric, artistic stereotype of the Romantic age. “Why make art?” and “What is the value of art?” are two very ‘Postmodernist’ questions. And the realisation that the impossibility of making ‘zero’ (and making ‘infinity’) is equally contemporary. Martin Creed’s minimalism comes about through attempting to make something that will go unnoticed and ‘hide’ into the world. He is trying to get as near as possible to making ‘nothing’. The prize-worthy conclusion is that this is impossible.

Compared to Damien Hirst, (another TP winning artist) Creed’s minimalism is anti-materialistic. While Hirst’s minimalism is purely an aesthetic issue, influenced by the 60’s revival of the 90’s (as were his dot paintings). Hirst is not trying to hide from ‘making something’, but instead he makes something elaborately that looks ‘pleasing’.

Dots : Part of 60’s revival of the 90’s

Formaldehyde : Gives the sensation of sterilised minimalism

4 > > > > work no. 201 : half the air in a given space

Work no.201 : Hamburg Galleries

Half the air in an exhibition space was filled with white balloons, the other half was left ‘unpackaged’. A similar idea was exhibited in New York using coloured balloons. Work no. 201 translates the otherwise intangible measurement of air in the form of balloons, therefor air is the material used. “Air is the perfect medium, it’s not a choice, it’s everywhere”, says Creed. So in using basic materials such as light and air Creed again reduces his creative options. Similarly, in ‘Work no. 102 – a protrusion from a wall’, in deciding what material to make a ‘bump’ come out of the gallery wall, Creed eventually chose to use the material that the wall itself was made from; the decision was already there and made for him.

Work no.102 : Protrusion from a wall

The amount of ‘packaged’ air is also significant to Creed: “I half filled the room to counter ‘making something and not making something’”. Creed’s work is about getting between ‘0’ and ‘1’, between something and nothing. Air has the quality of ‘being there’ but ‘not being there’ because it is taken for granted. The attraction of the work is its material ambiguity.

The balloons also add a sense of fun that is ever present in Creed’s output. In every exhibition space that the work as been shown, it is almost always placed in a room that connects to other rooms, thus forcing the public to wade through. In doing this, Creed limits your own creative choices. As well as being comic, Creed’s explanation for this is “…to short-circuit the visually overloaded, choice saturated culture in which we live”.

5 > > > > > work no. 88 : a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball

Work no. 88 : “Rubbish!”

Crumpled balls of paper caused equal controversy to the light works, perhaps because they are a literal representation of the insult hurled at challenging art. “I made work no. 88 at a time when I had very little money. I was looking at working with paper…so I thought the simplest thing to do was to make a ball”. Again, the beauty of this idea is its ambiguity. In one instance, the ball is an idea of the most basic nature. On the other hand, it is symbolic of discarded, inferior ideas, even ‘no ideas’.

This piece sparked debate as to whether this was a case of the ‘emperors new clothes’, and whether Martin Creed was simply calling it ‘art’ to win £20,000. Creed himself does not hide from calling it a piece of insignificant rubbish. But that’s the point. “One thing I like about the work is that it disappears when in the context of the world.”

With no. 88 we can draw connections with other works, such as the ‘blue tac, kneaded and depressed against a wall’, and the ‘one square of masking tape on a wall’. Martin Creed looks at adhesives as a medium, especially since they have the absurd property of ‘demanding’ to be used with other mediums, such as paper. In placing blue tac on a wall you create nothingness because there is nothing to stick to it, you also create something in it’s own right. These works differ from the light and neon works because they are tangible objects. But people have been placing objects in galleries for eighty years and Martin Creed has not simply arrived without history or knowledge behind him. What makes Creed’s objects new?

The origin lies in the Dadaist movement. The accepted pioneer of ‘objects as art’ is Marcel Duchamp. He made objects by juxtaposing two contrasting objects (which is more in the Surrealist tradition), like the chair with the bicycle wheel. But his most acclaimed works are the ‘ready-mades’ – objects taken out of their original context, unchanged and placed in galleries. The statement was ‘anti-art’, against intellectual ‘high art’ and the polished canvases of Ingres (for example) or refined work of the Florentines.

Ironically, Duchamp’s work has been intellectualised and critics of the TP argue that its idiocy is its pontification over what was once meant to be shallow and idiotic. However, I believe there is an abyss of difference between Duchamp and postmodern conceptualism. Duchamp’s work is essentially modernist because of it’s mechanical nature – take the infamous glass work ‘Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors’, particularly the way the bachelors and the chocolate grinder are represented. All things industrial belong in the Modernist era. Also significant is Francis Pacabia’s paintings depicting the act of sex through partially abstracted ‘machines’.

Pacabia : Modernist through mechanisation

Duchamp : Detail from ‘The Large Glass’ depicting the 11 mechanical ‘bachelors’ or ‘malic molds’, the chocolate grinder, and the ‘dust breeding’ (the conical forms)

Contemporary Postmodernism is more ‘chemical’, ‘biological’, sometimes ‘virtual’ and digitised. Damien Hirst’s clean slices of animals in formaldehyde and his piece ‘Pharmacy’ are ‘sterilised minimalism’. The white-wall gallery system can appear the same.

What makes Creed similar to Duchamp is his simplistic and playful approach. But in minimalist terms, if Duchamp ever produces little it is by purposely avoiding the creative decisions and effort associated with traditional mediums (such as painting) and thus aiming to be unintelligent and scandalous. Martin Creed’s work is about trying to avoid all creative decisions, but knowing that it is impossible, and never is he unintelligent. I also believe that he, unlike Duchamp, never meant to cause controversy. “I just want to say ‘hello’…I just want to be loved”, explains Creed. Duchamp’s anti-art is also extroverted, Creed’s output is very restrained: “If there’s modesty about the work, it’s because I’m unsure”. This line also sums up the major difference between him and the artists from Goldsmiths, who exhibited at the Freeze exhibition. What made them special at the time of Freeze was because, contrary to art from the same age group at that time, the work almost demanded to be looked at because of it’s overtly ‘forward’ nature. One cannot exclude Tracy Emin (who never went to Goldsmiths), whose name is nearly synonymous with exhibitionism. Most significant of all, the Goldsmiths set are clever business people, entrepreneurs even. Creed’s art does not have this ‘ego’, instead only creative anxiousness.

Emin : The ‘egoist’ work reflects her outspoken nature. Her views on Thatcherism and other political issues are well documented, for example. Creed is always ‘non-political

Sometimes, the Turner Prize judges vote for artists that show contrast in British contemporary art. This is also for political and promotional reasons because the TP is viewed as prestigious by the European art world too. After the outrage caused by Tracy Emin’s tent (entitled “Everyone I have Every Slept With”) in 1999, the Homo-erotica of Wolfgang Tillmans in 2000, Martin Creed seemed appealing because of his gentle modesty.

6 > > > > > > work no. 101 : for pianoforte

Work no.101 : The important relationship between artists and musicians

Artists relationship with music in the Postmodern age has always been familiar: Andy Warhol designed record packaging for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Julian Opie was commissioned to make portraits for Blur, Damien Hirst directed the music video for the anthem ‘Vindaloo’ by Fat Les. Martin Creed is a musician. How could this influence or even inspire his gallery-based work?

As a sound, music is a way of communicating ideas. Creed invents lyrics such as “I like things a lot” and “from one, take one, add one, make none” – statements that are represented visually in the work. But music itself represented visually (like a musical score) can become the work. Work no. 101 is part of a series of scores that presents music minimally. In this example, the only note played is Middle C – the foundation of the simplest key and the note that marks half a piano’s length and pitch. The time signature is also the simplest possible (1/1), next to zero.

Work no. 101 encapsulates Creed’s anxiety in making something just as the other works do. But here, Creed divulges the musical nature of his work: “the work is like music…like a score…it can be realised and played in different ways”. The major positive of Creed’s work is that it can have differing interpretations, equally valid. Many other conceptual artists do not allow for this flexibility of meaning.

7 > > > > > > > the conclusion

I think another reason that made Martin Creed so attractive to the TP judges was his holistic and fundamental approach. Creed questions the nature of the work and its value. Work no. 232’s equation surely leads to the conundrum “if art has no value then why make it?” None of the other shortlisted artists went this deep: Richard Billingham’s photographs of his undesirable family, though good, illustrated nothing more than one man’s microcosm on a council estate. A similar thing can be said for Isaac Julian and Mike Nelson, who really did create their own worlds through film (Julian) or constructed spaces (Nelson), never questioning why they do what they do, though both were technically admirable. What is also pleasing is Creed’s authenticity and intelligent, uncontradicting viewpoint.

Throughout this essay, I have assumed that Creed’s work can be called ‘art’. Many believe that it is nothing more than state-approved tat that advertises the Tate Empire. Even if true, it is still a reflection of contemporary culture and its trends, which is what all art is – from the Neo-classical period encouraged by Napoleon’s ‘Roman’ Empire, the proletariat’s rising importance and their corresponding artists Van Gogh and Millet (and not forgetting the Socialist Realists), to Pop Art’s translation of the colour TV and the vivid world of consumerism onto canvas – all are mirrors for culture. In Turner Prize terms, it could be said that the most accurate ‘mirror’ wins.

(1) (2)

(1) Jupiter and Thetis by Ingres : Part of the Neo-classical tradition. Notably, the same style returned in the Nazi era, the second attempt to unite Europe, rather than Millet (2), images of Marxism rather than Wagnerism
8 > > > > > > > > the bibliography

the art book – phaidon


Copyright Independent Currencies 2023. All Rights Reserved.