Inclusive Practice

The first ever retrospective of Turner-prize winner Martin Creed opens at the Hayward Gallery, London, this spring, exposing the large body of work of the genre-defying artist.

At the 2001 Tate Turner Prize, Yorkshire-born artist Martin Creed (b. 1968) presented Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. Consisting of an empty room, the work existed as, quite literally, the lights in the room going on and off every five seconds, cyclically submerging the room in darkness only to be lit up again. The work prompted outrage from both critics and visitors, a problem revisited again in 2013 when the Tate announced that it had purchased the work for its permanent collection. The upset is undeserved, and this winter, Creed has the chance to answer the critics with his first ever retrospective, which opens at the Hayward Gallery. The exhibition, curated by Cliff Lauson, is described as “genre-defying” and includes works from the past 25 years. Although, Creed has been the focus of several recent solo exhibitions (Museum De Paviljoens, Almere, 2013; Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 2012) this will be the first major survey of his work, and it is a long time coming.

A student at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, between 1986 and 1990, Creed was working concurrently with the Goldsmiths-produced Young British Artists, but resisted inclusion within that emerging defining category of art and social engagement. Lauson describes Creed’s separation from it as a conscious decision on his part as he wanted to do something different and unique, rather than be included in this potential “ism” of artistic production and categorisation. His work, which he has sequentially titled and numbered from the outset, is based on the classical music opus system of numbering. It begins with Work No. 3: Yellow Painting (1986), a piece of paper painted with a large yellow swirl. The work is both expressionistic and minimalist, and titled No. 3 rather than No. 1, purely to avoid seeming to be arrogant. This emphasis on material and minimalism are the two overriding characteristics of Creed’s work. With Work No. 79 Some blu-tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall, like No. 3, what you see is what you get. A piece of Blu-Tack is worked on as described and placed on the wall. Ironic and humourous, the piece takes a non-conventional material, more closely associated with the display of an artwork than its creation, and places the focus on its materiality and site-specificity. Work No. 79  is reminiscent of Richard Artschwager’s blps: first created in the 1960s these black (or white) coloured lozenge-shaped forms were placed in subways, buildings and galleries, drawing attention to the often overlooked spaces of architecture. The Blu-Tack, like the blps, highlights the unnoticed materials that we use and rely on in our everyday lives as much as they do the physical constructions of space.

Lauson argues that with Creed: “There isn’t a particular shroud of mystery of creation, of preciousness of an artwork, [he is] very much deconstructing the idea of the artistic genius.” His work is often all-inclusive – sometimes quite literally so – for example, when he needed the participation of a nation for his 2012 Olympic-inspired Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes. He sought to have all the bells in the UK rung at exactly the same time for three-minutes. Termed “gently annoying” by some critics and initially rejected by the Central Council for Church Bell Ringers who released an official statement stipulating: “We are not able to work closely with this project as we believe it is misconceived … We do not believe ringing for three minutes nor ringing as fast as possible is really suitable for church bell-ringers”, the project was embraced by a number of other groups. Ambitious in its intent, yes, but there is an element of over-ambition in all of his output. With Work No. 210: Half the air in a given space (1999), Creed sought to make “air visible.” Recently exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in four different site-specific locations, the work consists of rooms half-filled with inflated balloons. Creed forces the viewer to look at the architecture of the spaces and lends tangibility to the volumetric space of each unique structure. The Hayward Gallery will be presenting an earlier permutation of the work, Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space (1998). To add to the installation Creed has made a wall that intersects one of the gallery rooms out of different coloured panes of glass. Functioning as both a barrier dividing the space and as an artwork, this is just one of the new pieces commissioned specifically for the exhibition.

Creed comes from of a strong, yet overlooked, line of British Minimalism. Work No. 1208  (2011), on canvas, is strongly influenced by the painter, sculptor and draughtsman Bob Law (1934-2004). Law’s Castle  series (2001), in which he staggers horizontal blocks of colour in a schematic ziggurat form (both on canvas and paper), precedes these later works of Creed by over 50 years. Creed, like Law, uses colour and the absence of it, as a key focus in his works on paper. With Work No. 373  (2004), sheets of paper are heavily strewn with pen, creating dense monochromatic designs reminiscent of Law’s scribble drawings and black watercolours of the 1960s and 1970s. The most appealing element of Creed’s creativity is his ability to be serious, referencing art history and the avant-garde, as well as humourous. Work No. 1000  (2009-2010), a colourful series of 1,000 prints made from sliced broccoli, wet with ink, and then stamped on paper confirms this. It is resourceful in its appropriation of the materials in a novel way and is reminiscent of the infamous “Locked Room” programme at Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, London of 1969. The so-called teaching experiment, organised by tutors Peter Kardia, Garth Evans, Gareth Jones and Peter Harvey, consisted of the 12 students being locked in the studio for an unspecified amount of time with one specific object. They were given no direction, whether temporal or otherwise, and left to their own devices. Creed somehow encapsulates this way of working in his oeuvre: each piece is resourceful, and somehow definitive in its form – even if it is a light turning on and off over and over again. The repetition, the material, and the site each lend an entirely new conceptual facet to the overall idea. As he stated in a 2010 interview with Martin Gayford: “I think the idea that everywhere is special relates to the way I like doing work in all sorts of different spaces, whether it’s in the toilets or in the Tate. One isn’t better than the other. Just because something is in the Tate doesn’t mean it’s good.”

The focus on action and material, such as Work No. 309  (2003), in which a sheet of plain white A4 is presented, torn up into scraps, on a white plinth within a clear Perspex box, is a defining trait of Creed’s work. The material – paper – is ubiquitous, but without it we would be at a loss, even in today’s heavily technology dependent culture. By placing it on a plinth, elevating it’s status to that of an art object, Creed highlights its importance as well as irrelevance once destroyed (the action of ripping it apart). Even his neon innovations rely on an action – that of the audience to follow the command or statement. Work No. 203: Everything is Going to Be Alright  (1999), a bright proclamation, encourages its reader to think just that – optimistic yet almost eerie in its Big Brother-type assurance. The Hayward retrospective also includes the neon Work No. 890: Don’t Worry (2008); the words “Don’t Worry” in vivid lights on the wall. Creed is again asking for an emotional engagement from the viewer, but the lack of context leaves us stupefied. He describes his intent in a 2012 interview with Charlotte Higgins as: “People use the work to help them make something in themselves. So the work is a catalyst.” It is similar to I’m too sad to tell you  (1971) by Dutch conceptualist artist Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975), who gives a slice of information or the suggestion of emotional interference prompting the viewer to internalise the feeling. This interest in personalised sentiment comes from an expressionistic tendency and Lauson says: “Although, Creed is not an expressionistic painter, his work has a lot to do with emotions and feelings and being aware of your heart on your sleeve.”

This inclination, coupled with his Fluxus-inspired performances, is reflected in his art. He is increasingly turning towards painting, reverting back to the medium, but perhaps not necessarily style, of Work No. 3. Portraiture has become increasingly prevalent, up-close and personal – fleshy and slightly harsh in its depiction. Work No. 1363: Jo (2012) has the same bulbous features of George Condo’s garish portraits, but more vague, more abstract. Creed recently held an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, New York City, where he exhibited some of his so-called blind paintings: portraits executed with his eyes closed, with his arms making pre-determined movements, or without looking at the canvas. The exhibition features many new paintings, of which some of the “blind paintings” will appear, and sculptures that will illustrate the key links between his various styles and methods: his work bridging the gap between traditional art (painting) and more performative works. The exhibition Scales, on show at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, USA, until 9 March, specifically exhibits these more musical and performance-based works, including Work No. 371: Elevator ooh/aaah up/down (2004), a four-part sung harmony installed in the gallery’s lift. The music, by its presence within the elevator and the crescendo of its harmony, emphasising the movement up / down movement. Unassuming, pleasant, and systematic with the up / down movement, this work upsets our expectations of what music to hear in an elevator, being composed for a rather banal, ordinary and everyday experience. This is the quintessence of Creed’s work.

As part of the Hayward retrospective, he has been commissioned to create a new work, Face to Face with Bach, as well as part of Pull Out All the Stops  organ festival. Utilising the recently restored and re-installed Royal Festival Hall organ, Creed will be, along with Lynette Wallworth and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the commissioned artists / composers to perform on the organ. The 7,866 pipe organ, built in Durham between 1950 and 1954, was installed at Royal Festival Hall over 60 years ago and this will be the first time since 2005 that the entire organ will be used in a performance. Creed will also stage the Work No. 1020  (2009): a ballet choreographed around five basic positions. According to critic Lyn Gardner of the Guardian “a playful and engaging 70 minutes of repetitions where the limitations actually become the springboard of creativity”, the ballet reduces the complex choreography of dance down to its minimal component parts. There is something quite elaborate and striking in his courage to whittle down and minimise the various art forms back to their basic material and arrangements.

Along with this, there is also a performance by his band (Owada, now known as the Martin Creed Band) and the launch of their newly produced music video. The video, which is for the lead single You Return  from their forthcoming album Mind Trap  (released February 2014), consists of filmed footage of people crossing a busy New York City street. Creed does not disappoint: again, there is a focus on simple, repetitive movement. The line between his visual, performative, and music (aural) work is increasingly undefined; coming out of a flexible aesthetic, but a very precise and considered one, the works share key elements of creation that Jérôme Sans describes as follows: “The music is an attempt to make something for the world – just like the visual work. It comes from the same desire to make things and show them, the desire to say hello, to try and communicate somehow.”

Creed, prolific and diverse in his output, is constantly surprising his audience, whether through a display of 1,000 broccoli stamp prints or Work No. 610: Sick Film  (2006), a recording of 19 people vomiting towards the camera. No material or function seems sacred for Creed and this is nothing new – one need only look to the work of the Viennese Actionists or performance artists from the 1960s to see these subjects touched upon before. Unlike these artists though, Creed’s work is not angry, sadistic or overtly sexual – he embraces the performative elements of contemporary methods molding them in his own specific way. This is the answer to the question: Why Creed and why now?

Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? runs until 27 April at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London.