Ann Jones visits Martin Creed’s career retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, ducks to avoid Mothers, and comes face to face with third party hairballs.
In an art world that often seems to take itself that bit too seriously, it’s hard to know quite what to make of Martin Creed’s work. There’s a likeable irreverence and a lightness of touch – particularly, I think, to the larger scale works – but there are also works that seem like they should probably never have made it out of the studio. In the end, perhaps it’s Creed’s tendency to never let an idea escape unrealised that’s the point and, if it is, then his Hayward Gallery retrospective What’s the point of it? is the perfect show.
Creed has taken over the Hayward’s space and bent it to his will in a way that few others have attempted. The ramp between the first two spaces has been rendered unusable by the installation of Work No. 1092, MOTHERS, a large neon sign saying MOTHERS that spins overhead (as long as you’re under 6’ 7”; if not, stay away, be prepared to duck or expect to come home headless), sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, which I both love and fear (and yes, I know I’m only 5’ 3”; it still feels scary). The use of the rest of the lower space means that avoiding getting too close to MOTHERS – perhaps perusing it from the safety of Work No. 142, A large piece of furniture (in this case, conveniently, a sofa) partially obstructing a door – means missing other works. The walls on which smaller works hang have, in many cases, been transformed with coloured paint or tape into art works in their own right so that at times it’s hard to know where one piece starts and another begins. Here Work No. 127, The lights going on and off (here in a 30 seconds on/30 seconds off version, rather than the 5 seconds on/5 seconds off of the version Creed showed in the 2001 Turner Prize exhibition) shares a space with, among other works, Work No. 1000, Broccoli prints – a thousand prints of broccoli; unusually, the number of the work here corresponds not just to its place in the catalogue of Creed’s work but also to the number of pieces that make the work – and the film Work No. 670, Orson and Sparky which switches off and on as the lights go on and off. This layering of works, in which individual pieces almost become part of a new assemblage, continues through most of the space as though Creed just can’t leave anything out even if it means hanging works on top of each other. There is real joy in this though; the preposterousness of making a thousand prints of broccoli sits happily with the resulting colourful array. Orson and Sparky – two dogs; one large, one small – are coaxed across a white studio space with no attempt made to hide the film-ness of the work (we see the clapperboard, we hear background discussion and see those enticing the dogs to traverse the space). And we see it all in the short bursts determined by the lights going on and off.
There have been a few shows recently which have challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the white cube gallery space. Sarah Lucas’s retrospective SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble at the Whitechapel, for instance, which worked for me though I know others found the cluttered arrangement problematic, or Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which, for me, suffered from both the work and the viewers being too crowded in the space.
Unlike Lucas and the Chapmans though, Creed’s work is often characterised by being ordered; be it cardboard boxes, bits of furniture, cacti or nails in the wall, Creed organises things in turning them into art works. We may not necessarily be able to make sense of Creed’s world – indeed we may find ourselves floundering in a claustrophobic sea of white balloons – but at least for the most part his work is organised; there’s so much of it because Creed lacks the off switch which would allow him to filter out ideas rather than just making all of them. Creed’s reimagining of objects seems closely related to the anti-art approach of Dada; other works – such as the lights going on an off – have a minimal feel. There are also works that connect more closely with conceptual art practices. Perhaps more unexpectedly, there are paintings, photographs and films. And, because Creed has never been bound by the visual, there are also musical events elsewhere in the Southbank Centre. The question Creed poses in the exhibition’s title – What’s the point of it? – is both an interesting one in its own right and one that’s often been asked in a derogatory way about works like the lights going on and off or Work No. 88, A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball. Apart from (over) filling the gallery, what is the effect of the inclusiveness that sees a self-portrait painted by Creed as a 16 year old doing O Levels finding its way into the exhibition?
In a way, the inclusion of so much in Creed’s show works well as a strategy. There is a real sense of absurdity about some of his work that is strengthened when we get a fuller picture of his practice as a whole. There are works here that are laugh out loud funny; there are also works that are hard to look at (film of people making themselves vomit comes to mind). Despite the potential for Creed’s more esoteric works to alienate sections of his audience, he remains in many ways an oddly feel-good artist. Yes, there are the variations on things to do with a sheet of A4 paper, there are the tables standing one on top of another as a strange tower or the cardboard boxes stacked in size order to form a bizarre stack of what might more usually be considered rubbish and there are the small, text based works – framed sheets to A4 paper each bearing a typed message like ‘fuck off’ or ‘something on the left, just as you come in, not too high or low’ – often placed on walls otherwise occupied by murals.
Though seemingly all encompassing, the show is not arranged as a chronology, nor does is chart Creed’s career thematically. The approach, more akin to a stream of consciousness lets us into Creed’s mind and his endless quest to explore the world in his own, inimitable way. There was a group show at the Hayward Gallery a few years ago called Walking in My Mind; in some respects this seems to be a Creed-shaped annex to that.
There are some key exceptions to the approach of juxtaposing and overlapping works and ideas so that we (or maybe just I; it’s possible it all makes perfect organisational sense to everyone else) get a bit confused by what’s going on both in the gallery and in Creed’s head. Several large works get their own space and are all the stronger for the confusion we’ve experienced along the way. There is a single work on each of the sculpture terraces. On one stands a wall, striped with bricks of different colours giving it a decorative feel. Nonetheless, it’s a wall. You can walk round it, you can wonder how stable it is and you can think about the way it obstructs the view. What you can’t do is look at it in relation to other works; after the curatorial hyperactivity of the downstairs galleries this is a welcome breather. On another terrace a large video screen faces the gallery. On this a single work is playing. We see a man’s torso, essentially unmoving but for his penis, apparently in an endless cycle of getting and losing an erection.
In part of one of the upper galleries, behind a glass wall – a work in its own right, of course – lies Work No. 200, Half the air in a given space, in which half the air in the space is contained within white balloons. The work – one of Creed’s best known – makes visible that which is usually invisible and in doing so creates a space that is by turns claustrophobic, playful and a little bit disturbing. It’s genuinely quite difficult to navigate the room and even with numbers in the space heavily restricted one finds oneself encountering others at every turn. These are balloons though so it’s impossible not to be charmed by what is, effectively, a children’s playground in a gallery space. Even when you’re completely lost within the moment, though, there are constant reminders of the others who have entered the work before you, primarily in the form of little balls of hair trapped by the static of the balloons. Like those who are over 6’ 7”, those who are squeamish about coming face to face with little balls of other people’s hair should proceed with caution. Everyone else should enjoy the show.
Is there a point to any of this? On the whole, I think there is though I’m not entirely clear on what that might be. What I do know though is that I went in with high expectations came away happy; every time I see Creed’s work I find something to smile about and something to think about. At the Hayward Gallery, there’s plenty of both, brought together with a healthy dose of absurdity and charm.
The exhibition continues until 27 April.