British Multimedia Artist and Musician
Summary of Martin Creed
Martin Creed is an artist best known for turning the lights on and off. Winning the Turner Prize (the most prestigious art award in the UK) in 2001 for an installation that consisted only of that action, his conceptual art practice has been ridiculed by sectors of the media but nevertheless left him a hugely significant and well-regarded contemporary artist with a prominent national and international profile within the art world.
Creed's work takes everyday objects, throwaway materials and playful subversions of familiar spaces and asks its viewers to divine meaning through the experience of their viewing. In doing so he raises questions about the material requirements of art and the hang-ups of skill, effort and training that dictate how we judge quality. Although rejecting the label of conceptual art, his work is deeply invested in the notion that art is, and indeed should be present all around us, requiring only attention. This leads to installations, music, performance and objects that are playful and often amusing in their subversive call to reconsider what art is, what it does, and who it is for.
- Creed's work is grounded in the everyday and mundane, made strange by the frame they are placed within. He does so by using familiar objects, materials, or actions in unusual ways, such as structuring them around a rhythm or adhering to tight rules. This has included arranging objects by size, height or volume to create sculptural installations, or creating paintings by marking canvases with the strokes of different sizes of household brushes. Creed's actions as an artist makes his audience reconsider the world around them by reappraising the familiar, foregrounding the unacknowledged beauty that exists in the everyday.
- Creed's work often includes humor, prankishness and/or direct challenges to notions of value, worth and skill. His artworks are conceptually sophisticated but almost deliberately invite the response 'but I could have done that'. This has caused his work to be ridiculed and condemned as a 'con', but that reaction too forms part of its impact. Implicit in this is a challenge to the art market, the international gallery system, and perhaps capitalism itself, where a simple action or everyday object can have its value hugely increased by its framing as an art object.
- Although best known as a visual artist, Creed is also a musician, and ideas of musical rhythm and notation appear throughout all his practice. Scores and notation structure and dictate the experience of his work, with incremental progressions particularly common, as in the graphic patterns of his paintings or in his reimaging of the Scotsman Staircase in Edinburgh, Work no.1059.
- Since his Turner Prize win, Creed has created a series of large public pieces, several of which are now highly regarded as monuments to civic or institutional pride (such as the steps, or his neon installation at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). Despite its media characterisation as impenetrable or elitist, Creed's work has great popular appeal, confirming his egalitarian approach to the making and viewing of art.
Progression of Art
Work No.88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball
The work comprises a crumpled piece of paper, tightly packed into a ball. It is presented in a cardboard box, surrounded by shredded paper packaging, also designed by Creed.
The piece evokes the possibility and anxiety of a blank page, and perhaps the exasperation of the creative process. It combines the idea of making a mistake or a project not going to plan with the near-perfectly spherical ball. Its presentation within packaging of the same material (paper) points to the potential absurdity of its monetary and conceptual value; using crumpled paper to protect crumpled paper. Nevertheless, the geometric precision of the piece is proof of the craftsmanship it entails. Refuting those who criticized his art or deny its status as such, Creed has commented "The ball of paper are beautifully made... they are crafted objects". It does in fact take considerable skill to produce an entirely spherical shape from a single sheet of paper, perhaps suggesting a relationship to more traditional artistic forms like origami.
There is a "cheekiness" to the piece though, which reflects Creed's antagonistic relationship to capitalist reproduction and consumer culture. Contemporary artist Ann Jones remarks: "this isn't a work to be revered, it's a work to greet with a wry smile". The pieces are available for sale, with Creed stating "People do buy them and I've seen one in someone's house. It was on the mantelpiece", again suggesting an incredulous relationship to the contemporary art market.
Work 200: Half the Air In A Given Space
The instructions for Work 200: Half the Air In A Given Space are as follows: "Calculate the volume of the space. Using air, blow up white 12in balloons until they occupy half the volume of the space. As usual the space should be full of air, but half of it should be inside balloons...". As work that is different each time it is displayed, it has no permanent dimensions or appearance.
The idea of making the everyday strange, or physically representing something that the audience takes for granted (the physical presence of air) is one with a strong relationship to Creed's ongoing practice, as well as echoing work like Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds (1966). It also raises questions of behaviour within the gallery, with there being no set or conventional manner in which to engage with the piece. The art critic Jonathan Jones comments that "in Southampton [UK], the balloon room seemed warm and funny", as families used the exhibit as a play area. He adds "It's not the artwork that matters, but the way it sets up relationships between people. You become a member of an airy commonwealth."
In his music, Creed often sings of the possibility of being crushed by objects - the weight of materialism. This work could be seen as an antidote in that it demands space and lightness. Jones used this work as a metaphor for Creed's practice as a whole, and how to appreciate it: "Martin Creed makes artworks that are as light as air. Despise it, burst the balloon, that's your decision. Laugh with it, dive in the balloons and you'll have more fun."
Work No. 227: The lights going on and off
Work No. 227: The lights going on and off comprises an empty room, which is alternately lit for five seconds and in darkness for five seconds - a pattern that repeats ad infinitum. The work uses the existing light fittings and interior space of the gallery it is installed within rather than any external equipment. As such it is created out of the ordinary and everyday mechanisms we interact with, perhaps confounding the viewer's expectations as to the nature of the installation.
Its presence is extremely subtle, and might even be dismissed as a malfunctioning light fitting by those not familiar with the nature of the work. As such, it is left to the viewer to interpret its significance, to consider the piece in relation to the institution in which it is placed, and to the commercial and material relationships exposed by the physical absence of objects.
The use of the existing lighting fixtures within the space responds to Creed's anxiety about creating physical objects as an artist. This is a concern that he also communicates in his songs, in which he speaks of the pressures of a materialist society. Rather than an object, Creed likens Work No. 227: The lights going on and off to a musical score. It is a set of instructions for a performance, rather than a formal and physical installation.
Contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan sees Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, specifically the variation between light and dark, as representative of the periodic changes in mood we all experience: "It has the ability to compress happiness and anxiety within one single gesture. Lights go on, lights go off - sunshine and rain, and then back to beginning to repeat endlessly." For Cattelan, this is a frightening reminder of the human condition.
The freedom to interpret the subtle nature of the work has left it open to parody and ridicule, with several newspapers 'outraged' that it would be considered art at all. The installation led the tabloid newspaper The Sun (owned by conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch) to launch its own parodic version of the Turner Prize, the Turnip Prize.
Work No. 975 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT
The phrase "EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT" in large neon letters was designed to fit the length of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's facade, and installed there to mark its 50th anniversary in 2009. The installation has since become part of the Gallery's identity, regularly photographed by visitors and used in publicity shots. Other versions of the work exist, including variants in Times Square in New York and at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver.
The context of the work affects how the phrase is understood by its viewer. In Times Square, it has commercial connotations and evokes the sometimes empty reassurances of marketing, whilst at the Edinburgh museum it is seen more as offering public comfort - particularly effective on long winter nights as it lights up the museum gardens, facing outwards towards the public. Placed against the stern and historically weighted Doric columns of the museum, the work stands out as a modernist intervention amongst otherwise formal architecture, reflecting the housing of a museum of modern art (1900-Present) in a neo-classical building of 1825.
In contrast to its bold appearance, the work invites a contemplative response. It reflects Creed's desire to "communicate and interact" with viewers, who he hopes will take "some excitement or thought or a little experience" from the work. Some critics, including Jonathan Jones, have suggested that the bold presence of the phrase encourages viewers to question its truthfulness, and as such, its sentiment veers "between melancholia and exuberance". In this and in its medium, it is reminiscent of the artist's Turner-winning artwork Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000).
Blue neon - Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
This work is made up of five thick strokes of dark red acrylic paint, the bottom stroke spanning the width of the canvas and each subsequent stroke reducing in height and width. The overall effect is reminiscent of a stepped pyramid or ziggurat, with the rest of the white ground on the canvas left exposed. Work 1105 is one of a series of paintings in this style, which the artist began in 2006. They were made shortly after the artist's return to painting, after he became disillusioned by the medium in his years as an art student. They do however continue to correspond to Creed's minimalist practice and ambiguous relationship to skill and artistic convention. The paintings resist any representational analysis, echoing the experiential minimalism of painters like Mark Rothko.
The height of the strokes in Work 1105 correspond to the size of each brush in a standard pack of household brushes, demonstrating Creed's reluctance to make choices. He states: "I find it difficult to choose, or to judge, or to decide". Creed has again denied or refused any notion of skill in the production of this image, instead adhering to a set formula of production. The journalist Miranda Sawyer has commented that the ziggurat series of paintings is all about a set of rules, the result determined by the dimensions of the brushes and the canvas. In this sense, the works are "part random, part ordered". This approach has something in common with Work 200: Half the Air In A Given Space (1998) and Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000) inasmuch as the instructions for the work are the same, with a few variable factors such as the space it inhabits.
Acrylic paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
This work constitutes Creed's restoration of the Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh. The steps were formerly in a poor state of repair but remained an important historic part of the cityscape. Creed was commissioned by the Fruitmarket Gallery to create a public artwork to change the public's perception of the steps and to bring art into their daily lives. In response to this commission the artist clad each of the 104 steps in a different kind of marble. This was potentially inspired by Italian techniques, as Creed currently lives on Alicudi island near Sicily and Scotland has an enduring history of Italian immigration. The idea follows Creed's 2010 solo exhibition "Down Over Up", which brought together various works inspired by progressions by degree - whether this be size, musical pitch or tone. It took two years of architectural engineering and complex stonework to plan and deliver the installation.
The art critic Jonathan Jones has spoken of the effectiveness of Work no.1059 as a piece that inhabits a space between art and everyday life. He calls the work "a generous, modest masterpiece of contemporary public art", since the subdued beauty of the cladding enriches the experience of using the steps. Like many of his other installation works, the piece is subtle enough that it may not even be recognized as an artwork until pointed out. In Jones' words "This is a model of what public art ought to be: not a pompous statue but a contribution to living in the world". Furthermore, the way the work is experienced in the world is important to Creed - more so than his own experience of it in the studio. Like a score of music that is "re-made" every time it is played, Creed believes the artwork takes on new life each time somebody walks up or down it.
Biography of Martin Creed
Creed was born in Wakefield, England in 1968 before moving to Scotland at three, where his father (an ironmonger) lectured on glassmaking and jewellery at the Glasgow School of Art. Creed grew up in a musical as well as artistic family. His grandmother was a concert pianist, and Creed began to learn to play the violin at four and the piano at twelve. As he remembers, "I was taught as a child the most important things were music and art." These two forms would later be combined throughout his own artistic work.
As a child, Creed attended meetings of The Society of Friends with his parents. He has since spoken of the influence in musical terms of the silence at these Quaker meetings, which was only occasionally punctuated by brief interjections of sound and/or speech.
Education and Early Training
From 1986 to 1990, Creed studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art. Though he found the discipline restrictive (and did not resume painting until 2005), he discovered a sense of freedom in other media. In particular, he was inspired by his tutor and performance artist Bruce McLean, who gave Creed the confidence to explore different types of artistic production. He later commented "I loved my time at the Slade... I really had a good time when I was a student".
A formative experience during Creed's student years arose from his intention to rethink the notion of art on a wall: "Instead of making something for the wall I thought why don't I go in from the wall. I made this thing going in and one piece going out from the wall and put them opposite each other. It was called In and Out Piece." On realising the sexual connotations of his creation, Creed was overcome with embarrassment. Nevertheless he believes the response of the audience in reading it as sexual to be a sign that the work had meaning - "that there's something there".
In the late 1980s and 90s, Creed's interest in the everyday and ready-made began to develop further as he made work from materials such as A4 paper and blu-tack. This freedom of material reflects his argument that "anything is art that is used as art by people". In 1987, Creed began his ongoing practice of numbering each artwork alongside their more narrative titles. He exhibited throughout the UK during this time, exploring the seriality and simplicity that would later become his trademark. Between 1994 and 1999 he performed with his band Owada, releasing several albums and singles. He has performed as a solo artist from 1999.
In 2001, Creed won the Turner Prize (the UK's most prestigious prize for contemporary art), primarily on the strength of his installation Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000) - an empty room in which the lights switch alternately on and off. The audacity of displaying only a single work in the Turner Prize exhibition, and such a simple one, was praised by the judges, who also recognized its deceptively complicated engagement with the space and musical rhythm. Nevertheless, Creed's win provoked extreme tabloid hostility and ridicule, with the question of whether the installation was art at all raised by several culturally conservative critics, columnists and commentators. It is Creed's installation, often placed alongside Tracy Emin's My Bed and Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (which were also ridiculed for their conceptual nature) that are still those most often cited by UK media as reflecting the perceived banality of contemporary artistic practice and the pointlessness of government funding (of "bad art", or what is not art at all).
Rhythmic technique appears also in Creed's music, which has always proceeded as a parallel activity to his visual art and installation practice. Both Creed's visual art and his music reflect his particular anxieties: the crushing weight of material objects and the need for control, including over taboo or hidden behaviours. Having sung of the former, the artist began to avoid making objects and to draw attention instead to things that already exist: paper, the air, sounds and words. He explored this dematerialisation in his films Work No. 610: Sick Film, in which a person vomits in a white space, and Work No. 660: Shit Film, where they defecate. He says of the work: "I thought: 'Every day I go to the toilet but it's a hidden thing and it's something I'm scared of'. I think it's horrible, I wash my hands all the time. So I thought maybe I should look at why I avoid it."
The first major survey of Creed's practice took place in 2014 at London's Hayward Gallery, with subsequent retrospectives in both New York at the Park Avenue Armory and at the Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar (Netherlands).
Creed now lives and works between his house on the island of Alicudi (near Sicily), his flat in London (located in the Barbican), and his girlfriend's (writer and psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose) house in south London. He enjoys moving around as "a break from [his] stuff". His house on Alicudi is reachable only by boat, and he enjoys its remoteness - watching it "get smaller and smaller in the distance until it is gone" each time he leaves.
Exhibited national and internationally, his work continues to span fine art, music, public art and performance. Creed does not necessarily see a distinction between these disciplines, explaining that art should be able to live in the world and therefore encompass all aspects of human experience. In line with this idea, since his Turner prize win, his work has been exhibited in unlikely places including at the restaurant and cocktail bar, Sketch (Work No. 1343) and Victoria Beckham's clothing store (Work No. 249: Half the air in a given space), both in London. In 2011 Creed was commissioned to create a work for the iconic Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh, Scotland. Cladding each step in a different marble, the permanent installation is used every day by commuters and tourists to access parts of the city, reflecting again interest in art being part of the world rather than remote from it.
In recent years, paintings and drawings have emerged once again as part of his practice. In 2013-15 Creed began to paint naive portraits, including one of his girlfriend - a departure from his previous works based on sequences, words and everyday life. Another departure can be found in his venture into the political, with two videos Work No. 2533: Border Control and Work No. 2530: Let Them In (both 2015), made in response to his outrage at what he perceives as the lacking political response to the refugee crisis in Europe. The artist may be unwilling to accept that these constitute a "departure" from his previous work, as he states "You can't separate things in the world". Thus his art is a reflection of, and part of the world in which he lives.
The Legacy of Martin Creed
Creed's work can be seen as a response and an antidote to the material world in which we live, as his pieces are made with minimal physical intervention. The artist's practice of using everyday materials such as paper, air and light has been described as "a series of exercises in awareness", drawing the viewer's attention to things they might otherwise overlook. This idea extends to the overwhelming amount of choice that characterises consumer culture - which Creed looks to avoid. There is an anxious energy to Creed's work that appears in his desire to avoid conscious choice and to place objects in order. However this is something that he would like to overcome in the future: "One of my big problems is about control - I am trying to bypass that."
The question of "what is art?" is one that Creed takes very seriously. His Work No. 143 was made up of the words "the whole world + the work = the whole world", which could either be understood to mean that art has a negligible impact, or that it is in fact intrinsic to life. This potential tension between contradictory meanings is apparent elsewhere, not least in his own appraisal of his practice. The artist has stated "I go between thinking my work is shit and that it is great." Whilst he has claimed not to think of himself as an artist, he also believes that art can be anything, and is a core part of normal life: "People are crazy and mad, and life's crazy. Art's a place where you can do crazy, mad, stupid things."
Creed says that his works are not made as an "academic exploration of conceptual art" but are motivated by emotion and the wish to connect with people " to communicate and ... say hello". As such, he has spoken out against galleries that caption his work with complicated explanations, suggesting these are borne out of fear that there is nothing more to say about it: "I think the fear of emptiness is one of the biggest fears ...They want stuff to fill up the world. They want an explanation."
Despite this point of contention, Creed is generally well-liked by art critics and curators - somewhat unusually, in fact, for a Turner Prize-winning artist. The critic and art history writer Julian Bell calls him "a sweet, charming act", whilst others speak of his eccentric appearance and dress sense or the energy that stems from his obsessive relationship to his artistic motifs.