Ten Questions: Martin Creed

– Art needs to be a bit stupid to be good, says Martin Creed to Kunstkritikk. On Saturday he opens a new exhibition at the Peder Lund gallery in Oslo.

Martin Creed, Work No. 1092, 2011. White Neon, steel.
Martin Creed, Work No. 1092, 2011. White Neon, steel.

Saturday 14 November will see the opening of an exhibition featuring the British artist Martin Creed at the Peder Lund gallery in Oslo. Creed (b. 1968) became known to a wider audience in 2001 when he won the British Turner Prize for his Work No. 227, The lights going on and off (2000). The work consisted of light bulbs operated by a timer, and did exactly what the title suggests: alternately lighting up the room and plunging it into darkness in five-second intervals.

Work No. 227 (Creed has numbered his works since 1986) has become the British tabloids’ favourite example of the charlatan nature of contemporary art. However, the media’s at times hostile attitude towards Creed seems rather strange, for his works are often humorous, generous and easy to understand: he has turned the stairs of The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh into piano keys that play different notes when you step on them; Work No. 850 (2008) consisted of sprinters dashing through one of the halls of the Tate Gallery every thirty seconds. Last year’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London featured a Ford Focus on the rooftop terrace; at times the car would automatically open all its doors and switch on its radio, horn and windscreen wipers as if it had come alive. For the opening of the Olympic Games in London in 2012 Creed almost brought about the realisation of his impossible Work No 1197, All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

Martin Creed, Work No. 299, Self-portrait smiling, 2003.
Martin Creed, Work No. 299, Self-portrait smiling, 2003.

Creed is also a musician; his approach to pop music is reminiscent of his approach to art. For example, his song Thinking/Not Thinking consists of only two chords, each of which represents one of the two states of mind indicated by the title.

When Kunstkritikk arrives at the gallery, Creed is having lunch. He wears a beige tweed jacket spattered with paint everywhere. Creed, his assistant and two dancers have just completed one of the paintings created in situ at Tjuvholmen. On the walls is a stretched canvas and a protective plastic covering covered in stripes of paint in an array of colours. The dancers have left footprints on the plastic sheet, and a dirty pool of water has formed on the floor. The entire scene calls to mind the site of a Viennese Actionist ritual rather than what it is: the preparatory stages of an exhibition featuring an artist who is known for his conceptual stringency, e.g. for ordering objects by size.

Martin Creed, Work No. 227 The lights going on and off, 2000.
Martin Creed, Work No. 227, The lights going on and off, 2000.

In addition to the exhibition at Peder Lund, Creed will exhibit paintings in the foyer of Kunstnernes Hus, where he will also give an artist talk Thursday night. Creed has a distinctively disarming manner of speech that he also uses in his stand-up-like artist talks: he is hesitant, digressive and nervous and can at times seem a little naïve. Occasionally, however, he erupts in peals of gentle laughter that makes you suspect him of acting out a kind of performance.

You’re showing paintings both here at Peder Lund and at Kunstnernes Hus?

– Yes, we use a similar approach, but the works at Kunstnernes Hus will be painted on glass. We’re trying to get all the colours onto the surface without controlling it too much. Usually with works like this we set some rules in advance, and then we try not to get in the way of the colours and the shapes. Things that aren’t very good are usually too controlled.

I once heard you talk at a screening of Work No. 610, Sick Film (2006), which basically shows a group of people vomiting one after the other. I was surprised to hear you describing throwing up as a metaphor for creation. This is quite a romantic notion, that art is something natural that forces its way through you. Do you consider art to be an involuntary, almost biological function?

Martin Creed, Work No. 1812, 2014. Bricks and mortar 600 x 600 x 100 cm.
Martin Creed, Work No. 1812, 2014. Bricks and mortar 600 x 600 x 100 cm.

– Yes, absolutely. Basically I feel bad, I make works because I want to feel better.

A lot of your work seems to be about choosing an object or a phenomenon and presenting it in accordance with an inherent logic – like the work where you made a wall out of all the different types of bricks you could order (Work No. 1812, 2014). Do you know what the works will look like in advance? Do you make sketches?

– Well, I make a lot of notes in notebooks, or record voice notes. For a painting like the one we just made for the show here, the planning will be verbal or written. And from that point on, taking it into the world involves bringing in different materials and working with other people. It also depends on whether there’s an opportunity to make a work. I worry about making works just because I can; one thing leads to the next and I get offered more shows. I used to think: «Oh no, another show!» But it’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes the best work comes out of just getting somewhere at nine a.m. and doing the job. And sometimes the worst work comes out of really wanting to do something.

I suppose this way of working involves quite a lot of risk, not knowing whether an exhibition will work or not. With procedural works you can’t know the results in advance.

– The reason I do this kind of work at the moment is because I’m sick of planning things. The planning involved in the works here in Oslo is simply done in order to enable us to make them two days before the show. In a way, this way of working comes from doing live shows in theatres and music venues, and taking that approach to the visual works. It’s about thinking of an exhibition as a live event, or as if we were a band coming in to record an album.

Martin Creed, Work No. 1090, Thinking / Not Thinking.

I’m curious about the numbering of the works. At your website the latest addition is Work No 2325. By dividing that number by 29, the years from the first to the latest work, it adds up to 7,5 works a month. What qualifies something you do to go into that list? Do talks have numbers as well?

– No, the qualifications are purely pragmatic and have to do with the works needing to be identified; it’s usually the point at which something goes into the world. A talk is always a work, but also contains many other works. But it wouldn’t necessarily get a number – or maybe it should get a number? I started doing the numbers because I didn’t want titles, but rather to treat everything equally. I try to work in the light of the thought that I don’t know best what the works are about and what kind of effect they will have on other people. There’s a lot more that I don’t know than I do know. Any knowledge I have is basically just a drop in the ocean, so I may as well say that I’m stupid.

Martin Creed, Work No. 9601, 2000.
Martin Creed, Work No. 960, 2000.

Like a Socrates…

– If you think about it, a work needs to be a bit stupid to be good; then it will be more like life. And the worst works are works that deny life. Then they just become commodities.

I’ve actually installed one of your works in a gallery once, a text work made with vinyl letters which reads «the whole world + the work = the whole world.» I was very puzzled by that phrase.

– Oh, really? Why? It’s just straightforward.

Well, that’s exactly it. It’s completely straightforward, but still confusing. My take on it was that the work was just an addition to the totality of the stuff that makes up the world. But now that I have the opportunity to ask, what were your thoughts about this piece?

– To me it has to do with thinking that whatever you do cannot be separated from the world. Everything has an effect on the world and is part of the world. The equation just tries to describe that. I came up with the phrase when I was filling out an application form where you had to include an artist’s statement. So I sat down to describe my work and what I came up with was that equation. Later I thought it could be a work in itself.

Last year you had a big retrospective called What’s the point of it? It’s a title that puts words in the impatient spectator or critic’s mouth, but it’s also an existential question for an artist. Do you ask yourself that question?

– Yes, it’s a question I often ask myself. It’s quite clear to me that the point of it is to make life less boring, you know. More fun or interesting.

And a retrospective is a good occasion for questioning what you do?

– Some people think that you can somehow reach a point where you know something, but I’d rather keep trying things out, experimenting and asking questions. I hate it when people think that they’ve reached a sort of plateau of knowledge.

Martin Creed, Work No. 232 the whole world + the work = the whole world, 2000.
Martin Creed, Work No. 232, the whole world + the work = the whole world, 2000.