Thursday, 25 February 2010
Martin's credo: if you can say it, it's art
Strange interior this. A set of tables, the largest at the bottom, is stacked so that the smallest almost touches the ceiling. Along the mantelpiece a line of terracotta plant pots is arranged from smallest to largest. In the drawing room a pair of curtains is repeatedly opening and shutting.
This is the world of the Scottish artist Martin Creed, in his first solo show in the country that raised him. For those who come out in a rash at the mention of the Turner Prize, Creed is there in the pantheon of irritants. After Damien Hirst’s cow and calf pickled in formaldehyde (which won the prize) and Tracey Emin’s My Bed (which didn’t) came Creed’s installation, The Lights Going On and Off, which carried off contemporary art’s most famous award in 2001.
It was a witty work of minimalism — his admirers said — that comprised an empty room in the Tate Gallery in which the lights were switched on and off. For that, Creed was presented with a cheque for £20,000.
Here in the upmarket Park Circus district of Glasgow, in the Victorian townhouse of his friend Douglas Gordon, Creed, 41, has been set loose in a domestic setting for the first time, filling two storeys with his ever-so-familiar works.
A stack of A4 papers piled up near the staircase. A wall that has been criss-crossed in red paint, applied with a paint roller. And, on the first floor landing, a standard lamp is going on and off again in an exhibit entitled — you have probably guessed — The Lamp Going On and Off.
“One of the things with works like this is that you can describe them in words and you can carry them about in your head,” he chuckles. “I like that. It’s like the way you can carry around a poem, if you can hold it in your head as an idea.”
Critics protest that anyone could come up with this stuff, and Creed’s answer is disarming: yes, they could. What sets him apart is “dogged repetition”, the same thing produced again and again until someone takes a good long look at his work — a scrunched-up paper ball or a lump of Blu-Tack — and decides to make a purchase for, it is said, a five-figure sum.
For some people this trade in the art of the stationery cupboard is no laughing matter. But then Creed, for all his self-deprecating humour, can strike a serious note about his work.
The word “art”, he says, as much as it means anything, is about “putting things in front of people for their enjoyment”. There is no difference between his stack of tables “and a painting by David Hockney. It is an arrangement of colours and shapes. The fact that it is made of tables or paint is a detail. To me, the more I think about it, all artists are the same. But I don’t even like to say I am an artist, because the word art is so difficult.”
Creed, who was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, was brought up in Milton of Campsie and Lenzie, a buttoned-up little town on the northeast fringe of Glasgow. When he was growing up a single pub served Lenzie’s population of about 8,000, and the notion of opening and closing a door repeatedly probably represented a good night out. The local psychiatric hospital forms one of his strongest memories — he recalls as a teenager guiding lost and confused patients back to the hospital gates.
He left Scotland to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in Central London and, in the following 20 years, only twice exhibited north of the Border, each time in group shows. This year Creed returns with a vengeance. He has a second solo show at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and will convert the dark, dank Scotsman Steps — close to Waverley Station — into a £100,000 artwork lined with marble.
In August a dance work premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London will be reprised at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh. To cap it all, a collection of essays, with a introduction by the artist, will be published by Thames and Hudson and introduced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
It all adds up to the image of an artist who appears to have been accepted into a kind of critical and commercial mainstream. But when he is back in London, as he makes his way down to his office on Brick Lane, he still won’t tell taxi drivers what he does for a living. “I just say I work in the city,” he says. “Which I do.”
In an office? “Yes, in an office. I did have a studio for two years but it was a waste of space. Most of my work is planned in private and done in the world, it is not made in a studio and then moved out.”
And in an office, of course, he has his palette to hand: the angle-poise lamp, the Blu-Tack, the paperclips. “Yes everything is there,” he says. “Masking tape too.”
* Things, Martin Creed, is at the Common Guild in Glasgow.
Read it online here, on/off, where you'll find a few more interesting facts about the man. I really enjoyed meeting Creed, who was great company. Picture by Jim "Knuckles" Glossop.