Sunday, 9 March 2014


Martin Creed: What’s the Point of It?  - Hayward Gallery, London, 29 Jan – 24 April 2014

Hayward PublishingMartin Creed: What’s the Point of It?  with contributions from Bill Bailey, Cliff Lauson, Paul Morley and Joahim Pissarro,  2014 - Special exhibition price £25 (RRP £30)

Work No. 1143, 2011

The need to make choices introduces the possibility of making a mistake.  Martin Creed has often explained his wish to avoid that. Accordingly, he has devised four main choice-avoidance strategies:

·  * Incorporate both sides of a binary: the lights go on and off (here in a room full of intermittently-lit work); a door opens and closes; half the air in a room is in balloons, and half isn’t; a song says yes and no.

·   * Avoid selection from a sequence by showing the full progression: boxes, nails, cacti or metronomes are presented in order of ascending / descending size or speed; a song counts from one to a hundred. 

Work No. 1000 Broccoli prints, 2009-10

·   *  Include or use all types:  broccoli is printed in 150 available colours; every sort of tape is stuck on the wall; a gallery’s whole collection of sculpture is crammed into a room.

·  * Devise a method which cedes control, so you can’t make conscious choices: a monochrome is finished when the felt tip pen runs out; paintings are made blind, or by having to jump up high because the canvas is almost out of reach.

You could arguably collapse those into two strategies: use both/all states/types; or prevent yourself making conscious decisions.  Creed has other streams of work – stacking as a means of displaying structure, and seeking to show items at their most basic, for example – but much of his work can be categorised as choice avoidance.

Work No. 629, 2007 
How easy is it, though, not to make choices? In the broad sense, it’s impossible, for the refusal to choose is itself a choice, and life is full of situations in which a reluctance to commit one way or the other becomes, by default, a different choice, and often a worse one than either up-front decision. Just so, Creed’s choice of strategy limits his potential. Having said which, his distinctive approach has garnered him a prize-winning niche in the art world – a place confirmed by a whole-of-the- Hayward retrospective (when many artists get only half the given space) and accompanying comprehensive monograph.

Consider Work No. 1029, 2007-10, a 2 metre high screen set up on the Hayward’s roof. It shows, against a suitably phallic skyline, a penis rise and fall in a two minute cycle which most visitors seemed to find more comic than shocking. Implicit decisions include: whether to use your own penis – I suspect Creed didn’t – and, if not, what colour and type; how big to make the projection, whether to speed or slow the action is it real time?), whether to use colour film (he hasn’t, which keeps pornography at a distance) or provide sound (it’s silent). 


Creed has chosen a circumcised member and one which varies little in size between the flaccid and erect phases. That shifts the focus to a typically simple contrast of – and refusal to choose between - up and down, rather than introducing growth or emergence as topics. It’s easy enough, then, to imagine how Creed could have chosen differently, or could have used his ‘progression’ or ‘all the types available’ stratagems for choice avoidance, perhaps by lining up a synchronised multitude. Creed may have made the right decisions here, but quite a lot of choices were required.

Work No. 1686, 2013 turns Creed’s on / off mode into a comedy caper. There’s a car on the upper floor’s sculpture terrace, which isn’t completely absurd, as the Hayward’s architecture is rather like a  multi-storey car park.  That could be it, were this a work about placement, so there’s scope to be startled when the car springs into comprehensive life: the horn honks, the doors, bonnet and boot fly open like a beetle’s wing cases, the lights flash on and wink, and the radio blares - as well as the engine starting. 

The 30 second cycle has a fullness missing from earlier examples such as the door opening and closing. This, I feel, should join the lights and the balloon fest – here in a 7,000 strong white version requiring two staff on permanent pumping duty – as Creed’s key half-and-half works. Those on-off pieces are then a sub-set of the demonstrations of binary states, of which I think the cleverest is the screwing up of a piece of A4 paper (Work No.88, 1995), in which the work is simultaneously made and unmade, destroyed and created. 

As for the show as a whole: it’s teeming, with 175 works. They have an almost childish quality in bulk, and plenty feel analogous to how Paul Morley describes Creed’s music: as ‘songs that were written in order to discover what would happen if there were songs which sounded like this; after a few seconds, a minute or two, it is clear what happens if the songs sound the way they do, and little need to carry on’. But there’s room in the world for instant charm, and though Creed provides few laugh-out-loud moments, I’ve rarely seen so many people smiling at an exhibition.

One might hope that the well-illustrated catalogue would explain ‘what the point is’ at two levels: is there anything not immediately apparent which we need to know in order to ‘get’ individual works? And what depth can be added to the show by exploring its underlying themes?

Work No. 1325, 2011
 Mostly, it does a fair job of task one, though without making it easy to track down where a particular work is discussed. Yet little light is thrown on a fair proportion of the abstract paintings dotted about, and nor does the show’s labelling and leaflet help much (the latter, organised as an A-Z companion rather than a room by room guide, is also capable of proving frustrating). We are told that some paintings are done blind – painted while the canvas is covered in a box – and some by ‘jumping up’ to a canvas almost out of reach: two means of avoiding decisions by undermining the artist’s ability to exert conscious control. Some feature every brush in a box used to make every possible width of mark in a ziggurat. But what of works such as No.s 1065, 1143, and 1325 (all from 2011). They’re pleasant enough abstract pictures, but conceptually are they more than the equivalent in paint of the doodle-like drawings which illustrate non-committal ways of filling a page?
Work No. 1497 Jumping Up Portrait of Luciana, 2013

The book’s oddest contribution is from comedian Bill Bailey: he selects a hundred of Creed’s works, reprised as pink thumbnails, and gives them alternative titles. I didn’t laugh, nor did I feel enlightened. There are more orthodoxly-presented essays by Paul Morley, who considers Creed in the context of his long-running band, as ‘a musician who thinks like an artist, an artist who thinks like a musician’; and by Cliff Lauson, who discusses how Creed tests limits while also seeking to elicit emotional responses from the viewer. Lauson sees that (I’m not sure I agree: what about, say, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Nancy Holt, Bas Jan Ader?) as being unexpected in conceptual work, and so part of the case for saying, with Creed, that he’s more of an expressionist. Joachim Pissarro has talked extensively to the artist, but we don’t get the usual interview format. Instead, Pissarro provides commentaries on several of Creed’s ‘apophthegms’, as he terms them. Those cover his fascination with numbers, his humour, the potential connections to his Quaker upbringing: Quakers don’t believe in sacred places or leaders, which ‘returns us to the cornerstone of Creed’s work… an anarchistic approach which sees everything being equal’ – another way of framing his preference for not choosing – ‘like the Quakers, Creed considers has work, his life, his self to be equal parts of the world’.

Still from Work No. 610 Sick Film

Pissarro writes most about the sick and shit pieces, which have a separate film room at the Hayward for two brief sequences of vomiting, and what seems the rather drawn-out five minutes a woman takes to expel a couple of modest stools. There are analogies to be drawn with the creative process: vomit, says Creed ‘is like the creative act’: you cannot stop it; it is stronger than you; there is a profound reason for it ‘to come out. Nothing new there, of course, we’re in Viennese Actionist territory. Also, he wants ‘to get from the inside out’ – another choice avoidance and dichotomy. Shit, too, is ‘the most basic thing that people make, and it’s healthy to make it’. And the shit works give him a tidy repost if other works are reckoned to be crap. “You think that’s sick / shit…?”

So to the obvious choices. Should you go to the Hayward? I think so, and remember you have to decide by 27 April. Should you buy the catalogue? Possibly: it’s good, but £25 takes a bit of weighing up. And should you yourself adopt the creed of choice-avoidance? Well, you decide – but I’m pretty sure it would be a mistake in life, however well it works as art.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.