PRINT February 2000


The art of Martin Creed sits lightly in the world. Sometimes it’s barely there at all. Many of the carefully chosen individuals who were mailed Creed’s limitless multiple Work No. 88: a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, 1994, found that, in spite of its being a finely crumpled sphere accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, they had nonetheless binned it by mistake. Few nighttime drivers glancing up at the first floor of a corner building along one of London’s busiest thoroughfares would have recognized the sight of blinking lights, now on, now off in syncopated unison, as Creed’s Work No. 160: the lights going on and off, 1996, just as the irritated visitor who forced open the blocked door of the West London Javier López Gallery failed to realize he had just destroyed Work No. 115: a doorstop fixed to a floor to let a door open only 45 degrees, 1995.

So far, so minimal. This, after all, is an artist who declares that he has “nothing in particular” to say and who strives to find the most limited means with which to say it. Creed’s self-effacing view of his art can be summed up by his Work No. 143, a written piece from 1996 that states, “the whole world + the work = the whole world.” But that’s only part of the story (a minimal part, if you like). For along with their acute modesty, Creed’s low-key spins on our quotidian existence are also strangely expressive. They assert themselves in unexpected ways. Seen from the street, a floor of flashing lights becomes something perplexing, even uncanny; and think of the anger and frustration captured in a screwed-up ball of paper or conjured by that damn doorstop.

And then there is the work’s most un-minimal sense of humor. It would be difficult to imagine Donald Judd painstakingly placing “a 1” cubic stack of masking tape in the middle of every wall in a building" or, for that matter, Carl Andre positioning his floor tiles in the provocative manner of Creed’s Work No. 100: on a tiled floor, in an awkward place, a cubic stack of tiles built on top of one of the existing tiles, which tripped up unsuspecting visitors to the bathroom of the Rhizome Gallery in Amsterdam in 1994. This is art that allows the minor to become major and that reminds us—whether we like it or not––that in real life it is the inconsequential that dominates.

Indeed, Creed’s most insubstantial works can be his most overwhelming. The 1998 epic sculpture/installation/happening Work No. 201: half the air in a given space is precisely that—half the calculated cubic volume of a chosen venue, contained within several thousand party balloons. But no deadpan literalism can conjure up the intensely physical experience of being immersed in a neck-high ocean of bouncing, popping, pulsating packaged air. At the Cabinet Gallery in London, where the balloons were white, it was like being immersed in a euphoric Zen bubble bath; at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, it was a multicolored, carnivalesque experience—which, it’s worth pointing out, completely obscured the Andre that happened to be installed on the floor below.

Sound is no less important than vision to Creed: Early pieces include “a doorbell amplified”; “a metronome working at a moderate speed”; and an audio cassette of “all the sounds on a drum machine.” Just as his artworks go to extreme pains to be as pared-down as possible, so do their aural counterparts, and the musical compositions that Creed performs both on his own and as part of his rock trio Owada employ the same systematic reduction to the bare essentials as everything else that he does. It’s not too difficult to guess the lyrics of the Owada songs “1–100,” “start middle end,” or “1234,” which, with a wry wit, play with and off standard rock riffs and formulas, all delivered with deadpan precision spliced with the driving rhythms of rock ’n’ roll. For in the same way that his ultra-pragmatic art carries a surprising emotional charge, so Creed’s music is anything but austere. It may owe a debt to über-Minimalist Philip Glass and the chance compositions of John Cage, but it has as much to do with the highly charged, escalating energy of punk bands like The Jam. (Creed even admits to a fondness for Johnny Cash.)

Music, however, is more than just an element that sits alongside the art; its influence is at the core of every piece Creed makes. The descriptive certificates accompanying each work function like sheet music: Just as anyone can make music if they read the score, so anyone can make a Martin Creed if they follow the instructions. There is at once leeway for individual interpretation and a rigid set of rules to be adhered to. The notion of “some blu-tak kneaded, rolled into a ball and depressed against a wall” (Work No. 79, 1993), for example, is both precise and open-ended; just as any item of furniture the right size and placed the right way could become the 1996 piece Work No. 142 (“a large piece of furniture partially obstructing a door”). Sometimes Creed even presents musical scores in their own right, made to be played, such as the deliciously restrained Work No. 101: For Pianoforte, 1994, which consists of playing middle C on a piano just once.

It’s one of their many paradoxes that all of Creed’s immaculately resolved artworks emerge out of an acute indecision. “I find that it’s difficult to choose, to decide that one thing’s more important than the other,” he says. “So what I try and do is to choose without having to make decisions.” To this end, he takes the stuff that already exists in the world—air, noise, a door—makes his mundane “materials” fulfill their expected function, and then subjects them to a further series of “nonchoices.” Hence the doorstop in Work No. 115 is positioned at the exact point between open and closed; the lights in Work No. 160 are off for as long as they are on; and the balloons in the various “given spaces” have tended to be either “noncolors” like black or white or all the colors one can possibly buy. As far as Creed is concerned, air is the perfect material: everywhere yet invisible, both everything and nothing. Appropriately, his most permanent and conspicuous work to date, a public text piece that runs some forty-odd feet across the frieze of a former orphanage in East London and declares EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT, is made from glass tubes of white neon, a fragile combination of live electricity and inert gas. (A version of the piece is currently on view in a Public Art Fund project in Times Square.)

For not only does Creed encourage his work to make itself, he also likes it to cancel itself out. “I find it a lot easier if it negates itself at the same time as pushing itself forward—so there’s an equal positive and negative which adds up to nothing, but at the same time is something too.” This perverse desire to make both something and nothing can manifest itself formally, as in his 1994 Work No. 99: an intrusion and a protrusion from a wall, while it also allows his bursting balloons, his thrown-away balls of paper, his buzzing doorbells and flashing lights to dip in and out of the world at large. For the art of Martin Creed is both of and about the world we inhabit, where options are open, decisions are difficult, and the most banal matters sometimes have the most profound impact. When Creed writes EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT across a ruined building in one of London’s lowest-income areas, he means just that—but exactly what that means is up to you.