Martin Creed understands the wisdom of childhood, where a cardboard box can be more fun than the fancy toy that came out of it. In his installations and sculptures, Creed invites his audience to take a fresh look at everyday things like a balled-up piece of printer paper, a strip of masking tape, a room full of black balloons or a random person's smile. Simultaneously sweet and subversive, Creed's work makes ordinary things special and art less precious.
The 37-year-old artist was raised in Scotland and moved to London to attend the Slade School of Art in 1990. By 1993, Creed had gone public with his unusual esthetic, installing Work No. 81, "a one inch cube of masking tape in the middle of every wall in a building," inside the offices of the London publishing firm Starkmann Ltd., where it was understood as a homage to the stifled creativity of cubical-crazed bureaucrats.
Creed went on to fill gallery rooms with black, white or red balloons for Work No. 200, "half the air in a given space" in 1998, and post on the side of Tate Britain a cryptic white neon sign that read "the whole world + the work = the whole world" in 2000. His 2003 piece, Work No. 275, Small Things sums up Creed's credo with the words "Small Things" written in radiant white neon letters running the length of the walls of Analix Forever gallery in Geneva.
In 2001, Creed won the Turner Prize, beating out the other shortlisted artists, Mike Nelson, Richard Billingham and Isaac Julien. His installation in the Turner exhibition at the Tate, Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off, featured the existing lights in an empty exhibition gallery automatically turning on and off at five second intervals. The event launched a widespread examination of the meaning and definition of art in the British press, where contemporary art is routinely condemned for "not being art at all."
In response to the accusation that an empty room could never count as art, Creed was quoted by critic Nigel Reynolds for the Telegraph, saying "[The Lights Going On and Off] activates the whole of the space it occupies without anything physically being added and I like that because in a way it's a really big work with nothing being there. . . . My work is about 50 percent what I make of it and 50 percent what people make of it." Without abdicating responsibility for his art, Creed's statement, like his work, proves that a generous gesture, no matter how modest, is always beautiful.
Martin Creed is exhibiting new work at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York, Mar. 12-Apr. 9, 2005.
Ana Finel Honigman: You often put banal objects, like a wardrobe, into unexpected contexts, such as a gallery doorway. What was the desire in that? Were you driven by the prospect of provoking an itching desire in the viewer to move the wardrobe?
Martin Creed: I think the desire, the want, is to be excited. That's what makes me make things. That is what makes me try. Instead of putting something in a convenient place where it can be comfortably viewed and appreciated, I wanted to put something in an awkward place. I was thinking -- not of making something that you look at and go "wow," but something that you bump into and go "ow."
AFH: So, art is defined by its context?
MC: Placement of work always affects work: where it is is always a part of it. In the case of this work, placement is nearly all of it. It came from thinking about where? first and what? later. For me this work moves away from trying to make something and towards just trying to make something happen. I have no specific or particular aim with regard to viewers, but I hope they will be excited.
AFH: Do you find negative reactions as exciting as praise?
MC: Maybe, I don't know. . . . I mean, I want people to like my work but negative reactions are definitely exciting.
AFH: Does it matter to you why your work appeals to people?
MC: I don't know. It matters to me but I don't know how helpful it is.
AFH: In 2000 you made a neon sculpture of the words "Don't Worry." What do you think people worry about when they look at art?
MC: I wasn't thinking particularly about art when I made that piece. It was originally made for a hospital.
AFH: So, was that statement intended to comfort the patients? Were you hoping your art would be helpful?
MC: No, I was just trying to make something, something I could live with.
AFH: Have you found that there still is resistance in the press or viewing public to conceptual or unconventional art?
MC: I don't really see a resistance. I suppose maybe there is some kind of resistance to certain kinds of art work, maybe there is. I don't consider my work to be either "conceptual" or "unconventional." I think it's conventional and unconceptual.
AFH: OK, but if you had to categorize your work using only the most conventional terms, how would you describe a piece like your Work No. 79, Some Blu-tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall (1993)?
MC: I would call it a thing, a little sticky round blue thing. I would probably categorize it as a wall-work.
AFH: But without your conceptualizing it as a wall-work, then how does it function as art?
MC: By saying that it is unconceptual, I mean to try to say that the work is not an idea, it is a thing to look at.
AFH: Would you say that art should make critical comment about the way the world works -- whether that comment is political, or not?
MC: I don't mind. There is no "should" about it. If there is, I think art should be free and without prejudice.
AFH: When you made your neon text installation, the whole world + the work = the whole world, was it the same as saying, "the whole world - the work = the whole world," or do you think art can somehow alter the world; even if only a little?
MC: No, to me it wasn't the same. Yes! Everything alters the world a lot.
AFH: Are there ways that art can alter the world like nothing else can?
MC: Everything is different. Everything makes a difference.
AFH: In your experience, do you think questions about your intentions are worthwhile or does focus on you just limit the way people look at the work?
MC: I think that everything is something in itself.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.