Back in the 1990s, when I was producing Gallery Beat, my madcap public-access video chronicle of the New York art scene, I kicked off about 60 episodes of the show with a song called Hello by a band named Owada, which was (and is) Martin Creed's band. Owada was named after the group's bass player, Keiko Owada -- don't ask, it's an art thing -- and was definitely the unofficial band of the YBA crew.
So it was with some interest that I took myself down to Abrons Art Center on Grand Street on the Lower East Side for the "Martin Creed Variety Show" on Mar. 30, 2007. The British artist is pretty famous in New York -- his Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off (2000) remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art till Apr. 9, 2007 -- but he's otherwise not very visible around these parts.
The ticket was a bargain at $7 a head, so much so that the first night sold out and the Public Art Fund, which was sponsoring the thing, added a second show.
As the crowd entered the theater, the stage was in a state of semi-readiness, set up with guitars, drums and amps. The stage backdrop was up, so you could also see all the stuff backstage, like crates, stagehands and, way back, a grand piano. It was hard to tell but a pianist was playing. It sounded like someone warming up. Up close I could see that it was Mr. Creed, plinking away, riffing little tunes softly. He was already working, but people didn't seem to know it. †
After everyone was seated, the stage went dark and Martin came out and began talking about how he wanted to be liked. He stood there in his rumpled velvet jacket, red-eyed with his funny teeth, saying that he was nervous and didn't know what to say except that he does like doing what he does, and that he does it so people will like him.
He talked for some minutes, and it was all both very matter of fact and dreamy. Then he strapped on his guitar and the bassist Keiko Owada and drummer Kate Hutt came out, and they blasted away. I knew a bunch of the songs and I could tell that after ten years of doing these songs, they really had it down. Songs like Nothing, which is about nothing. Or 1-100, which is literally Martin counting to 100 while the band plays one chord furiously and loud.
Other songs like Feeling Blue and Not Yours are old favorites of mine. A classical string quartet came out and played a minimalist composition, no doubt composed by Creed, and a short video played showing people and dogs just walking across a seamless white set. The band would play a couple of songs, and then Martin would quietly talk or do some artsy bit of vaudeville, like having a woman come out on stage and mimic his every move, unremarkable though they were. After a bit, a second mimic came out, a very short man (it made me think of Dr. Evil's Mini-Me).
Martin threw flowers to the audience, and the stage curtains went up and down, and this did strike me as a bit contrived, because it had that kind of "art" feel to it. Some people in the audience disappeared. The variety was everywhere, and not all on the stage.
It was the music that glued me to it. The music was clear and loud and maximum minimalism. The songs have good hooks, and Martin Creed plays it strong with hints of Johnny Cash, straight up and no flash. He is likable, even sweet. Whatever his work is about, I like it, and he's damn good at it.
PAUL HASEGAWA-OVERACKER (H-O) is presently in post-production on the feature documentary, Guest of Cindy Sherman.