The Paradox of Martin Creed: The Artist on His Biggest Gallery Exhibition Ever

Martin Creed at Tate Britain in Nov. 2011.

Martin Creed at Tate Britain in Nov. 2011.

Lanky Martin Creed was standing on the first floor of Hauser & Wirth gallery on the Upper East Side, dressed in lightly paint-splattered, black pants that rose up just above the ankles and an ever-so-slightly mismatched navy shirt, his frizzy gray hair pulled into a ponytail and his face covered by glasses so large they looked like protective eyewear. He was laughing enormously about—something. With apologies to our brothers and sisters across the pond, his giggles were punctuated with bursts of indecipherable Scottish twang, made all the more difficult to discern by the presence of his parents, making use of their own heavy slurs. This was somehow appropriate, though, because “what is he trying to say” is a frequent starting point for the uninitiated in conversations about Mr. Creed.

He has been a celebrity in the U.K. since the debut of his most famous work, Work 227: The lights going on and off, which features a room with, well, the lights going on and off in five-second intervals. The piece won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001 and sparked no small amount of controversy among British tabloids, which branded a fairly innocent work—because really, how much more innocent can you get?—as “controversial,” a label the piece still carries to this day. The Sun, the War and Peace of birdcage-lining celebrity gossip, launched the “Turnip Prize” in homage. Some visitors to its installation threw things at the walls, which is probably how an artist knows he has been canonized.

If he’s a kind of folk provocateur in Britain (Tom Eccles, who organized Mr. Creed’s first career survey at Bard College, described having lunch with him London and likened the oft-interrupted meal to eating with David Bowie), he’s less populist in the States. But with his reputation in the art world thoroughly entrenched, Mr. Creed currently has what he described as “like the biggest show I’ve ever done” at two locations in New York, Hauser & Wirth uptown and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise downtown. This is also, it turns out, appropriate. Mr. Creed, a painter, musician, performer, lecturer, sculptor and, at least in conversation, something of an amateur phenomenologist—“The thing isn’t an idea, it’s just a thing,” he said—describes everything he does in terms of binaries: off then on, quiet then loud, presence then absence, funny then not.

“Half the work is there, and half of it isn’t there,” he said. “Most of my wall paintings cover exactly half the wall. A lot of the music I’ve been writing has half-rests in it. And that comes from the idea that I don’t know what is best to do. So if I can half do it, and half not do it, there’s that balance that makes me feel all right about it. If you can do the thing, and undo it at the same time, then maybe the whole thing is all right.”

His new show at Hauser & Wirth features so-called “blind paintings,” portraits he has made with either his eyes closed or by only looking at his subject and never the canvas. These paintings come out with a surprising amount of technical perfection. It’s probably cheap to say they look like Lucian Freuds, but they do bear the certain nightmarish verisimilitude of that painter, not quite realistic but more reminiscent of a face you saw in a bad dream you once had. Every line can be mapped out and analyzed. They are portraits that are less about the subject and more about the making of the portrait. They are, to put it another way, self-portraits, even though none of them look like Martin Creed. In the words of Marc Payot, a partner at Hauser & Wirth: “It’s not about painting a portrait the right way; it’s about the question: What makes a portrait?’

All of Mr. Creed’s work is similarly analytical. As a young man in art school, he attempted more traditional painting but felt disillusioned by what he considered to be mere copying of his influences. (His favorite painter at the time, he said, was Gustav Klimt.) He worried that painting had become too therapeutic. He was painting with certain colors, because they made him feel good, but the work was uninteresting. He began making things that didn’t feel good, shifting instead to “trying to make a thing for a wall.” (He refers to all of his work as “things.”) This developed to a point where the walls themselves became the thing he was analyzing. In 1998, he made Half the air in a given space, in which he “packaged,” as the title notes, half the air in a given space inside balloons, leaving the rest of the room empty. It’s ultimately a primal work of art that renders a room claustrophobic by calling attention to the amount of space in it. This led directly to his famous flickering lights, and many other works that mine dualities. A 2011 single by his band was called “Thinking/Not Thinking.” (It’s very catchy, but as far as lyrics go, Mr. Creed is not exactly Leonard Cohen: “I was thinking/[beat]And then I wasn’t thinking.”) A new piece, literally parked in front of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, is a silver car with the engine off that intermittently lurches to life—the doors open, the hood rises, the engine starts, the wipers streak the windshield, the windows open, and the lights turn on—only for everything to fall dead moments later.

“It’s often easy to take his work as funny, and I think it is,” said New Museum Associate Director Massimiliano Gioni, who curated a show of Mr. Creed in Milan in 2006. “But I think there’s a tragic element in the work. The work is ultimately about choices and possibilities. It’s about how you go on living by making choices or not.”

Mr. Creed largely resists criticism, because he approaches his work as just that—work. He said he has fallen into a 9-to-5 routine and is no different than a brick layer. The brick is there, where it wasn’t before. The work is there, and then it’s not. He would eventually take this idea of action versus no action to the human body. His most brutal pieces involve videos of people fornicating, vomiting or defecating in featureless  rooms. It’s disturbing, then it’s not. After a while, the bodily function is like a switch turning the power on and off.

“We showed the shit film at Bard,” Mr. Eccles said. “I told him, ‘I won’t show your fuck film at Bard. It would be way too popular.’ But we showed the shit film. And an old couple came in the door, and I said, ‘I have to warn you: There’s some disturbing material in this show.’ And they said, ‘There’s nothing we haven’t seen.’ There’s something emotional about the shit film. It’s ultimately an expression of humanity.”

Despite the near nothingness of some of Mr. Creed’s “things,” there is an intricacy to his installations that poses problems for galleries and museums. One of the difficulties of working with him, Mr. Gioni said, is that he often says “yes” to everything. For his survey at Bard, there was a large gallery with a concave roof where Mr. Eccles wanted to install Half the air in a given space. What half the volume of the air in this particular space actually was did not present itself clearly. Luckily, the show was taking place on a university campus, and there were mathematicians on hand to calculate. (Though this didn’t make the installation any easier: Visitors got lost in the balloons, Mr. Eccles said, or fell down. This was more or less by design.)

This is all to say that Mr. Creed’s art is not for everybody, which makes his popularity all the more confounding. Most critics love him, even if a large swath of the population has at some point dismissed him with the old cliché “Is this art?” Mr. Creed would probably say it is only if one thinks it is. It’s touch and go, really, which doesn’t make him the most obvious of art world celebrities. Maybe the world has caught up with Mr. Creed in the 12 years since he won the Turner Prize. (Even the comparably highbrow Telegraph’s headline at the time was “Turner Prize won by man who turns lights off.”) When asked if, say, a parked car rigged to turn on and off at its creator’s will was difficult to sell, Gavin Brown said, “Well, it’s sold. So right back atcha.” Mr. Brown is Mr. Creed’s longtime New York dealer. They met in 1987, when they were both struggling artists, working as art handlers in London.

He continued, laying out criteria for a collector of Martin Creed: “First of all, they’ve gotta  have the money. Then they have to see an added value in the tiny thing that Martin contributes. I think if you look closer at that tiny thing, there’s an entire universe of things that line up and measure and talk to one another. He has a very cosmic sense of things. I’m not sure it’s even about what the work is on paper. On paper, yes, who the hell would want to buy that? But to have the freedom or the vision, almost the pure heart to make a work like the lights going on and off, and to stand by it as a thing of beauty is very inspiring to a lot of people—if they choose to be inspired. Or they could choose to be cynical about it.”

Asked if he thought he was cynical—this was after he deadpanned, “If you think that the thing actually has meaning to it, I think you’re maybe deluded”—Mr. Creed said, “No! No. I don’t think so. No. No. I would say I want to try to be realistic about things.” He laughed when he said, “I think you always have to kid yourself to make life bearable.”
The Paradox of Martin Creed: The Artist on His Biggest Gallery Exhibition Ever