The walls are painted in bright fearless stripes, a huge neon sign swings overhead, a piano is patiently played key by key and a few bemused yet exhilarated visitors fumble out of a room filled to the brim with white balloons. Welcome to Martin Creed’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, whose title seems to think ahead of the distressed reactions of contemporary art skeptics: “What’s the point of it?”
The same question was probably asked when the British artist and musician, who has already exhibited extensively abroad and acheived international recognition, won the Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227: The lights going on and off . Too minimalistic, too conceptual…or not conceptual enough to be seen as artistic? In his work as a whole and in this exhibition Creed enjoys toying with this idea and testing our own reactions and limitations, while keeping a stance that is inventively serious yet self-deprecating.
The Hayward Gallery has allowed Martin Creed to appropriate the entire space, from the interior itself to its outside terraces, lifs, and even toilets. Most of the trip to the toilet is made in anticipation of this single artwork that ends up being a stack of tiles superposed one on top of the other “in a useful space.” The concept of utility in Martin Creed’s work must of course be taken with a grain of salt; most if not all of his works comme across as ingeniously produced absurdities…pointless in their utility.
A lot goes on at the same time, and it is best to go through the exhibition slowly in order to feel constantly surprised without becoming too overwhelmed. A side door within the gallery slams open and shut, a screen flickers as though attempting to constantly screen a video in small fragments; the very space seems turned upside down as the wall is sculpted into phallic-like protuberances and tiles stack themselves up in unexpected places. On one of the terraces, a huge brick wall rises up in the centre, stark and monumental. A single loudspeaker reproduces the sound of blowing raspberries (as, hilariously, visitors passing by all look at each other, shooting suspicious glances). While all of this happens, Work No. 1092 MOTHERS, a huge rotating neon sign forming the word…‘MOTHERS’ menacingly whirrs around the entrance space. A mocking reference to Freud? An answer to that famous question that runs throughout the entire display, in its haphazard juxtapositions that we are meant to make sense of?
Something that seems to reoccur as an underlying theme is the idea that these objects, sounds and videos are artfully incidental, as though they were the result of a deliberate mishap, displacement, an awkward accident or malfunction that was made to work as a piece of art. Everything falls into place despite being somewhat broken, accidental, at least in appearance. And the gallery’s large, spacious and airy structure is both a blank canvas and a catalyst to these extraordinary yet commonplace incidents.
This is definitely an exhibition that concerns itself with the multi-sensorial and a strange mix of organic and mechanic. Indeed, the human body does not escape this cycle of repetitions and reactions. Bodily functions and excretions are explored in a way that is decidedly voyeuristic yet also strangely emptied of taboos, devoid of violence…although retaining its uncomfortable and awkward nature. Thus, in a video we see a performer patiently, slowly excreting during a long span of time, before two other performers arrive, in a second screen where the backdrop-canvas is minimalistically white once again, and violently vomit in a matter of seconds. It seemed at odds with the more whimsical nature of the rest of the exhibition yet does complement one of the works on the terrace that consists of a giant sceen with a black and white filmed closeup of a penis becoming erect and then limp again in a continual, and solemnly comical loop. It is worth noting that all of these parts of the exhibition were indicated well in advance and that there was decidedly no attempt at potential shock-horror for the sake of it. This does not seem to be Creed’s style after all…unless that surprise includes a piano whose lid lifts and slams down every fifteen minutes or so.
I was also hardly expecting to find myself in Work No. 200 Half the air in a given space, a room filled with balloons containing, indeed, 50% of the room’s air…although, similarly, the gallery assistant take care to warn anyone with claustrophobic tendencies or latex and talcum powder allergies to venture inside. After being warned of this, a nervous-looking visitor and her friend decides to go in anyway…and end up having a wonderful time, at least from what I could hear and see surrounded by the giant ethereal white bubbles. It is strange to imagine that such a simple venture could entirely change our sense of space, surroundings and even movement.
Work No. 79 Some Blu-Tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall and Work No. 264 Two protrusions from a wall play with definitions and descriptions in a playful but perceptive way. I personally enjoyed the fact that some of the works’ power resided not in their appearance to us but through the way in which they were described in an exacting sense of detail that could make you think of a precise sense of cinematography, in the vein of Wes Anderson and his latest film Grand Budapest Hotel, where everything is whimsical and light, yet where this quirky nature is acheived through a methodic, formulaic execution.
The exhibition would not be complete without Creed’s paintings complementing his sculptures and installations. Either portrayed as huge murals covering each surface or as small A4-sized portrait or abtract pattern of colour. Expressive and vivid, child-like, they seem to downplay the solemnity of some of Creed’s more minimalistic and conceptual works where what we see plays as much an important part as what we read. They also play an interesting part in pitting one notion of ‘art’ against the other for the naysayers who would ask for the “point”…portrait versus installation, physical paint versus the conceptual.
I did appreciate this exhibition immensely…and perhaps more than I thought I would. It was more than the sheer entertainment of the objects and spaces and the intricate absurdity they provided. It was overall a strange sense of honesty felt on behalf of the artist, and of a world turned upside down but still strangely messy and relateable…as messy and disordered as ourselves and our bodies, and yet still fitting within a certain scheme. Pinpointing an answer is not what the exhibition is about…it is about looking for it, giving it up and retaining a great deal of lightheartedness in the process.
The idea of a colourful pop-up book comes to mind, with its to and fro repetitive movement and surprises, apparent childlessness and superficiality merging into a sensitive, three-dimensional reflection that never takes itself too seriously nevertheless. Watch out for the balloons and mind your head, but visit this exhibition and see for yourself while you can at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre until the 5th of May.