Thursday, 27 March 2014

I like balloons, a lot

Creed-ites or art boffins among you may recognise the deliberate pun in the title of this week’s blog post as a reference to Turner Prize winning, Scottish born artist, Martin Creed’s song ‘I like things’. That’s your first clue, the second being that the artist’s retrospective, ‘What’s the point of it?’ at the Hayward Gallery is most memorable (if the catalogue image/poster and my friends photos online are anything to go by) for a room installation filled with nearly seven thousand white balloons in which the viewer(s) can immerse and loose themselves in childlike joy or claustrophobic terror. This piece, titled ‘Work No. 200 Half the Air in a Given Space’ represents one in an ongoing series of numbered works by Creed, the balloons become a visible manifestation of the air around us, whereby the half the air in the given space is measured and equated into filling the number of balloons to equal it. Why? Sounds like pretty conceptual stuff, but when asked, Creed states ‘I don’t believe in conceptual art. I don’t know what it is. I cannot spate ideas from feelings...Work comes from feelings and goes towards and ends up as feelings.’ Hmmmm....I ain't buying it, the bullshit alarm has been activated and it’s likely to be the first of many in this exhibition of the artist’s work from the last twenty years. This is by no means a criticism as I think the artist is all too aware that his works which include brick walls, curtains opening and closing, blobs of blu-tack and prints of broccoli often descend into the pretentious or ‘bullshit’. It is one view that is perhaps because ‘Creed feels ambiguous and conflicted in himself and wants to share that with a public who feel the same thing.’ Is it a questioning of what exactly it means to have your art ‘taken seriously’ and whether play, observation, wit and, yes, bullshit can be art? What is genuine and what is taking the piss? Maybe Creed's work is about his feelings, but I am not convinced. Does it matter? Much of these ideas have been touched upon in art before but what does Creed’s work present for today and a new generation of artists/art-goers?

I am probably not alone in never being entirely sure how to ‘take’ Creed’s comments about his work. The kind-of honesty and simplicity in his responses can either come across as a dumbing-down, ignorance, ambiguity, pretentiousness or refreshing almost zen-like, minimalist wisdom and clarity on depending how you interpret it. Another example, ‘I find it difficult to make judgements, to decide one thing is more important than the other. So what I try and do is to choose without having to make decisions. At the same time a non-decision is still a decision and to choose everything is still to decide.’ What a contradiction, it’s almost a waste of words but love him of loathe him, he does make a counterpoint in challenging how we perceive conceptual art and whether he ‘likes’ the label of being a conceptual artist or not it’s difficult to talk about Creed without going into the continually shifting realm of ideas, meaning and interpretation where nothing is tangible and constantly changing.
Feeling uncomfortable? I know beginning to write about Creed feels as though swimming out to sea without a life raft, pretty quickly I find myself out of depth. I wonder does the prospect of dealing with paying to see an exhibition in which some of the work is a scrunched-up ball of paper, an automated door opening and closing and film of a person vomiting  give you cause to sit with head in hands and despair at what has become of art?! Good, because if so then this is probably the best thing for you. Those of us who are more familiar with the ‘everything can be art’ concept, jaded by the legacy of urinals, irons, pickled sharks and unmade beds walk around Creed’s exhibition probably just a tad too cynical. Although not cynical enough (yet) to not think it’s worth trying and in fact it turned-out to be a surprisingly healthy thing to experience (as far as seeing a video of a woman crap on the floor and an erect penis, can be described as a 'healthy thing to experience' then, yes. Ha ha). I don’t think Creed intentionally tries to make his audience feel uncomfortable, he doesn’t use a lot of fancy ‘art speak’ or terminology that inflates his work with an authority or sense of importance. In fact, quite the opposite, it’s more a case of ‘it is what it is’, almost a one-liner. If you have a problem with seeing a woman crap on the floor then that's normal, that's human. The awkwardness comes more from our own expectations of what we assume art to be, for example, an artist sees the piece, ‘Work No.79’ and can see it is a lump of blu-tack pressed on the wall, but they bring the ‘baggage’ of placing interpretation and an expectation that it must be more profound, meaningful, ironic and researched than just sticking a lump of blu-tack to the wall. The context of the work being in a gallery also throws the reading of the work into having ‘value’, conviction and or merit that we stereotype with the credibility of the gallery as a brand or institution of art. The result is that we are kind-of tricked into thinking perhaps too much when really we don’t need to. Maybe the approach is more simple, ‘it is a lump of blu-tack on the wall, how funny and should that sort-of thing be allowed in an art gallery?’ It’s impossible to write about Creed’s work without writing about rules and whether there are any when it comes to art, and if not then why aren’t more of us exhibiting our detritus, play and interventions with our surroundings?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but feel that we need an artist like Creed to stir things up, to be the one that speaks plainly, pleads ignorance and does things seemingly for the sheer sake of doing them. To his credit, he is pretty prolific and explores many mediums from music, to film, installation, drawing, printing, painting, kinetic works, sculpture, interaction. Each time seemingly applying a simplistic logic to his work, in ‘Work No. 1092’ a huge neon sign saying ‘mothers’ (its 12.5 metres long by 2.5 metres high) spins around above the heads of gallery viewers at varying speeds, almost threatening to knock your head off, to which the artist claims, ‘when you’re small you’re mother is always really big, So it seemed like a good reason for this to be big...and scary.’ Like the title of the exhibition, I am beginning to wonder ‘what is the point of it all?’ There isn’t one word or place you can pin Creed’s work down to, it’s not necessarily autobiographical, sociological, psychological, metaphysical or even really, despite my initial attempt, that conceptual. The artist doesn’t bring these ideas to the work so much as we read into them,  his ‘Works’ are interventions, I think, they intervene with how we view art, the world, stuff, things, materials, people, space, scale, concepts etc. In an exhibition where you move from one work that is a giant rotating neon sign, to a room filled with balloons, a light going on and off, a video of a woman vomiting, a scrunched up ball of paper and boxes arranged in a stack from largest to smallest how do you begin to equate it all together, make sense of it? It’s all reactionary and will either provoke, alarm, confront, appal, delight, amuse or bemuse its audience. It’s dangerous for me to probably have even attempted to make sense of it, I don’t think I’m supposed to!

Maybe the fine-line between the whimsical and/or intelligence is all an act? It is likely, as all of Creed’s play, exploration and interventions must have been met with some determination, business-sense, networking and authenticity in order to convince the art world that it is worth acknowledging. The refreshing aspect about Creed is that his work reflects the insecurities that people have of the art world of being, overtly serious and inaccessible with meaning (if only accommodating to this audience instead of trying to alter their perceptions). The ‘Work No. 1197’ as part of the Olympics saw all the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes (I remember partaking myself, running into the garden at nine in the morning with a small hand bell) was a good example of a piece by Creed that was inclusive, meaningful and accessible without being gimmicky or jokey. To some, his inability to tackle the true grips of his challenging of how we make/view art, instead always settling for a flippant answer may be exasperating and seen as a cop-out; others may see his concern with feeling  in the work as an almost romantic gesture that is about one man’s need to make and express himself. I for one am glad to have been part of the laughs and think that this retrospective' s greatest legacy will be by having an artist like Creed recognised in the art world, as a result, we aren’t left with too many artists like Creed.

Martin Creed ‘What’s the point of it all?’ is on at the Hayward until May 5th 2014:

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