Friday, 18 July 2014

Review: Martin Creed

Martin Creed - What's the point of it
Hayward Gallery

It might be easier to think of Martin Creed as a composer—that’s what, in any case, I felt having taken in the striking retrospective of his work a few months ago. The first thing that greets one is a quantity of metronomes, ticking away at various speeds. Anyone who’s fond of the analogue metronome will know the piece by György Ligeti Poeme Symphonique—for 100 metronomes—that are wound up and tick away to their hearts content, slowly unwinding themselves until silent. Creed’s piece is essentially the same, plagiarised even, only that it appears his metronomes don’t wind themselves down.

Perhaps this is the difference: in all of Creed’s work there is this ‘alternation’—big and small, on and off, to and fro, up and down. But it’s an ceaseless alternation: it doesn’t wind itself down, it only (merely) winds you up, or entrances you, until you leave. Another example: in the lower gallery one of the gallery assistants is tasked with the arduous responsibility of playing Creed’s piano piece. The pianist must start at the bottom and wander up the chromatic scale to the top, before waiting for a while, before going down again. Over and over.

Cage famously said, ‘if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’ It is this tradition in which Creed works. But Cage’s work, unlike his demeanour, was often quite severe—or at least austere. Creed’s early works sometimes had a Cageian austerity, but he never appears to have displayed severity; he’s always trying to charm us. Cage’s paintings (which went on a touring exhibition in 2011, also organised by the Hayward) are serene, repetitive painted drawings around stones, whose positions are determined by chance, exercises in self-dissolution. Creed’s paintings are much more playful, for want of a better word: he is blindfolded, or using brash colours, or of late very naïve. Creed’s repetitive paintings are not the Zen ensō calligraphy of Cage; they are broccoli prints in acrylic.

Creed’s car, the Ford Focus out on the Hayward terrace, is played like an instrument. After sitting there blithely for a minute or two, it suddenly springs into action, all of its functions delivered at once. The doors open, the wipers flick, the engine starts and the radio blares. Then it ceases, ready to go off again. One is reminded of Cage’s 1962 score 0’00”: ‘in a situation with maximum amplification and no feedback, perform a disciplined action’.

Like a composer, Creed has everything in a catalogue. In the nineteenth century, musical Gesellschaften were set up to edit and catalogue the works of the great composers for their new audience—composers’ scores, what had been seen as a functionary, disposable blueprint for performance by patrons half a century before, were increasingly seen as the gateway to eternity. By collecting everything together and giving it a number, it was newly locatable in this world of bourgeois publication. By the twentieth century composers were doing this themselves; but visual artists have not be subjected to the same kind of ‘catalogue-mania’—perhaps because the dissemination of plastic artworks is still vaguely feudal, artworks inherit provenance records, and often are spirited away outside of the public gaze. No one knows just how many Warhols there are, least of all, in all probability, when he was around for his fifteen minutes, Mr Warhol himself.

All this makes Creed’s numbering system all the more enticing—he’s almost the only artist who does it—and it emphasises his intense productivity. His catalogue numbers a quantity already up there with the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, both of them having produced more than 1000 works. But of course, Creed’s work is not latter-day Bach; aside from its sometimes being single sentences or scribbles, its mode of valuation is radically different. Creed’s new organ piece (or should I say, Work no. 1020) is being premiered on the refurbished Fesitval Hall Organ, alongside a complete programme of Bach pieces. Any composer in their right mind would be terrified by such a prospect—but Creed’s art-making is simply in a different kind of place. Not necessarily an ahistorical place, but a place that looks at the procession of history with an indifference bordering on mild curiosity.

My abiding sensation coming away from this exhibition was not, predictably, how charming and whimsical (and who wouldn't hate that description) this work is. Instead, this is work which is vaguely but noticeably worrying, even sinister. The unending bouncing up and down, turning on and off, opening and closing, going in and coming out. It is unending alternation from which there is no escape. Indeed, why would you want to escape? Lest you forget, everything is going to be all right.

No comments: