Artist Martin Creed is arguably best known for his Turner-prize winning installation Work No. 127 The Lights Going On and Off, and for the more recent Work No. 1197: All The Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and as Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes, which opened the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic celebrations. ‘What’s The Point Of It?’ is the first and most comprehensive survey of Creed’s work, currently on show at the Hayward Gallery until 27th April 2014. Featuring over 160 works, it includes Creed’s most discreet moments – a spot of blu-tack stuck on the wall– as well as his extravagant room-sized installations, neons, sequential sculptures, kinetic installations, films, and vibrant paintings.
We were the first to arrive at the exhibition on a cold and windy morning on London’s Southbank, with only myself, my friend and a few staff milling around the exhibition space. This added to the intimidating feeling of the first room, which greets you with a gigantic spinning neon sign spelling out the word ‘Mothers’. Constructed just high enough not to knock off the head of the (worryingly) tall security guard, but low enough to make us duck every time the large iron frame came swooping around, the piece left us feeling on edge and acutely aware of the space around us. More unsettling still were the 39 metronomes lining the walls surrounding the sign, simultaneously ticking at different speeds, and door in the corner of the second room, opening and closing on its own accord. The space felt hostile, verging on maddening.
However, as we travelled around the gallery, Creed’s mantra of ‘choosing without making decisions’ began to bring reassurance and comfort to a seemingly chaotic and antagonistic environment. Creed sees ‘yes and no’ as being preferable to ‘yes or no’, saying that it is possible to ‘choose everything if you want’, a reassuring and almost idealistic notion in a world where we so often are expected to make choices, decisions and compromises.
This idea of ‘yes and no’ can be seen throughout the exhibition; lights are on and off, the door both open and closed, the sign both kinetic in its spinning motion and fixated on its axel. Creed’s works don’t commit to one medium; light installations, videos, sculptures, paintings, textiles, music and performance are all used. The whole space of the Hayward is utilised; the pieces are displayed in the exhibition rooms, the outdoor spaces and even the toilets. Creed has chosen to choose everything, to use everything.
Work No. 944 is another example; not wishing to decide on what colours to use, Creed set out to buy all the pens available and made one drawing with each. The result is a bright and playful display of 21 blocks of colour, created by filling in single sheets of paper with each felt tip pen. We learn that each of the 39 metronomes in the first room is set to one of 39 available speeds; instead of choosing one speed as the background rhythm to his exhibition, Creed has chosen every speed possible. What at first seemed chaotic and unsettling becomes strangely reassuring and freeing; we don’t have to choose yes or no, we can have both. The pressure to make decisions and commit to our choices fades away; all possible choices have been made, all bases are covered. Through choosing everything and refusing to decide, Creed’s works seem to neutralise the stresses of decision making and remove the pressures to know and say what we want.
This idea of ‘choosing everything’ speaks strongly to an urban audience, who are constantly under pressure to make decisions and compromises, to choose ‘either/or’ rather than ‘both’. The exhibition in itself is distinctly urban; from the materials used, such as a kinetic sculpture in the form of a Ford Focus Car, an entire wall covered in vertical stripes of adhesive tape and works comprised of iron panels piled on top of each other, to the setting of the Hayward gallery, a concrete stronghold in the centre of London. The urban environment is forever present in the exhibition; the London skyline itself taking on a starring role as the backdrop to Work No. 1812, a monumental brick wall and Work No. 1029 a video installation, both displayed outdoors on the Hayward Gallery terraces.
The title of the exhibition, ‘What’s The Point of It?’ could be read as a challenge, asking the spectator to make sense of the contrasting half and half world of Creed’s works (yes/no, on/off, big/small, sound/silence, static/kinetic, inside/outside), or even a sigh of frustration; someone unable or unwilling to make a decision on what the exhibition means to them. Or, it could be seen as an invitation to let go of the restraints of meaning. The exhibition could mean one thing or another, it could mean everything or nothing, and to a Londoner coming to view Creed’s retrospective, this offers a certain, if unexpected, respite from the pressures of their everyday urban lives.
A number of live performances featuring Martin Creed coincide with his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery: the Martin Creed Band (Royal Festival Hall Ballroom, 8 February), an artist’s talk (Purcell Room, March 20), the premiere of his new organ commission (Royal Festival Hall, 30 March), and Work No. 1020, a music and dance stage show (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 8 April).
In conjunction with his exhibition, Creed is also releasing a new album, Mind Trap (CD, digital, and vinyl).
Martin Creed: What’s the point of it?
Hayward Gallery, 29 January – 27 April 2014
Visitor information and tickets: www.southbankcentre.co.uk