By Emily Beber
Earlier in his career, Martin Creed lived on an island. A few years later, he wrote about the experience for an exhibition in London. I remember reading the essay and thinking that it was fraught, his search for tranquility and the realisation that distance could become just as suffocating as proximity.
Yet what excites me about his work is that it makes me want to feel claustrophobic but denies me the chance.
What’s the point of it? He asks me/the critics/himself with the naming of his first retrospective. One door in and I’ve collapsed my short frame in two, crouched to the floor, ducking beneath the six feet of steel sculpture rotating above my head; crawling about like the ant beneath the magnifying glass. Work no.1092. It reads ‘MOTHERS’ in phosphorescent, neon tubing and spins maniacally, just skirting the gallery walls. My body becomes troubling and oddly squashed within the room. I am Alice, trapped between scales. Nightmare, I think; mare, for mother, or ‘nightmare’, the female spirit said to lie upon and suffocate sleepers, and I watch as the gallery assistants unknowingly flinch with each of its turns. Work no.1092 does not need the plurality. Like the nightmare, fear appears as an internal manifestation projected outside. Fear automates the body and becomes its knee-jerk reaction.
What’s the point of it? Panic is the sound of thirty-nine metronomes bordering that same room, each ticking to their own impression of time as ‘MOTHERS’ slows. Back with Alice but now with the rabbit’s watch. Is Work no.1092 a calligram like Magritte’s pipe? A visual image of the thing it represents? Creed mothers me back to contentment as the ticking arms slow.
What’s the point of it? He asks. My eyes are stained by fluorescents. Perhaps this is about control? Creed’s whole oeuvre leans from a position of perspective as though it were a minimalist gesture. And the dot of his island on the horizon seems a constant symbol for this. He stands on the boat in the middle of the water, looking back at the rock sticking out of the ocean, and we’re doggy paddling around him.
Because smack in the middle of the next room, cardboard boxes balance as a ziggurat and we are there to circle them. In it are packing boxes for water, paper, ink cartridges, crisps; boxes to transport other boxes, large to small. It’s an order preoccupied by organization, and it makes sense, but I find them difficult to be in the company of. Perhaps it is their acute alignment, or my association with moving, escaping; Creed sailing to the island and returning when the romance was over.
But these patterns find repetition, repeated gestures that become slowly suffocating like Frank Stella’s abstractions. A decreasing line of X s, cacti ordered by height, nails hammered into the wall, in line, at descending depths. Old chairs and dining room tables stacked on top of each other and paintings of layered brushstrokes articulating the walls like ghosts of a family height chart. Echoes from the metronomes bleed through the wall like evidence. Another repetition. And all of his objects are things that could be left behind.
Am I being too sensitive? For me, minimalism seems dependent upon loss, stripped back. But distance harbors nostalgia for perspective.
What’s the point of it? Creed has always been successful at taking his own discomforts and making them yours. I stand between two protrusions. The walls have breasts. Great, creamy bulges that I want to sink my face into but don’t. Because, although their shapes are inviting, they seem obvious. Creed wants you to feel mothered, secure. My fingers sink nervously into a mirrored, spherical depression, a miniature circus trick. Down the rabbit hole to be met by no end. It’s a game of ‘not quites’. Work no. 132. The door opens and the lights switch on, but not quite long enough for you to go through. It’s Bruce Nauman’s hallway but you can’t quite experience it. A videoed penis becomes erect as you watch it, only to return to flaccidity.
Can failure become suffocating?
What’s the point of it? Martin Creed uses humour. It comes from his anxiety in the space of the gallery. The white cube demands decisions. Despite his attention to order, he dislikes the authority of choice. And there is evidence of this like the screwed up paper, incubated in a glass box. Life taken too seriously is like farting in the wind, see Work no.401.
But I am unsure how to approach humour. I think of fart machines in classrooms or his juvenile self-portraits; the nervous laughter that met fear beneath Creed’s swirling ‘MOTHERS’. These are things to make comfortable an uncomfortable situation, to make light, reassuring, to break boredom? Boredom is key here and perhaps overlooked. Creed’s jokes are targeted as school boy humour but collectively they seem lonely, tired, reminiscent of the crippling boredom from hours spent attending to a piece of work.
Boredom is not always fatigue with an idea but from being with oneself. I think back to the island. Isolation. Creed is romantic and a musician. He left for the island with his partner on a whim. I stand before Work no. 138 A Love Duet. Two notes in different clefs, in perfect time, in perfect neutrality. Middle C. Held for the same length of a crotchet, a single beat. The beat of a heart? Beating as one? Is this perfection or extreme boredom? Can two people work together when they are that in synch? But this is six years before the island.
What’ s the point of it? I near the end of the exhibition. Is this the end? The retrospective hints at a reflection on a past, but it’s his first. Two large spinning tops rest on their sides. I think of Leonardo DiCaprio in his 2010 film ‘Inception.’ If the spinning top keeps turning, he’s still in the dream. These lie still. Is Creed in reality? For Leo, the spinning top is an object imbued with a phenomenological quality of reassurance, it plays on comfort. Creed’s work attends to the body, its senses, its lack of control. The body is far from minimal but requires such gestures to tame it. A small stone turns in my pocket.
What’ s the point of it? I move through a pit of white balloons. Hair, maybe mine, sticks to their tacky surface. How many hands have coated their latex bodies? It’s the swimming pool nightmare, an abject swamp, but I laugh uncontrollably. This is Work no.200 in the list. Half the air in a given space. I’m back with claustrophobia, back to the womb, back with ‘MOTHERS’. I think of the list and the island as seen from the water. Writer Eileen Myles said that the list was the very soul of poetry. With half its air, my body abandons instruction and flails and I wonder if Creed’s ever thought of himself as a poet. With its lack of control and anxiety in space, the body often feels anything but poetic, but this is a list that might reveal it.
Emily Beber is a writer, art critic and performance artist with an MA in Critical Writing in Art and Design from the Royal College of Art. Her performance work takes the shape of the art collective and band, WE. She is the founder of These Lists, an online archive of reading lists from artists, and co-founder of the feminist zine WET KNICKERS with Susanna Davies-Crook. She also is Commissioning Editor for the book Corpora Limbo with Eros Press, to be released in mid-2015.