The art of getting under people's skin

By Miranda Sawyer

He films people vomiting, switches lights on and off, sends runners racing around Tate Britain: Scottish artist Martin Creed relishes rearranging art's rules.
Turner Prize-winning British artist Martin Creed surrounds himself with his latest work, at the Michael Lett Gallery on Karangahape Rd in Auckland. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey.
Turner Prize-winning British artist Martin Creed surrounds himself with his latest work, at the Michael Lett Gallery on Karangahape Rd in Auckland. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey.

Lights on, lights off, in an empty room. That's what artist Martin Creed is known for; that, and runners hurtling, full pelt, through Tate Britain. Two artworks that irritated traditionalists, got the tabloids frothing and caught the the general public's imagination. All valid reactions, Creed insist.

"Those two are maybe two of my favourites," he says. "I think that the best things get under people's skin, make them remember them. People aren't stupid. They know what's fake and what's not. They respond to things. Art is just things in the world, usually an arrangement of colour and shapes. It's people who have the feelings and the reactions."

And Creed's art does get a reaction. When he exhibited Work No 227: The Lights Going On and Off for the 2001 Turner prize, which he won (the other contenders were Mike Nelson, Isaac Julien and Richard Billingham: a strong year), even the art-friendly got huffy, with reviews such as "unfit to be considered for the prize", "exceptionally odd", and "(has been) met with a mixture of deep incredulity, attempts at philosophising and plain outrage".

The Sun tabloid wrote a feature entitled "The Crazy World of Martin Creed", as though Creed were Prince, or a serial killer, rather than a tall, open-faced, friendly Scotsman who "spends his time thinking about things and doing things".

(In Auckland's Ivan Anthony Gallery in 2006, Creed filled half of the gallery with pink balloons, calling the show Half the Air in a Given Space; the room was full of smiling people.)

Creed has described his work as him "saying hello" to people, asking them to like him. He's very likable, with or without his work, which varies from extremely modest - a crumpled piece of paper, for instance, or a piece of Blu-Tack, or a rounded protuberance emerging smoothly from a wall - to, um, the more arresting, such as a series of clips of people puking up or pooing ("I did those maybe because I'm frightened of those things, of what comes out of me. I thought it might help to film them. They are films of people making things"). He makes music, too, if you count saying the words "f -" and "off" over and over, backed by atonal guitar, bass and drums as music, which many of us do; and he's developed a (very funny) ballet for Sadler's Wells.

Now he has several major projects coming out around the same time. He has a solo show at the Fruitmarket as part of the Edinburgh Art festival, and his Sadler's Wells ballet will be performed at the Traverse for the Edinburgh fringe. As well, Thames & Hudson is publishing a whacking great book of almost all his work so far, called Martin Creed: Works. They start at Work No 3: Yellow Painting and end at Ballet (Work No 1020).

We're trying to discuss all this in a cramped, hot flat in Brick Lane, east London, alongside three helpers, a PR and a junk shop's-worth of stuff. A double bed is somewhere, though you can't see it under the boxes and files. (Creed doesn't live here any more: he lives elsewhere in London and on Alicudi, an island off Sicily.) The helpers squeeze in and out around us as we sit, squished, at a table looking at his book.

It took four years to compile and still, perfectionist Creed says, the printing isn't quite right ("That line shouldn't hit the binding, there should be a space"). It includes much of the work that will be in the Fruitmarket show, which is loosely based around the idea of stacking and progression. It will include piles of planks, stacks of chairs, tables, boxes, Lego. Paintings that look like sets of stairs. Works that use the musical scale.

"I don't usually like shows with themes, because the theme can mean anything," says Creed, "but this is fine." If asked to submit work to a show about love, for instance, he sends whatever he wants, because, he thinks, whether it's to do with love is for the viewer to decide.

Still, without doubt, a strain of Creed's art is about incremental increases. And as part of the Edinburgh show, he's going to make a permanent public sculpture that will open this year: he'll resurface the Scotsman Steps, which link the old and new towns, with different and contrasting marble from all over the world.

We start to talk about this, but, almost immediately, divert to discussing The Lights Going On and Off Turner prize piece. Creed enjoyed the "hullabaloo", but remembers feeling upset on the exhibition's opening night. "I thought, 'Oh no, I've got the timing wrong! It should be one second on, one second off!"'

What he tried to do, he says, was emphasise the act of looking. The on-off interval was dictated by the size of the gallery. He wanted viewers to have time to walk into the room and then, when the lights went on, have a look around: at the bare walls, the floor, the ceiling and at the other people there. The work was obviously minimalist but he also saw it as an attempt to make art that's like music. Meaning that the piece is actually happening, being created during the moment that you witness it; rather than existing as a painting does, as a finished product, with you just a visitor.

Creed makes me think of a sociable philosopher. He tries to be precise in his definitions, but, when my recorder fails, he doesn't mind: "Write what you remember. Just don't make my quotes sound as though I'm certain."

Because he's not. He hasn't worked out the answers yet. His art springs from his worrying away at problems, some of which he's puzzled over since he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art more than 20 years ago. His first work, Work No 3: Yellow Painting ("It seemed arrogant to call it Work No 1"), is a piece of purple paper with a big yellow painted swirl. "It goes whooop," says Creed, making the circular painting action with his hand. "Whooop." He wanted it to be one motion of the paintbrush which covered as much of the paper as possible.

The thought process that inspired Work No 3 has continued through to some of his most recent work, including some of his stacking pieces. We talk about the paintings on paper which look like steps. These works are all about restrictions: impersonal rules which require a quick, definitive line in space in order to complete the task.

So, the stack paintings' restrictions come from the brushes used. The bottom mark, which acts like a sort of ground stroke, is made by the biggest paintbrush in one swoop, left to right. This then sets the parameters for the next mark, made by a smaller brush: the mark made must be directly proportional to the ground one. And so on, until no paintbrushes were left in the packet. Part random, part ordered.

And the running piece - Work No 850 - is also, he says, like the stack paintings' ground stroke. "It's the body equivalent of whooop. If you think of taking the biggest brush and going all the way across, the limits are determined by the medium. And it's the same with the running, because the idea is that you run as fast as you can, so that's the limit. I'm just trying to come up with a better solution to the problem."

Even if you don't know the problem, there's an appealing, almost pointless system to such work that reminds me of a child lining up toys in order of size, just because it feels right. As a child himself, Creed liked art and sport, with all its lovely futile rules.

He had a brother, Nicholas, who was only 13 months older, but they didn't fight: they simply had completely different interests. (Nicholas left school at 17 to set up a magazine publishing company, which he still runs.)

Their father was a lecturer in silversmithing and jewellery, first at Leeds University, then at Glasgow School of Art. He was also a Quaker, which seems to fit with Creed's art, somehow: only speaking when it feels right to do so. Creed says he found Quaker meetings boring as a kid, though he appreciates the simplicity now.

He left home for London to establish himself "as a separate person from my dad and my family" and also, he says, because "everyone in Scotland is like me". He finds people are more impressed by him when he's not in Scotland. "Back home, if I say something, people look at me blankly, like, 'Yes, of course, why would you bother to say that?' Whereas the English would be like, 'Brilliant! I love your lugubrious sense of humour'."

It's the humour within the minimalism that I like about Creed's work. Also, among the immodesty of British contemporary art, he and his work seem refreshingly low-key, without self-aggrandisement. It's not about sensation. It's not about him. He once made a piece that read the whole world + the work = the whole world.

Does he have a small ego compared with most artists? "Nooo," he says and laughs. "I probably have a big-ish ego, like a lot of people. It just looks small when you're standing far away."

- Observer

Martin Creed: Works (Thames & Hudson $117, out now)

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