Martin Creed’s retrospective (‘What’s the Point of It?’) at the Hayward Gallery should be understood in the context of the British art establishment attempt to include the YBAs in art history manuals. In other words, Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern, Tracey Amin’s own at the Hayward and the Chapman Brother’s deployments at the Sackler’s Wings of the Serpentine Gallery should be considered as a British attempt to make some sense of a kind of art whose point is not to have a point.
With the exception of Damien Hirst’s, the rest of the aforementioned have shown their will to be taken seriously as artists. This is also Creed’s case. The problem, however, has been the unwillingness of the curators to challenge them. Those curators have systematically tried to flatter them by clinically showcasing their achievements. This mistake has ironically come across as highlighting their human side and making them ‘expressive’. If you don’t believe me have a look at Tracey Amin’s latest paintings or Hirst’s pictorial escapades at the Wallace Collection, to give just two examples.
This strategy is almost impossible in the case of Martin Creed for he has been the one who has gone the farther in the conceptual path. In fact, it could be said that his ‘artistry’ lies in the questioning of what art is and what is not. Thus, this show does not create value in the relationship between the artist and the visitor but in that between the artist and the critic. It is in the critical reading included in its unsurprisingly lavish catalogue that this show struggles.
The text that supports this show has been written by Cliff Lauson, chief curator at the Hayward Gallery and curator of this exhibition. There, he quickly itemises all aspects of Creed’s work but seems to be more concerned with agreeing with the artist than with pushing him into a critical territory where new questions might be raised. As we all know, Creed’s work is about the reversal of extremes for conceptual effect and it is in the post-minimalist effect of the constitutive question of ‘what is art and what is not?’ that he makes us focus. Instead, Lauson bring the ‘inter-media’ strategy according to which ‘Creed broadens the category of fine art by relating to design and decoration, drawing influence from the art nouveau period during which time the two creative fields were intertwined’. I wonder how much good this comparison with art nouveau does to Creed, the show and the viewer’s experience.
The show at Hayward brings about different strategies used by Creed to turn the work of art in on itself. This is usually achieved by using the minimum amount of materials. This economy of labour and materials is called by Lauson as ‘simplicity’ only to realise that this is a tricky word. There is nothing ‘simple’ about a type of work that demand a permanent ‘mise en abīme’ of the relationship between the viewer and the exhibition space. Lauson also confuses ‘the ephemeral’ with ‘the logic of advertising as in a billboard’ in the case of Creed’s formulaic inscription ‘The whole world + the work = the whole world (1996)’ as a neon sign on the pediment of a public building. At this point, Lauson struggles to fit Creed’s work into a set of oppositions that ends up reducing his work to a conceptual strategy. No wonder why a couple of sentences later, it is the artist who is thrown at the task of negating it. This is not fair for the artist if you ask me.
I guess what I am trying to say is that Martin Creed’s works depends more than his YBA colleagues on critical exegesis. In this sense, his images are always linked to ‘words’ and ‘ways of understanding and not understanding’. One of the words he uses for describing his work is that it ‘collapses the idea of the art work’ and, obviously, this thought applies to the gallery as a place where the work of art is made relevant. In Work No.88 A Sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995) the sheet of paper as a ball becomes ‘it’. About this, Dauson says that ‘his implosive minimalism led him to question how so called artworks relate to the system and limitations that surround us’. This has done before by Duchamp and Dada. Is this Creed’s goal, after all? No.
It is as if Lauson presents Creed’s career (in its linearity and sequentiality) as the illustration of a conceptual point only to contradict this, seconds later, by saying that ‘Creed is generally keen to emphasise that he is not interested in dematerialising objects or reducing his work to ideas, professing instead his fascination with, and dependence upon, objects, and all-encompassing attitude towards feelings’. In Creed’s words: ‘I don’t think I make what is called conceptual art. I think ideas go into the work and maybe come out of it- but the work itself is made of colours and shapes and sizes and sounds. They are something to look at or listen to. I don’t believe in conceptual art. I don’t think it is possible to separate ideas and feelings….anyway it feels like everything has a lot more to do with feelings than with anything else. Ideas, maybe ideas are like a way to handle feelings, to keep them down or sort them out’.
Hold on! This rejects all said till now because the visitor’s experience gains value through a so called ‘experiential playfulness that happens to fit what is visually expected in a white cube with ‘ornamental’ (as in ‘art nouveau”) objects. However, the curator of the show makes a tragic mistake when saying that the ‘emotive response’ in the viewer ‘triggers joy, laughter and sometimes unease- subjective aspects not usually associated with a rigorous or sombre conceptual art practice should be considered as expressionistic’. This sentence brings about two problems. On one hand, Dauson seems to understand the artistic experience as either ‘conceptual and sombre’ or ‘expressive and cheerful’. On the other hand, he sees the work of art either as expressive because it arouses feelings in the viewer instead of expressing the artist’s feelings. A work of art is not expressive because it expresses the viewer’s feeling but the artist’s.
I must say that I liked the phenomenological experience of Creed’s art at the Hayward. It brings about a sense of experiential inadequacy in the viewer that could be described as embarrassment or as something uncanny and it is that de-familiarisation that Creed’s work is all about. It is a pity that Dauson’s essay and curatorship seems to ignore this in order to transform him into a ‘modernist’ British hero. I insist that the problem with the YBAs is their lack of art criticism and the constant need of instantaneous praise. I guess there is too much at stake to allow themselves to take them truly seriously. Just a thought.