Martin Creed at the Hayward Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on February 20, 2014

Martin Creed: What’s the point of it?

Hayward Gallery

29 January to 27 April 2014


Martin Creed has a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery. Somebody told me about it last month and I said “Oh yeah, cool, I must go to that.” I couldn’t remember who Martin Creed was. Or rather, I had a vague recollection of a light flicking on and off in an empty gallery in  Tate Britain’s 2006 Turner  Prize Retrospective. Also, wasn’t there a thing with people running? And the big simultaneous bell ringing Olympic opening thing? That was him, right? In the end I had to go, because I couldn’t quite put my finger on him. Also, what work I remembered seemed intangible – how can you have a retrospective in the Hayward (hardly a modest space) with so little actual physical work?

On entering the gallery I was confronted by one of Creed’s extremely actual physical works. ‘Work 1092′  is a massive rotating neon sign reading MOTHERS that rotates threateningly just a few inches above your head,  united with the nagging sound of multiple ticking metronomes. “Awww, that’s Martin Creed!” I remember seeing this at Hauser & Wirth, clutching a free bottle of Peroni and holding forth at length as to why I felt it was such a bad piece of work; “God, you’d think someone in art college would’ve warned him about making his point with a hammer” (and other such arrogant postulations).  It’s true that you don’t have to have read much Freud to interpret this one – Mothers are there, an undeniable fact of life, impossible to ignore , watching over us, looming above, ruffling our hair, ready to lop our heads off if we get too big for our boots.

‘Work 1092′ is one of Creed’s Big Reaction works. But the Hayward galleries are filled with the small reaction works too; there are tiny interventions such as ‘Work no. 79′ – a piece of bluetack stuck to the wall, alongside massive kinetic sculptures like ‘Work 1686′ – a Ford Focus which honks it’s horn, opens and closes its doors, plays its radio but never actually goes anywhere. There are non aspirational doodles, prints made with broccoli halves, stacks of chairs and boxes, one note musical compositions, perfect cubes of masking tape. There are multiple paintings of pyramids but all the works are ordered simply, numerically and non hierarchically. Does seeing everything together change my opinion of ‘Work 1092’? Well, kind of, yes. Throughout the galleries there is a sense of gentle speculative enquiry; simple ideas are explored, big and small questions are asked, repeated and pushed to their limits in a vast range of different media. If I’m honest, I always enjoy Hayward solo shows. They seem to be the only gallery providing comprehensive retrospectives of artist’s oeuvres whilst still existing as curated exhibitions, (unlike the poor old Tates, who never seem able to  escape the museum-like propensity to reduce everything to rigid chronological didactism). A retrospective is a lovely thing, an opportunity to see enough to form a proper understanding of an artist’s practice – something particularly interesting with an artist like Creed, who slides and slithers and wriggles away from under the finger of definition.

Through later research however, I discover the one word that does seem to get applied to Creed frequently is “whimsical”. As an art graduate “whimsical” is something I have a bit of a problem with. It’s a word that makes me think of Victorian ladies writing poetry about fairies or making twee watercolours of rabbits, bursting into tears because the pudding looks too wonderful and mopping them up with elaborately embroidered lace handkerchiefs. All done to a lilting soundtrack of Belle & Sebastian. Whimsy seems a bit wimpy somehow; whimsy has no balls. (Of course, the other definition of “whimsy” is just to have a fanciful notion – to do something on a whim. Which pretty much defines all manner of art making as far as I can tell… But that’s a whole other essay).

I suppose I can understand the use of “whimsical” in relation to certain works. Wading through a room half filled with thousands of white balloons (‘Work no 200′) is nice. A video of a romping pair of dogs (‘Work no 1090′) is nice. A great big neon sign telling us DON’T WORRY (‘Work no. 291′) is nice. But Creed’s exhibition certainly doesn’t lack balls (there’s also a video of a penis if you’re interested – just step out onto the upstairs terrace). Placing the 2001 Turner Prize winning flicking light outside in the foyer of the gallery, before you have even have to pay in, is an act that appeals to me with it’s ballsy-ness. As does making everyone exit the exhibition through a video installation of a pretty Asian woman defecating on the floor of a clean white space. The middle class children still on a joyful high from diving around the balloon room are suddenly visibly filled with distress. There are tears and cries of “Mummy that’s disgusting”. Us childless grown-ups look on with interest as they are led out by their tutting parents. An exhibition causing such polar child reactions seems to me to be incredibly ballsy. Even the title has balls. “What’s the Point of It?”  Well that’s the big question isn’t it? Alasdair Gray said “to anticipate a criticism is not to forestall it”, but I’m not sure that’s what Creed is trying to do. It’s just a question. What’s the point of bluetack or balloons or dogs? For that matter, what’s the point of shit and erections and mothers?  The point is that the point is indefinable. The point is to keep asking the question.

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Beth Fox

About the Author ()

Beth Fox is an artist, writer and independent curator. She has recently exhibited work at Divus Gallery, London, Sluice, London, Angus-Hughes Gallery, London, the Horse Hospital, London and the Bunkhouse Gallery, Madrid. She was born in Ireland and lives and works in London. More information at:

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