sun 13/06/2021

Martin Creed, Hauser & Wirth | reviews, news & interviews

Martin Creed, Hauser & Wirth

Martin Creed, Hauser & Wirth

The lovable conceptual artist delivers the mother of all shows

Who could not love Martin Creed? The tweed-encased harumphers of the world adore him, because they can say, “That’s not art,” and, “My cat could do that,” and have an all-round wonderful time. Conceptualists have it easy: what could be more fun than his Turner Prize-winning Work No 227, a light going on and off in a room? And lovers of abstract art love him because his work is just there. “Take it or leave it,” it seems to say. And they love him because, well, because his work is lovable.

Creed’s new show is in two of Hauser & Wirth’s new galleries on Savile Row – you have to go back outside to get from one to the other, and in a way, this breath of fresh air is as good an analogy as any other for Creed’s work. It's bright, breezy, and my God it's refreshing. In one huge room, a central post holds a vast steel beam that sweeps furiously through the room, almost touching three of its four walls and the ceiling, the beam holding white neon letters spelling out “Mothers” (main picture, above) – its size and its sweep are the point, the endless circling bringing to mind those old movies of wayside motels in rural America, where neon signs blink through the dusk. Yet unlike those images of motels, Mothers is neither sinister nor isolated: we are all encompassed in its swinging embrace, just as the word itself includes everyone: we all had mothers at some point. (In a previous installation, this beam was mated with a twin, which of course said "Fathers".) The white-cube gallerist sitting at his white-cube desk in the corner, clacking away self-consciously in white-cube style almost seems to have been added by Creed as a po-mo joke.

x-es_and_bookshelfIn the second gallery, this inclusiveness continues as Work No 1113 (pictured right) covers the entry wall behind the reception desk and gallery shelves. Creed is terrifically good at scale, at making us think about why our responses change, why our expectations and values differ depending on size. One of his videos, Thinking/Not Thinking, shows a tiny little chihuahua-ish sort of dog tippy-tapping self-importantly across a white background, while a big goofy mutt follows on behind. (Photographic prints from this video are on show here, although not the video itself.) It is the scale alone that makes us think the small dog smart, the big dog goofy – who knows, the viewer thinks, maybe the mutt is really a canine Einstein. And within Creed-world, soberly brooding on the respective intelligence of dogs in a video suddenly seems a perfectly reasonable thing to be doing.

Work No 1109 is a series of black emulsion squares, painted onto the corner of the gallery wall, trickling their way down to the corner of the room. The placement, the size, makes them irresistibly comic, even as you know that black squares are not themselves inherently funny. The varied acrylic works, strong stripes of colour wiped across a white canvas, or sometimes shades of one colour filling a canvas in long dashes of paint, are masters of balance and purity. Xes, squares, lines - even the odd maze - all appear on canvases that move from small to middling size and are a joyous break from the past few decades of work that just gets bigger and bigger, work designed not for people to live with, but for museums to own.

If I have any reservations, it is that while Creed is a master of scale, he is on less certain ground when it comes to duration. Some of his work has been fabulous – Work No 850 saw runners erupting through the Duveen gallery in Tate Britain every 30 seconds, running as fast as they could from one end to the other. This was Creed at his absolute best - disruptive, yet thoughtful, telling us something about both the perceived bodies, and our own, as we were moved, and moved, as we watched them. But then there was the 2009 evening of “choreography” (I use the word in its loosest possible sense), Work No 1020, where Creed predicated a series of “rules” for a set of dancers, limiting movement, timing and so on. Had this piece, like the Tate runners, lasted only a few seconds at a go, before the viewer moved on, then it might have been interesting. As it was, it was a full evening at Sadler’s Wells, with Creed talking and “singing” (again, loose usage), with Thinking/Not Thinking running behind. Timing is all, and an hour plus of limited movement/limited music was about 59 minutes too long. (This is getting a second outing at Sadler's Wells in June: a chance for me to rethink? Or even Think/Not Think?)

breastTime and duration is a problem in general for video art, as well, and not one Creed has resolved. Work No 1177 (pictured left, with Work No 1098) shows a woman’s breast: her hand (at least, I assume it belongs to the same woman, although the image is cropped too tightly for us to know) comes up and stimulates the nipple, then the camera, through four minutes, records what happens as her flesh contracts and expands. Creed has done several works based on human bodies and their functions, and this fits in the series. All the ones I have seen, however, have the same problem: of what to do with yourself as you watch. I am puzzled that someone as interested as Creed in bodies, and what we do with them, from watching, to running, to being watched, has not approached this aspect. While I watched the video, six people came into the room: not one lasted more than 10 seconds, most far less. Without the viewers, the Tate runners were nothing; the lights go on and off without us, but we must observe them for them to be art.

Which takes us back to Mothers. The speed on the circling beam is variable, and the work becomes less exhilarating, less encompassing, as it slows. But Martin Creed is such an engaged mind, I can only believe that as he has attacked scale, so too he will soon look at time: time watching, time being watched, the body in motion, and also what time does to those bodies. Surely this is next? I hope so, because it is bound to be as much of a rush as Martin Creed's current, joyfully insouciant work.

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