ON / OFF
When he won the Turner Prize in 2001 for exhibiting an empty room in which the lights went on and off at five-second intervals, Scottish artist Martin Creed became a household name for a work that baffled and illuminated in equal measure. The perfect calling card for a man who seems to shun black-and-white thinking, that signature installation was just number 227 in a chronological sequence of artworks that have taken almost as many arresting forms throughout a storied career. Whether he’s flooding museums with balloons, emblazoning buildings with reassuring messages in neon, instructing sprinters to run for their lives, or effectuating the restoration of the historic Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh, Martin’s practice trips ebulliently yet unfathomably through public and private spaces. Meanwhile, his band, a charmingly potty-mouthed punk group, has played all over the place, including Glastonbury – the holy grail of music festivals. Does Martin Creed consider himself a success, then? That very much depends.
Penny Martin: When I think of Glasgow, where you’re from, I always think of oppositions – it’s such a warm, outgoing place, but at the same time it can be quite volatile.
Martin Creed: I’ve never thought about it like that, but it reminds me of the Rangers and Celtic football rivalry and everything that entails: when I was growing up there, the division was very strong. I guess it’s better nowadays. There was obviously a lot of violence as well – not that I experienced any – but I was very into reading books about it, The Glasgow Gang Observed and all that.
PM: Is that what you were trying to distance yourself from by coming to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art?
MC: Eh, I just think that I had to separate myself from my family and from Scottish people in order to be me. When I’m not in Scotland, I suspect being different must give me a bit of confidence. Any times I’ve done gigs in Scotland though, especially Glasgow, I feel that people can see through me. There, we’re all Scottish, you know?
PM: But for me, your accent is such a big part of your videos and the sound of the Martin Creed Band. It’s a particularly folky kind of Glaswegian brogue that seems to have the effect of charming audiences, even when you’re hurling profanities at them. Were you praised for your singing voice as a child?
MC: I was in the choir at primary school but I didn’t start singing properly until I was a teenager. My mum and dad were really into music, especially my dad. He had a little violin and when we moved to Scotland from Yorkshire when I was three, I started learning to play. But after the grade-five theory exam I gave it up as a break for freedom and started learning the piano.
PM: I read that your first songs were composed as you were walking to school, which makes sense since tracks like Understanding or Thinking/ Not Thinking have a sort of relentless rhythm, as if they’re being paced out.
MC: That’s just like a mantra thing, repeating something to yourself helps as you’re walking along. And I suppose I’ve done lots of work with walking – the whole thing of running, the runners at the Tate or the disabled people crossing the zebra crossing in the video for You Return.
PM: The result is quite stark, stylistically. If one of your songs comes on my shuffle in a studio full of people, its stripped-down, repetitive sound can be quite jarring against all the production values and smooth vocals on the rest of my playlist.
MC: I suppose it is. I feel like I’m unable to add more stuff that might soften it. I like a lot of music that’s very soft but I can’t make music like that. It feels like I’m being artificial and I can’t keep that up. I was really into Billy Bragg when I was growing up – I attended a lot of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches and he was always on a bloody platform – and his very stripped-down, very direct lyrics have some sort of bearing. I was really into The Smiths as well. Just quite no-nonsense kind of music.
PM: With the rather deadpan, dark humour that you share.
MC: The thing about doing songs live is that it’s frustrating to communicate the impossibility of communicating. That’s why you have to try to be as simple and repetitive as possible. With a lot of music, you can’t understand the words – you literally can’t understand what they’re saying. That’s why I like hip-hop. On the few occasions that I’ve seen hip-hop bands live, I’ve really liked the fact that you can hear the words and that it’s really direct: bang, bang, bang. I saw 2 Live Crew at a party this gallery, Gavin Brown in New York City, did for me. We played in support and I loved it; I felt at home.
PM: How do you mean?
MC: I felt more at home with that hip-hop band than I would have had I been playing with another indie band or whatever. Sometimes when I go to Japan or Southeast Asia, I feel like my visual work is more understood there. I mean, I don’t mind having arguments here about whether the lights going on and off is art – I like talking about stuff. But in Korea or Tokyo, that balance is part of the culture – on and off, yin and yang. The unquestionable idea that craft and art are the same, and that life and art are part of the same thing there; drinking tea is an art and there’s no sense of high and low. A crumpled ball of paper, a gilded object and a song all have equal value. I suppose it’s a Buddhist thing or part of Eastern philosophy.
PM: How do you judge the success of your works?
MC: I mean, one way to judge it is if it sells. And if it gets into the newspapers and feels like a hit, then I love that; your fragile ego gets a boost. But often it’s not the work that might be known to people that I make money from. The works that are successful to me are ones that excite me and stand the test of time.
PM: You played Glastonbury last year, didn’t you? Was that the same kind of career zenith as winning the Turner Prize in 2001?
MC: Eh, it was very enjoyable but it was a small stage – a small tent – and it wasn’t the best gig that I’ve ever done. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Turner lately and when I’m lying in my bed, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t won it. I think it only encouraged me.
PM: Encouraged you to do what?
MC: I got into art partly because I was a very competitive person. I think a lot of artists are, actually, which is why they get into a field where they don’t have to bear the consequences of winning or losing, as sports people do. I earn what would be considered a very good living, I own a house, and another one in Italy, but in art, who says whether you win or lose? That uncontested success can lead to a delusional state where artists begin to think they control the world in some way.
PM: What would losing the prize have brought you instead?
MC: I would have had to deal with loss. You know, we’re all losers; life is a process of losing every moment and the idea that you can fight against that by being successful isn’t realistic. I lost years, winning.
PM: Is that why you don’t enjoy putting together survey exhibitions? Do you dread revisiting work from that period?
MC: It’s more the fact that with multiple works there’s a danger that the relationships run sideways, toward the other works, rather than outwards, to the people. So around the Turner, I made a rule that I’d only show one work at a time. I kept that up for years.
PM: Have you ever followed the art theorist Ernst Gombrich’s Piero della Francesca trail in Italy – where you travel for miles around Umbria and Tuscany to see a single painting and then the following day, it’s on to the next one?
MC: That sounds great, I often see things in that way. When I visit a gallery, I don’t feel I need to see everything; I just go for one thing.
PM: Does that extend to the rest of your life? Do you prefer seeing people one-on-one, too?
MC: Maybe. Talking to lots of people at gigs and talks is definitely different from talking to just one person. I don’t like doing interviews on stage – the sideways thing again, where I always feel I have to be polite to the interviewer, which gets in the way of being honest. I prefer talking directly to the people in the audience.
PM: Do you feel much kinship with other artists? Who are your peers*?
MC: Oh, god! The two that come to mind who I know personally, from way back, are Jeremy Deller and Maurizio Cattelan. Maurizio not so much as a friend but we’ve crossed paths a lot over the years, particularly when I Iived in Italy, and he’s always been nice and supportive to me.
PM: When you had bells ring out across the UK for three minutes in 2012 to welcome the London Olympics, that work seemed to share a spirit of sociability and openness with something like Jeremy Deller’s Stonehenge bouncy castle. Is that fair?
MC: Aye, definitely. Well, I hope so. I want to be more open in that way, and I think Jeremy definitely is. I’ve been thinking I should be making more films out on the street. My older ones were all filmed against a light background to simplify the action, but now I want to see people going about their business in the background. Now that I’m older, I want a certain degree of peace and comfort and quiet, like anyone, but there’s a danger in cosseting yourself off from the world; that way leads to death.
PM: Are the art works of yours that are more physically demanding of the public – when people have to fight their way through a room half-filled with balloons or run up and down the marble staircase in Edinburgh – the ones that they respond to most favourably?
MC: The balloons and the Scotsman Steps are the ones it seems that people most want to talk about, come to think of it.
PM: For me, they’re such a clear summation of the total art experience – pitting childlike wonderment and sensual pleasure against the question that you used as the title of your survey show at the Hayward in 2015: What’s the Point of It?.
MC: It’s just that you can’t separate the mind from the body. Works like the balloons come from trying to make use of everything – the room is half full of balloons because you need half the room to be empty in order for people to get in.
PM: Having reached that perfect balance and sense of resolution, it always surprises me that you often discuss your works in terms of doubt.
MC: I’m not sure whether I thought this at the time of making them, but basically those works are a sort of framework within which chaos and craziness are allowed to happen. But it’s contained chaos. So, in a simple way, they’re analogous to life or a hyper version of it.
PM: Some critics have said that its control and its lack of certitude make the work – and ultimately, you – impervious to criticism.
MC: Well, I’m very scared of criticism, so when I talk about my work, I imagine that’s going to come into it. And importantly, who really cares what I say about my work? Just because I say I made it for a reason doesn’t mean I did – I might be delusional, which I probably am.
PM: Do you read your own press?
MC: I don’t, no. It’s sort of a narcissistic impulse – like looking in the mirror, but it’s a weird distorted kind of mirror. I used to read my press, and then I’d find myself getting upset about things and reacting to them, which is a distraction from working. I sometimes read interviews, though.
PM: Oh dear.
MC: I hate it when I read something I’ve said in an interview that’s been edited down for space constraints. It’s inevitable, of course, but I feel like the editing takes away the uncertainty and how can you be certain? That kind of pomposity is one of the worst human traits, so if I ever feel sure of myself, I’m probably going to try to hide it.
PM: I’ll bear that in mind.
*) Contranym 4: PEER
A contranym is a word that has contradictory meanings, depending on its context. The word “peer” can mean both a member of the nobility (“he was made a peer in the New Year’s honours list”) and one’s equal in age or rank (“he dreaded spending New Year’s in the company of his peers”).