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© Martin Creed. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

The Fear of Emptiness 0

Interviewed by Viestarts Gailītis, specially for

One could say that Martin Creed (1968) is the embodiment of conceptualism. In 2001, this British artist and musician was awarded Britain's most prestigious contemporary art award – The Turner Prize. The essence of the piece for which he received the prize was written into the title – Work No. 227: the lights going on and off; it consisted of a room in which the lights went on and off. Naturally, the awarding of the prize for such a piece elicited various reactions at the time, as well as a discussion about what is the point of art. Perhaps not as much as the above-mentioned work, but Creed does have other works which, with their unpretentiousness, “every-dayness” and minimalism, could even be said to be comical. My conversation with Creed took place in October of 2011, in Tallinn, where his famous piece, alongside other pronouncedly minimal works of art, was being featured in the exhibition Continuum_the Perception Zone. 

How much does it cost to set up your piece, Work No. 227: the lights going on and off?

(Chuckles) I really don't know; really, I don't. An electrician is needed. At least in the past, when I was making it, I requested the help of an electrician. Then you have to buy a switch, which is necessary for the lights to turn on and off. That costs about 70 pounds (chuckles).

Do you make any money off of this piece?

I've sold it, yes. It's a sculpture in three copies.

For how much did you sell it?

Not I, the gallery. The Turner Award-winning copy went for about 20,000 pounds. The latest one cost 160,000 – in US dollars, I think.

And the curators in Tallinn – do they have to pay for copyright use?

No, I don't make money from exhibiting the piece. I just receive a fee for giving a lecture.

Who was it that bought the piece?

Two copies were bought even before the Turner Prize – one was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Tate Gallery is buying one right now. It's a process that takes a long time – it often does, when museums are buying. For me, it's a big and expensive work. I basically don't make any money off of it. The market for a piece like this doesn't compare to the market for paintings.

You said it was an expensive work for you. In what sense?

A work that reaches a price of a couple of hundred thousand dollars is expensive to me. Do you understand what I mean? I didn't mean it metaphorically (chuckles)...

What was your reaction to the artist who, in protest of the Turner Prize being awarded to yourWork No. 227: the lights going on and off , and also in protest of the dying-out of painterly skill, smashed eggs against the wall of the exhibition hall? What did you think of her actions?

I think I didn't understand what to think of it (chuckles).

But what do you think of the argument that what you do is not art?

I don't wish to argue about this issue because I don't like the way that the term “art” is being used. I wouldn't call myself an artist in that context. Talking about what is and isn't “real art” doesn't seem adequate to me. I made the piece, and in my eyes, it had a point. I believed in it, in the sense that making it helped me to live. I don't care about the definition of art; I have created this piece, and of course it is real! I think that the definition of art is: art is what people use as art.

Does that mean that you actually aren't against the point of art itself, as it is sometimes portrayed that you are?

I'm not against it, but I also don't especially like to use that term, because I don't know what art is. I don't know how to define it, and that's why I don't want to call myself an artist. Correspondingly, if someone says that I'm not an artist, then I agree with them (chuckles)... Or maybe, sometimes I'll argue with them. In relation to the accusation that this piece of mine is not like painting – first of all, I paint paintings myself. In addition, this piece is just like a painting – it is an arrangement of colors meant to be looked at. Just because it's not on the wall doesn't mean that it's not real. The Sistine Chapel is also a simulation. I do understand why people call my piece a minimalist piece, and I understand why minimalist pieces make people angry at times.

And why is that?

Because I, myself, am afraid of emptiness. I often feel that I am nothing... Waking up in the morning, I feel like just a bubble of feelings and thoughts. In a way, one of the reasons why I create pieces like this is to help myself, and to record that there is something that is real. Because I am always changing inside, and that's why I want something constant and fixed, like a mathematical equation. That helps me live. My works help me navigate my life. I fear emptiness, and I think that people like that are – fundamentally – scared out of their wits from emptiness. Those are the themes in my work – real themes.

I know that these same arguments are lobbed against minimalistic music – that it is too simple, for instance, when compared to the music of Bach. I take it that these are the same arguments used in art – that minimalist art doesn't require the kind of effort that the more “skillful”, traditional way of painting did.

That is not an argument. My works require effort. I kill myself while making my works. The reason that I make minimalistic pieces is the fact that I am confused in this world. In my opinion, the world is confusing; there is so much going on all the time that I just want something simple. Nothing silly, but something clean and that can say something simple. In my eyes, simplicity has the value of a diamond, and it takes me a lot of work to get to a simple result. I begin every piece with the whole world. With my artistic means, the money I have available and other constraints, I try to include the whole world into my piece. And I try to include myself in it. 

So, your pieces aren't simply the result of laziness or lack of talent?

Nooo! Absolutely not! 

So, if you saw that there was a need for it, you could also work more “skillfully”?

I already do that, by spending many, many hours working on my pieces. In this specific piece [Work No. 227: the lights going on and off], it is easy to separate the making part, that is, the electrician's work, from the so-called “idea-work”. But usually, in most cases it is difficult to separate the practical ability from the unified image. Paintings are an especially good example of this problematic separation [between ability and idea]. I was taught practical skills in my family and in school – my father was a craftsman who worked with jewelry, and he was always polishing gold and silver. So I've always had that craftsmanship background. I think it is difficult to autonomously separate these two things – craftsmanship and so-called “art”. It is always confusing for me to explain where and how they meet one another. That's why I make the kind of works that I do. In a way, Work No. 227: the lights going on and off is a small experiment in which I tried to analyze the process of a work coming into being. And in the process, this piece came about. When I was making it, I asked myself – what do I want in this room? And the answer was – nothing. I want the whole world in it. I only want to see the room and the people in it.

In that case, you could also do without turning the lights on and off.

No, then it would be just like any other room – turning the lights on and off has a dramatic effect. It's the same thing that is done in concerts – so it would be more interesting to watch it; to highlight what you're looking at. And I try to bring attention to the room. 

Taking the view from the other side – from the side of the consumer of art, is there anything that is being presented as “a work of art” that you, personally, don't think of as art?

There are many works that I don't like, but I wouldn't say that they are not art. I simply think that there is no answer to the question of something being, or not being, art. It is a wrong question.

It seems that long ago, people had a clearer view of what constitutes art and what does not.

Yes, quite possibly. 

Why do you think that this has changed?

Apparently, people were fooling themselves back then (chuckles). I don't know...

Apparently, people had a reason to think differently back then.

The Church had a different sort of strength back then. 

Have we lost something good by entering the era of relativity?

I wouldn't use the words “good” or “bad”. When I was growing up, my family taught me that music and art were “good”, but that money was “bad”. I wouldn't use such moral judgments on this issue. But there's one thing I can say – a lot of things that have been labeled as “contemporary art”, are shit.

For example?

(Chuckles) I don't want to name names... I just want to say that there's a lot of shit there. Contemporary art seems like a very narrow niche to me, and art galleries are very fortified environments. And that worries me. Some people say that anything can look good in an art gallery. And unfortunately, in a certain sense, that is true. For example, Jeff Koons – I really like him, but he could make anything, put it in an art gallery, and it would look good. I don't want to be in this sort of protected environment with long descriptions of the pieces. Say, it's much more difficult to play the guitar or draw pictures on the street. That's a much more complicated environment. I'm speaking in metaphors now, but I really like to observe things in motion. And correspondingly, I like to work in environments other than galleries. Partly, that's why I play music; because I don't believe in working in only one field. When I go to a strange city, an art gallery is not the first place I want to go.

Could you mention specifics in your working in territories other than galleries?

As I said, I play music and I like to work in public spaces. An example is my piece in Edinburgh [Work No. 1059, the Scotsman Steps].

You said that in your family, you were taught that money was “bad”. Do you still think so?

No, money is neutral. I want to be free, and in a certain sense, money gives you freedom. But at the same time, I don't need a lot of money to do my work.

Does your piece, Mothers [a huge neon sign that threateningly spins right above the heads of visitors], have any connection to your mother?

Apparently it does (chuckles).

What was her reaction to it?

I think she was shocked by it. Happy and shocked – at the same time. I've made several sculptures, and always the first question has been whether or not to create the specific thing big, or small. In this specific case, I thought – what should I make that would be big? Respectively, I began with the wish to create a large sculpture, not an image of a mother. And then I was struck with the idea of Mothers (chuckles).

You also have a sculpture-sign, EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT. In making it, were you depicting your outlook on life, or were you consoling yourself?

I was definitely consoling myself.

Do you feel your Scottish roots?

Yes, I feel them.

In what way?

I left Scotland precisely because I wanted to be my own person, away from my family. But, in being away from Scotland, I really feel that I am Scottish. I speak like a Scot, and now that I've grown-out my beard, I look like a Scot. When I meet other Scots, I feel a closeness, and sometimes, I even feel that I know what they're going to say – I can't stand that. I can't stand that I am not my own person, but rather a Scot (chuckles). 

You want to be unique – just like everybody else?

(Chuckles) Exactly!

Are you satisfied with development in the Western World?

Life is hard, and I often feel like crap, but the world is a very interesting place – wherever you may go.