Martin Creed - Biography and Legacy
British Multimedia Artist and Musician
Biography of Martin Creed
Creed was born in Wakefield, England in 1968 before moving to Scotland at three, where his father (an ironmonger) lectured on glassmaking and jewellery at the Glasgow School of Art. Creed grew up in a musical as well as artistic family. His grandmother was a concert pianist, and Creed began to learn to play the violin at four and the piano at twelve. As he remembers, "I was taught as a child the most important things were music and art." These two forms would later be combined throughout his own artistic work.
As a child, Creed attended meetings of The Society of Friends with his parents. He has since spoken of the influence in musical terms of the silence at these Quaker meetings, which was only occasionally punctuated by brief interjections of sound and/or speech.
Education and Early Training
From 1986 to 1990, Creed studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art. Though he found the discipline restrictive (and did not resume painting until 2005), he discovered a sense of freedom in other media. In particular, he was inspired by his tutor and performance artist Bruce McLean, who gave Creed the confidence to explore different types of artistic production. He later commented "I loved my time at the Slade... I really had a good time when I was a student".
A formative experience during Creed's student years arose from his intention to rethink the notion of art on a wall: "Instead of making something for the wall I thought why don't I go in from the wall. I made this thing going in and one piece going out from the wall and put them opposite each other. It was called In and Out Piece." On realising the sexual connotations of his creation, Creed was overcome with embarrassment. Nevertheless he believes the response of the audience in reading it as sexual to be a sign that the work had meaning - "that there's something there".
In the late 1980s and 90s, Creed's interest in the everyday and ready-made began to develop further as he made work from materials such as A4 paper and blu-tack. This freedom of material reflects his argument that "anything is art that is used as art by people". In 1987, Creed began his ongoing practice of numbering each artwork alongside their more narrative titles. He exhibited throughout the UK during this time, exploring the seriality and simplicity that would later become his trademark. Between 1994 and 1999 he performed with his band Owada, releasing several albums and singles. He has performed as a solo artist from 1999.
In 2001, Creed won the Turner Prize (the UK's most prestigious prize for contemporary art), primarily on the strength of his installation Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000) - an empty room in which the lights switch alternately on and off. The audacity of displaying only a single work in the Turner Prize exhibition, and such a simple one, was praised by the judges, who also recognized its deceptively complicated engagement with the space and musical rhythm. Nevertheless, Creed's win provoked extreme tabloid hostility and ridicule, with the question of whether the installation was art at all raised by several culturally conservative critics, columnists and commentators. It is Creed's installation, often placed alongside Tracy Emin's My Bed and Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (which were also ridiculed for their conceptual nature) that are still those most often cited by UK media as reflecting the perceived banality of contemporary artistic practice and the pointlessness of government funding (of "bad art", or what is not art at all).
Rhythmic technique appears also in Creed's music, which has always proceeded as a parallel activity to his visual art and installation practice. Both Creed's visual art and his music reflect his particular anxieties: the crushing weight of material objects and the need for control, including over taboo or hidden behaviours. Having sung of the former, the artist began to avoid making objects and to draw attention instead to things that already exist: paper, the air, sounds and words. He explored this dematerialisation in his films Work No. 610: Sick Film, in which a person vomits in a white space, and Work No. 660: Shit Film, where they defecate. He says of the work: "I thought: 'Every day I go to the toilet but it's a hidden thing and it's something I'm scared of'. I think it's horrible, I wash my hands all the time. So I thought maybe I should look at why I avoid it."
The first major survey of Creed's practice took place in 2014 at London's Hayward Gallery, with subsequent retrospectives in both New York at the Park Avenue Armory and at the Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar (Netherlands).
Creed now lives and works between his house on the island of Alicudi (near Sicily), his flat in London (located in the Barbican), and his girlfriend's (writer and psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose) house in south London. He enjoys moving around as "a break from [his] stuff". His house on Alicudi is reachable only by boat, and he enjoys its remoteness - watching it "get smaller and smaller in the distance until it is gone" each time he leaves.
Exhibited national and internationally, his work continues to span fine art, music, public art and performance. Creed does not necessarily see a distinction between these disciplines, explaining that art should be able to live in the world and therefore encompass all aspects of human experience. In line with this idea, since his Turner prize win, his work has been exhibited in unlikely places including at the restaurant and cocktail bar, Sketch (Work No. 1343) and Victoria Beckham's clothing store (Work No. 249: Half the air in a given space), both in London. In 2011 Creed was commissioned to create a work for the iconic Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh, Scotland. Cladding each step in a different marble, the permanent installation is used every day by commuters and tourists to access parts of the city, reflecting again interest in art being part of the world rather than remote from it.
In recent years, paintings and drawings have emerged once again as part of his practice. In 2013-15 Creed began to paint naive portraits, including one of his girlfriend - a departure from his previous works based on sequences, words and everyday life. Another departure can be found in his venture into the political, with two videos Work No. 2533: Border Control and Work No. 2530: Let Them In (both 2015), made in response to his outrage at what he perceives as the lacking political response to the refugee crisis in Europe. The artist may be unwilling to accept that these constitute a "departure" from his previous work, as he states "You can't separate things in the world". Thus his art is a reflection of, and part of the world in which he lives.
The Legacy of Martin Creed
Creed's work can be seen as a response and an antidote to the material world in which we live, as his pieces are made with minimal physical intervention. The artist's practice of using everyday materials such as paper, air and light has been described as "a series of exercises in awareness", drawing the viewer's attention to things they might otherwise overlook. This idea extends to the overwhelming amount of choice that characterises consumer culture - which Creed looks to avoid. There is an anxious energy to Creed's work that appears in his desire to avoid conscious choice and to place objects in order. However this is something that he would like to overcome in the future: "One of my big problems is about control - I am trying to bypass that."
The question of "what is art?" is one that Creed takes very seriously. His Work No. 143 was made up of the words "the whole world + the work = the whole world", which could either be understood to mean that art has a negligible impact, or that it is in fact intrinsic to life. This potential tension between contradictory meanings is apparent elsewhere, not least in his own appraisal of his practice. The artist has stated "I go between thinking my work is shit and that it is great." Whilst he has claimed not to think of himself as an artist, he also believes that art can be anything, and is a core part of normal life: "People are crazy and mad, and life's crazy. Art's a place where you can do crazy, mad, stupid things."
Creed says that his works are not made as an "academic exploration of conceptual art" but are motivated by emotion and the wish to connect with people " to communicate and ... say hello". As such, he has spoken out against galleries that caption his work with complicated explanations, suggesting these are borne out of fear that there is nothing more to say about it: "I think the fear of emptiness is one of the biggest fears ...They want stuff to fill up the world. They want an explanation."
Despite this point of contention, Creed is generally well-liked by art critics and curators - somewhat unusually, in fact, for a Turner Prize-winning artist. The critic and art history writer Julian Bell calls him "a sweet, charming act", whilst others speak of his eccentric appearance and dress sense or the energy that stems from his obsessive relationship to his artistic motifs.