How Little is Enough?

It is easy neither to get in nor out of Martin Creed’s exhibition “What’s the Point of It?” at the Hayward Gallery here (through April 27). To enter you have to pass under a notice warning that the maximum safe head-height is 6 feet 6 inches. Anyone taller will be clonked on the cranium by the massive revolving beam of Work No. 1092 — all of Creed’s creations being meticulously numbered — which swishes through the air, alarmingly close, bearing the word “Mothers” in large neon capitals. This menace is thus a mixture of the physical and, depending on how you feel about your mother, psychological.

And at the exit comes an assault on the sensibilities of anyone with the least bit of queasiness about bodily functions. The only way out is through a room showing Creed’s Works Nos. 610 and 660, detailed if deadpan films of people vomiting and defecating. The fastidious have to dash through quickly with eyes averted. (This may be a marketing error on the Hayward’s part, by the way. One critic related that she shot out so rapidly that momentum carried her through the gallery shop before she realized what was happening.)

In between, for the most part, Creed gives the visitor an easier ride. A surprisingly large amount of his work takes the form of paintings, sometimes abstract and minimalist, sometimes figurative. There is also sound art, installation, a brick wall, a car that switches its lights and radio on and off, and opens and closes its doors. A black and white film shows a penis rising to erection and descending again. This, projected on an outside terrace of the gallery on a damp, grey winter’s day, was an oddly melancholy sight.

All of Creed’s work tends to pose questions, one big one being the rather bleak query of the exhibition title: “What’s the point of it?” And given that another staple preoccupation for Creed is pushing minimalism to the extreme, he likes to take Mies’s modernist proposition that “less is more” a stage further, and ask, “How little is enough?”

Some Creed pieces teeter on the edge of not being worth paying attention to at all. An example is Work No. 293 “A sheet of paper crumpled into a ball” (2003). This is exactly what the title says, but when the neatly scrunched sphere of A4 is presented in a glass case on an elegantly simple plinth, you are invited to look at it in that special art-gallery way, admiring the way the light plays over the creases of the surface. Is it ridiculous to contemplate such a mundane item as if it were a Brancusi? There is no obvious answer, which is the kind of mental squeeze Creed likes to put you in.

A lot of his art is binary — in/out, up/down: the vomiting, the penis, and also his most celebrated (or notorious) piece, Work No. 227 “The lights going on and off,” with which he won the Turner Prize in 2001. He likes stacks and steps and stripes, too, and many of his paintings and sculptures take those forms. His sound art tends to be of the one-note samba variety, like the loud, deflating raspberry that reverberates through the lower Hayward Galleries at frequent intervals.

I think Creed is clever, witty — and sometimes compellingly thought-provoking, although more because of the questions he poses than the visual excitement of what he does. Even the cheery, colorful paintings seem calculated to make you wonder whether they are too banal to count as art.

But the exhibition runs into a problem. For an artist who is obsessed with how little is enough, Creed is highly prolific. There is no escaping him at the Hayward. Even in the lavatory, a cubic stack of tiles protrudes from the wall — and turns out to be a work. After a while, these one-note sambas get a bit tedious. With Creed, less really may be more.


First published at Blouin Artinfo

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