Creed’s Credo

getting to the rudiments: martin creed, work no. 1370, chicago (2012) @ museum of contemporary art chicago, 15 november 2012.

Martin Creed does not like rules, but his work has a rigor. He wants himself and others to achieve freedom, but it is a freedom born of a sly form of constraint. His artistic impulses border on the infantile, but they also feel wise. There is a polymorphous perversity present, but an elegant simplicity too. He has a discipline: not caring about disciplines. He wards off systemization, but all his pieces are numbered. He seeks out playfulness, but his efforts are all titled “work.”

Creed seems most interested in getting to the rudiments. Bodies. Letters. Numbers. Colors. Friends. Pets. Laughter. Singing, Gazing. Moving. Stillness. Entering. Exiting. Start. Stop. Squat. Skip. Start again. Stop Again. Start again. Spin. Piano. Guitar. Breath. Suck. Blow. Walk toward. Walk away.

During the performance, there was linear motion in clear white projected film space. There was rectilinear dancing along the straight lines of a black stage turned into a grid. There were dancers echoing Creed’s motions as a musician and musicians imitating dancers leaping off the stage. The dancers clustered together, dripping and dropping, accreting and separating, across the stage like globules of paint. Then everyone assembled into place, two lines of bodies, musicians on one side, dancers on the other, receding into a V from Creed positioned at center stage. It was a glimpse of infinite regress and the mood of making progress all at once. Vanishing points receding, body by body, into the background, and the powerful presence of performance—Creed’s most of all—in the room, here and now.

These were geometric pleasures cut across with zig zagged curiosities. Direct address, declarative statements, simple lyrics, strong melodies, nice harmonies, three chords. Artistic fellowship and connection with audiences. Occasionally things got dense, but they never got complicated. Yet behind the stark simplicities, there were subtleties. One noticed ideas—metaphysical positions, barbed critiques, keen observations, dour predictions, hopeful bemusements—right at the moment when one thought there was nothing to notice.

What was most fun about Creed’s piece was that it existed in a netherworld between the performing and the visual arts. This isn’t something new, of course. It’s been at the core of dada, surrealism, happenings, performance art, and conceptual art for decades. But Creed’s accomplishment was to take painting outside the frame and make performance look a bit like a painting. And to do this simultaneously, seamlessly. Work No. 1370, Chicago (2012) was a kind of tableau vivant. This was why in its own funny way it was religious art, as in the dramatic scenes occasionally staged during Mass. It was also suffused with risqué, illicit, erotic associations, some kind of shadowy memory of Victorian nightlife lurking in the backdrop of this thoroughly contemporary presentation.

Martin Creed. Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.

Most of all, Creed quietly, easily, and powerfully brought his audience into a liminal zone between the gallery and the concert hall. You could look at the stage as a canvas divided into musicians on one side and dancers on the other, filmed video projected in its own square on the back wall, with occasional bursts of color, form, and gesture across these established boundaries. But, blinking your eyes and looking again, you were watching a performance, a folksy rock concert, one merely inflected by the interests of a visual artist.

The pleasure of the piece was in the clarity of not worrying about splitting the difference.


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