For decades, the Park Avenue Armory was home largely to order and restraint, serving as the headquarters of the 7th Regiment of the New York Militia. It is now bursting with mayhem: large balloons fill the old Colonel’s Reception Room, threatening to tumble out; the parlor seems to need an electrician, with its lights turning on and off; a five-piece musical troupe snakes through the austere hallways, spreading noise with a trumpet, tambourine, violin, flute, and megaphone.
This is The Back Door, Martin Creed’s solo exhibition that takes over the Armory’s entire first floor with a series of installations and interventions, many incredibly conspicuous, others easily overlooked. Co-curated by Tom Eccles and Hans Ulrich Obrist, it’s the largest US survey of the British artist’s work, presenting an exceptional opportunity to appreciate Creed’s pieces in dialogue with each other. Individually, they may leave less of an impression, simply coming off as an adult ball pit or a jarring but cursory scene of flickering lights (although “Work No. 227” did earn Creed his Turner Prize). But here, the works meet and build upon each other to form an experience that surprises at every turn, resulting in something memorable, albeit wholly exhausting.
There’s no set structure for viewing The Back Door, but you do feel like you’re at the mercy of this grand building. It seems alive from the moment you enter, from the noises spilling out of various spaces to the motions of objects that would ordinarily be still. In one corner of a front room, next to a permanently installed painting, a video work shows a pair of blinking eyes; it screens opposite three metronomes ticking at different paces, so that the room becomes invigorated through these small gestures that recall bodily functions. Such rhythms continue throughout the exhibition, creating a constant pulse that moves with your own footsteps and to the songs of the roving band, whom you may also follow as your guide.
The lights in the parlor, for instance, offer a visual beat: the momentary brightness offers a glimpse of the room’s interior, where a door eerily swings open and closed of its own accord. Like a video work or a live performance, “Work No. 160” makes you wait, teasing out a curiosity about what lies within the room. You’ll have to pause once more when crossing the corridor, where floor-to-ceiling drapes also open and close regularly on their own (and swish softly enough to unnerve a certain Nadine), allowing access to the Armory’s northern rooms at fixed moments.
There’s more absurd, kinetic work in the newly restored Veterans Room, where the lid and fallboard of a cream-colored grand piano open slowly, like a bird spreading its wings for the first time — before slamming shut with a determined bang. It’s also easy to miss this, since the mechanics are only set in motion at certain times. In this sense, your time is not entirely yours here; this is a show that may require more patience than you’re willing to give up. It plays with our expectations as viewers, forcing us to revisit sections in hopes of catching a moment of magic.
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What you can see regardless of timing is the room of balloons, or “Work No. 2497.” Taking up and visually representing half the air in the space, the white balloons form a playful environment under the serious stares of men in official portraits. These Instagram-ideal rooms of Creed’s are typically crowdpleasers, but attempting to push through the staticky rubber orbs to the exit actually made me feel claustrophobic — as if I were paradoxically drowning in a sea of air. I did, however, enjoy the occasional pops from accidentally burst balloons that added spurts of liveliness to the building.
Creed often works in these glaring gestures, but there are plenty of quieter moments, too. In the Library, alongside sheets of crumpled paper displayed on pedestals, he has carefully stacked boxes according to their size; in the Field and Staff Room, he’s created similar ziggurats with chairs and tables. Near these bizarre furniture sculptures is a row of cacti, arranged by descending height. While perhaps not as exciting as a self-slamming piano, the attention to order and structure here is satisfying, offering breathers from the other spaces teeming with unpredictable activity.
Artists who exhibit at the Armory usually have access only to the massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Perhaps because Creed had so many other rooms to work with, he’s chosen to activate the 55,000-square-foot-space with just a very large screen hanging from the ceiling. It plays a new series of videos: slowed-down zoom-ins on staring women who open their mouths to reveal food. I found these initially intriguing but eventually tedious; more compelling is “Work No. 2721,” from which the exhibition takes its name. In between the clips — once more, patience required — a garage-like door opens to flood the space with light, offering a different film each time: the real-time bustle of Lexington Avenue, reminding us that the actual world beyond Creed’s funhouse continues all the while at its own unique pulse.
The food videos in the Drill Hall are just a taste of Creed’s exploration of human body. Screening in hidden rooms along its southern wall are a number of videos that lay bare all sorts of human behavior. In the darkness, you can watch a man destroy a bouquet of flowers, various individuals force themselves to vomit in spotlessly white rooms, and, yes, girls squat to poop. It’s fitting that these reside in what seem like the bowels of the building (or at least, of the first floor). As the most easily missable works but probably the most shocking, they are uncomfortable to watch, capturing humans at our most vulnerable. Any of my prior feelings of anxiety, frustration, or restlessness seemed to resonate with and culminate in this space. I felt relief as I reached the last video (an aggressive man repeatedly saying “fuck you”), craving a return to the open city as glimpsed through that back door.
Martin Creed: The Back Door continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 7.