A Martin Creed installation in Vancouver last year (image via flickr.com/lisa-parker)

CHICAGO — Martin Creed is a Scottish artist who won the British Turner Prize in 2001. His prize-winning piece, “Work Number 227: the lights going on and off,” was precisely that: an empty room in a gallery, in which the lights were turned off for five seconds, then turned back on for five seconds, ad infinitum. While that created a bit of a stir at that time, eliciting the usual outrage about the minimal nature of minimalism, Creed is less well known in the United States.

That might change in 2012, when Creed will be the artist in residence at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) for the whole year. The first work on display is called “Work No. 845 (THINGS)” and dates from 2007. It consists of a neon sign of the word “THINGS,” fixed to a wall in the ground floor (really the basement) of the museum, next to a revolving door entrance. It’s obviously not a piece that was created for this residency, as indicated by the date, but as soon as you start to think about where it was placed in this space you start to see the point. It looks awkward, sitting on an angled wall and looking across a low-ceilinged space to a ticket desk. The wall text (which is bigger than the neon word) tells you that Creed took the word from a sign manufacturer’s sample, originally used to demonstrate the available colors in neon signage. The “things” might be the art-worky things that traditionally go on a museum wall. It might be an ironic reference to the lack of objects in its current location. Or it could be nothing more complicated than wanting to give you a fleeting but happy sensation from looking at some nice pink, white, yellow and green, glowing against a wall.

Actually, the more I think about Creed’s work, the more it seems to fit into the Dada-ist tradition. But unlike the original Dadaists, who kicked against a bourgeois culture that could genuinely feel outrage and take offence, Creed’s activities in the world of object-absurdity take place in the context of a culture that, at most, might just be confounded or annoyed by his crude paintings, his piles of boxes, his performances and his neon phrases.

Creed does, however, come across to me as an artist who is genuinely committed to exploring what sorts of gestures can constitute art, and as an artist who ultimately is interested in feelings as much as thought.

For the first of a series of articles that will track the course of the residency and the city’s response to it, I discussed some of the questions raised by this residency with curator Naomi Beckwith.

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Philip Hartigan: Naomi, can you tell me how the idea of this residency came about?

Naomi Beckwith (photo by Jennifer P. Samuel, via Art21 blog)

Naomi Beckwith: It really started with Michael Darling, the chief curator here who before I arrived had worked with artist Mark Bradford, and he was interested in working with an artist who could galvanize and was interested in working with all the resources of the museum, but do something totally different from what Mark Bradford did.

Martin Creed, I’m sure, cares a lot about humanity, but youth outreach and education haven’t been a big part of his practice thus far, yet we knew he’d be someone who’s super-interesting given his interest in all sorts of objects, not just painting, but sculptural objects, neon installation, his rock band. And most recently he’s developed a ballet. So we knew that someone with those disparate interests would be able to engage with all sorts of departments within the museum.

PH: Did you have an idea of a specific kind of residency and find an artist to fit it, or did you design this residency with a specific artist in mind?

NB: Really more the latter, because for the MCA a residency really has an unconventional definition. Many people think a residency is about an artist living, breathing and sleeping in the museum for quite some time, and what we’ve decided to do is to let each residency become a self-directed program. That worked really well with Mark Bradford and we knew we wanted to do exactly the same with Martin Creed. We decided on a multifaceted approach to his time here. One, he would be here for a month, broken up into three visits. Two, we knew we would have some objects that would appear in the building throughout the year, and also in the city. There’ll be a plaza project, and he’s going to do some installations around town.

PH: Will they be all around the city, or just close to the MCA?

NB: No, they’ll be all around Chicago. There’s one project that’s really important for us, which I can’t reveal too much about, but we hope also to realize here in Chicago the bell ringing project that he’s doing for the London Olympics. And then, my man loves music, and he’s going to be working with a local recording studio to cut an album. It’ll be Martin’s first solo music project. The ballet has been a large part of his practice recently, so there’s going to be dance, music, objects, he’ll be working with students — so it’s a multifaceted thing.

Martin Creed, “Work No. 845 (THINGS)” (2007) (photos by the author)

PH: What are the artistic and institutional aims of the residency? What difference will the residency make in terms of having THIS artist in THIS place?

NB: I think the first thing is that we’re working with an artist who is comfortable with showing his work on a non-conventional exhibition format. As a curator this provides me with multiple ways to support the artist. Martin has definitive ideas of how he likes to engage in the world, and artworks become the way by which he does that. He can speak to people in this flat way but that flatness can be a way of talking about what it means to make art, what it means to work with any possible material, what it means to use pure form and pure color, and it seems to me that Martin’s language is about reduction and through that reduction you establish a relationship with an audience. So he’s a good marker of what contemporary practice has been lately, which is about moving out of the studio, engaging with the audience in a direct way.

Martin is excited to do this for many reasons. He gets to come to a city that has a massive music background — he’s really hyped about that. And also this is one of his big introductions outside of the east coast. That was important for everyone involved, for the institution and for Martin. He’s going to have a whole new audience during and after this residency. And Martin talks a lot about feelings, about the feelings that his work elicits in an audience, but he’s never had feedback. So previously it’s been like a one way conversation, and now he’s hyped about hearing what people have to say.

“He is interested in subverting the idea of exhibition-making, but it’s not for the sake of making the institution itself disappear.”

PH: You know, I think sometimes people think of a museum residency in a clichéd way, this idea that the artist inevitably has to come in and somehow subvert the notion of the institution, and I don’t think that’s what Creed’s work is about at all.

NB: That’s absolutely right. I don’t want to misquote him, because he may not appreciate exactly what I’m going to say, but essentially it was the idea that he’s not trying to be mean to anyone. He is interested in subverting the idea of exhibition-making, but it’s not for the sake of making the institution itself disappear. It’s more a question of, how can we present work which is outside the normal sphere of an exhibition?

PH: So looking forward to December, 2012, what do you envisage as being the end point of the Martin Creed residency?

NB: I envisage a lot of public installations. (Laughs.) What I would love to see is a lot of student response. I would love to see what the many schools around this city think about this practice, about the MCA as a place to come and engage with these many objects. Oh, and I want to mention the artist’s talk that Martin will be giving on February 11th. It’ll be just as unconventional as his art. He’ll be speaking about his performative work, about his objects, he’ll have a guitar and a harmonica, and there’ll be a dancer improvising right behind him, whom he won’t meet until right before the talk. So leaving those things up to chance can be really great. Once again I think that’s a great model for us to think about  exhibition making: you kind of have to leave some things up to chance.

Martin Creed Plays Chicago will continue at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (220 E Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) throughout 2012.

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Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...

2 replies on “Poetically Mundane Scottish Minimalist Lands in Chicago”

  1. “Creed’s activities in the world of object-absurdity take place in the context of a culture that, at most, might just be confounded or annoyed by his crude paintings, his piles of boxes, his performances and his neon phrases.”

    actually, i see people becoming seriously angry at art all the time. just read the comment stream after an article abt hirst or the obituary of twombly, eg, to see folks, and not just art world folks, blowing a gasket.

    nice interview.

  2. Thanks, Joseph – I appreciate the comment. Let me just add that I think modern day anger, for example the ire aimed at Hirst, is still different from 1920s anger.  A lot of the comments in that Hirst stream might have come from artists, or non-artists, but it’s still very much done in the context of a knowledge of the art of the last 100 years – we all know the arguments, in other words. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie of Germany and Switzerland were quite seriously capable of getting out of their seats and punching the Dada-ists, and even storming the theaters. I just don’t see modern art-world maneuvers enraging people the same way, unless it’s the American religious right towards gay art (which would be an interesting discussion). Lastly, in the case of Creed, I don’t think the best aspects of his art are at all to do with outrage, but more to do with questioning.

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