Martin Creed and dancer during his February performance at MCA Chicago (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — We’re now a quarter of the way through Scottish artist Martin Creed’s year-long “residency” at the MCA Chicago. I put “residency” in quotation marks because Creed is only going to be here sporadically throughout 2012. So far, the MCA has put one new work by Creed on display each month, none of them new, so it’s more of an incremental retrospective at the moment. Creed also gave an eccentric artist’s talk from the MCA theater stage a few weeks ago — more on that later.

Since my first article about this residency, two more works by Creed have appeared in the MCA: “WORK NO. 405 (Ships Coming In)” (2005) and “WORK NO. 916 (Nine Cardboard Boxes)” (2008). The cardboard boxes are just that: boxes from household appliances, stacked one on top of the other, gradually decreasing in size from bottom to top. It’s tempting to get distracted into trying to over-interpret the piece, by looking for significance in the brand names on the sides of the boxes, the width of the ledge space that is created on each level, the fact that the height of the upper boxes can be divided by the height of the lowest box approximately according to classical Vitruvian measurements. All that may be true, but really, what Creed seems to be doing is just having fun with Warhol’s soup boxes and with the idea of sculpture in general.

“Ships Coming In” is Creed’s first video piece, from 2005, and consists of the following: two TVs displaying synchronized videos of ships slowly approaching a dock; the hull doors open, men and cargo exit; then the loop repeats, and the same thing is shown again, for just over eight minutes. If you want to experience the full effect of this, I’m afraid you won’t be able to get it from Netflix: you’ll have to sit through the whole show, as I did. A sort of narcoleptic peace descended upon me, as my mind finally gave up trying to find larger social meanings about work and repetition, etc., and I just gazed at the sea, a serenely solid mass of blue behind the slowly moving vessels.

Martin Creed’s (left) “Work No. 916 (Nine Boxes)” (2008), and “Work No. 405 (Ships Coming In)” (2005)

At the artist’s talk in February, I was interested to see whether Martin Creed would live up to his reputation for going a bit crazy in front of an audience. Not a bit of it. For the first twenty minutes after he took the stage, he would start a sentence, pause for ages with the back of his hand pressed against his forehead, stumble back to consult a folder of notes, say “Emm” and “Err” a lot in his thick Scottish accent, begin a thought about his work and his life, stop halfway through, fold his arms and screw his face up with his eyes closed, and generally giving a fairly disingenuous impersonation of a mad professor or an endearing loony cousin. At one point he was joined onstage by a dancer, who began mimicking the entire performance, right down to the little facial tics and hand gestures. Things livened up a lot when he took out his guitar and started singing some of his naïve, Robyn Hitchcockian songs, with the mime artist strumming an invisible guitar alongside him. News alert: Martin Creed plays the guitar and sings really well. When the music ended, he took some questions from the audience, and his replies actually contained real insights into Minimalism in general, and his own art in particular.

If there’s one thing I took away from this appearance, it’s that Creed is very serious about his work, and that he doesn’t like to be pinned down into saying what it’s about. It reminded me of the phrase that appears on every page of his website: “This site is neither under construction nor complete.”

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)...