Martin Creed: Scales Curated by Kelly Taxter September 22, 2013, to March 9, 2014
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Martin Creed: Scales
The multifarious activities of Martin Creed - visual artist, composer, musician, performer, and choreographer- are received and contextualized as artworks, yet he resists that definition; rather, he catalogues his output by a simple taxonomy: a number followed by a descriptive title. Since the initial Work No. 3, Yellow painting (1996), the intervening seventeen years have seen the accumulation of nearly two thousand works, including Work No. 1652 (2013), a Victorian upright piano whose lid mechanically opens and then drops closed. The abrupt slam causes the faint resonance of every string, an atonal drone that ebbs and flows with the creak and bang of the lid’s movement. What might be considered music in this work is as much tied to the object’s inherent qualities as to an incremental, relative, and nimble exercise in classification. Michelangelo, master of the High Renaissance and progenitor of the multi-hyphenate, is supposed to have said that the sculpture was inside the marble and it was just a matter of finding it. Creed often refers to this anecdote as “a nice way to think about working—finding it, not making it.”1 Scales assumes this exploratory methodology, finding music both sonorously and conceptually in the most obvious and least likely of ways, in works in paint, ink, sculpture, and video. I don’t know what I want I don’t know what I think I don’t know what I see I don’t know what I feel You know? 2 The lyrics quoted above from the song “I don’t know what I want” (also known as Work No. 320, I don’t know what I want, 2003–04) appear on Love to you, a full length album written and performed by Martin Creed and his band. The artist’s songs provide this essay’s rhythm, creating pauses and breaks between descriptions of works and reinforcing the conceptual cohesiveness that prevails over Creed’s tangle of production. A ballad to indecision and an ode to neurotic paralysis, the aching directness of “I don’t know what I want” loudly echoes throughout Scales. It elucidates an unresolved state rendering the artist’s approach like that of a ravenous record collector, more completist than selective. For example, Work No. 227, The lights going on and off (2000), presents both sides of a binary, acknowledging that one cannot exist without the other. A mechanism integrated into the Museum’s electrical circuits switches the lights in South Gallery on and off every five seconds. This interval, long enough to feel the difference between light and dark but too short to grow accustomed to either condition, creates a temporal and fleeting art experience. The lights going on and off is not affixed to a wall or placed on the floor, it behaves more like music, hanging in the air and moving in all directions, made in real time in front of the viewer.3 The flickering light spills out of both entrances to the space, leaking across the mezzanine that connects the two sides of the Museum and out into the passageway towards the Balcony Gallery. Presented anywhere that can accommodate its technology, the work is created by an electrician who follows instructions, like a musician following a score. The most critical element is the rhythm between light and dark. Carefully considering the dimensions of the gallery, the artist determined that five seconds was just enough time for viewers to experience both states before passing through the room; if the interval were too long, the event might be altogether missed. This scientifically rigorous approach is characteristic of Creed’s process, wherein parameters are gathered, data is compartmentalized, and the object of his inquiry is subjected to a variable—in this case a room blanketed in five seconds of darkness and five seconds of light—to observe how something seemingly so minor might generate such major effects.
Work No. 189, Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed, 1998 Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York
This process takes a more maniacal turn beneath the stuttering lights, where Work No. 189, Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed (1998), occupies the floor. The petite, pyramid-shaped wooden structures each beat one of a possible thirty-nine time signatures, resulting in an aurally chaotic clicking reminiscent of rain on a roof or crickets. Aligned parallel to the gallery’s longest wall, the arrangement is determined by placing one metronome at the center of the wall, pulled out into the room at a distance equal to one half of the object’s depth. The remaining thirty-eight are spread out to the left and right, at intervals equal to the width of one metronome. From this low-lying vantage, a multitude of hand-wound arms swing back and forth in disunion, their beats rendered incoherent by the din. Those devices set to the faster times will wind down before the others, eliciting a metaphorical endurance test imbued with the weight of life passing.4
One Two Three Four One Two Three Four One Two Three Four 5 One Two Three Four
A thirty-six-second song about a band getting in sync and never falling out, 1234’s counting off never develops further. The work stops at the beginning, a point Creed says is his favorite moment in a piece of music, “Everything sounds good at the start. It’s exciting. It’s like a relationship: it’s easy at the start, but it’s hard to go on, and it’s very difficult to finish.”6 Endings—mute, lacking the questions, complications and excitement that riddle the working process—are difficult for Creed.
Work No. 138, A love duet, 1996 Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York
Lyrics that break up a song into metric units provide the comfort of order; each can be filled in from beginning to end. It is an exercise as precise as determining the distance between two points, and all that falls between. A similar logic applies to work No. 1037, four vertically oriented paintings of black pyramids, composed of horizontal lines. The pyramids’ shapes
Work No. 122, Drum machine, 1995–2000 Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York
Two beginnings hang in Scales in the form of scores. An ink drawing of two half-beat middle Cs, Work No. 138, A love duet (1996), is to be played fast and loudly, on both the treble and bass clefs at once. Similarly, Work No. 101, For pianoforte (1996), is of two full-beat middle Cs, to be played at a moderate tempo, very loudly or very softly, on both clefs at once. These renderings of simple, harmonious and potentially infinite meetings carry a romantic tone, a desire for what might be. Creed seems to seek out and hold onto potential, when things are fresh, pure, and whole. His difficulty in choosing one thing over another, preferring beginnings to endings and process to product, are consistent themes; perhaps methods to avoid insinuating himself—his taste or aesthetic—into the work. To do so, it seems, would muddle the experiment One whole to go Seven-eights to go Three-quarters to go Five-eights to go One half to go Three-eights to go One-quarter to go One-eight to go Nothing to go 7
depend on the lines, which thickly stretch edge to edge at the bottom of the canvas and grow progressively thinner and shorter as they move towards each pyramid’s apex. Four different multi-packs of differently-sized brushes were available at the art supply store. Creed magnanimously bought them all, and made one painting for each pack. The number and character of the lines are beholden to the number, width, and quality of each brush in the pack. Working off things “as-is” derives another unfettered system, a distillation that results in works entirely self-possessed, imbued with a rhythm and balance, at ease within the dimensions of the canvas. A sense of relief lingers on the surface of these paintings: decompression of anxiety, freedom from choice, the satisfaction of averting failure The notion of the readymade remains in play in Work No. 122, Drum machine (1995–2000). It comprises a drum machine atop a white pedestal and an amplifier sitting on the floor, with the two elements presented at equal heights, creating a sculptural unit. The amp emits sixty seconds of silence followed by a sixty second roll call of every available drum sound. The machine is programmed to play each of its sonic units single-file, rather than as a set of artfully combined and temporally reconfigured beats. It’s a percussive, somewhat undulating burst of noise, albeit derived from a flat-footed application of the device’s capabilities. The intervals of silence produce the rhythm, determined by the amount of time it takes to cycle through the catalogue of drums. The starts and stops subtly anthropomorphize the machine; silent for one minute as it gathers its breath, and then erupting with noise as it empties itself for one minute more. This feeling reiterates and mutates inside the Museum’s elevator, where Work No. 371, Elevator ooh/ahh up/down (2004) incarnates the journey between the exhibition’s two floors. The time it takes to travel from one floor to the next is synced with a piece of music, and as passengers travel up a chorus of bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices sings an ascending chromatic scale between low F and high C. The downward journey features the opposite movement, beginning with high C and ending with the low F. Moving up is full of excitement, while down is like a closing “sigh.”
A door guards the entrance to the Project Gallery. Once pulled open, countless numbers of gold balloons jockey to escape. Like a pool, the balloons fill half of the gallery. And as with water, visitors are supposed to enter and wade around. Work No. 1190, Half the air in a given space, is realized by calculating the gallery’s cubic volume and dividing it in half, a measure by which the total number of balloons needed to fill that volume is determined. Viewers walk amidst soft, buoyant orbs, individually transparent, but opaque en masse. Comprehending the space is possible using only touch and sound, a perceptual limitation that may provoke discomfort and vulnerability, blurring the line between fun and fear. Like the clamoring, stuttering and slamming above, this work stirs a little bit of chaos. The artist provides the installation plan, but the environment is activated by unpredictable trajectories. Moving people churn the contents of the room, inevitably causing some balloons to pop or escape, bodies to collide with each other or the wall. The swish of static on fabric and skin, the squeak of mingling rubber, screams and laughter, all are emitted from within as a low muffle. There’s a sense of ridiculousness here, of capable people flailing around, unsure of themselves, perhaps reveling in the moment of not knowing. Scales brings together works of varying media and modes, bound together by Creeds’s consistently applied methodology: playing off characteristics essential to balloons, light, metronomes, a piano, a drum machine, paint brushes and people, rather than manipulating them to a desired effect, which yields work as much about music as all forms of creative expression. Breaking things down by units and measures allows new subtexts about happiness, love, relationships, anxiety, fear, failure, and death to emerge. Not immune to this process, Creed approaches himself with the same logic. He writes, “The more I work, the more I think I don’t know what I am doing...What have I done? I can say I have moved. What have I made? I have made movements.”10 Consider these works as amongst Creed’s on-going experiments, which might illuminate some things we didn’t know and help us enjoy the process of finding out. Kelly Taxter, curator
Martin Creed performing Work No. 1020 Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Below all of this mechanized activity a large-scale video projection in the intimately scaled Screening Room plays out a very human drama. Work No. 548 (2006) begins with a clapperboard cutting into frame that snaps off the take. A woman dressed in black with her head down, trudges into a starkly white room and wretchedly vomits an enormous amount of reddish liquid. The traumatic event signals the end of a presumably long-endured nausea, a physical relief shared with the viewer. The visual impact of her emptying out formally suggests a sly commentary on painting, particularly as it relates to Jackson Pollock 51, 8 Hans Namuth’s film of the preeminent action painter at work in his studio. In the context of music, Work No. 548 feels linked to the pathos and energy required to give something of oneself, to interact with a public who has come to watch you play in the hopes of relating to your private world, to share in the catharsis of emotional release. While gross and difficult to watch, Creed considers the video a portrait. His only instruction to the actor was to throw up; she was free to decide how, stylistically and viscerally, to express herself. B B B sharp B flat B natural 9
“Interview: Tom Eccles and Martin Creed,” Martin Creed: Works (New York: Thames & Hudson. 2010), p.xii.
Work No. 320, I don’t know what I want, 2003–04, piece for voice, guitar, bass, and drums. Most of the songs referenced in this essay can be found on the album Love to You by Martin Creed, released July 2, 2012, on Moshi Moshi Records. The CD is available on Rough Trade or for download on iTunes.
Creed has described the origins and intentions of Work No. 227 in many interviews. See the artist’s conversation with curator Tom Eccles in Martin Creed: Works, pp. x-xvii. Eccles’s 2007 Martin Creed retrospective, Feelings, at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, was a sweeping survey that deftly wove together all areas of the artist’s practice, including several orchestral performances.
Creed likens rhythm to a comforting device used to understand the world: “It’s a scary, crazy, everchanging, unpredictable world, and you don’t know what is going to happen. And so a rhythm, whether musical or visual, is a comfort. It’s like putting up a ruler, or a grid, against the world, so that the changing world, so messy as it is, can be made into a pattern—like looking at a garden through a fence. Dancing makes you feel good. A rhythm is a helping hand, something to hold onto, like a handrail on the edge of the world.” Martin Creed: Works, p. xv.
Work No. 118, 1234, 1995, piece for voice, guitar, bass, and drums.
“Questionnaire: The Full Score and Martin Creed,” Martin Creed: Works, p. xviii.
Martin Creed, Work No. 193, One whole song, 1995–96, song lyrics.
See Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock ’51, 1951, film; 10 minutes 41 seconds.
Work. No. 216, Be natural, 1998–99, piece for voice, guitar, bass and drums.
10 Martin Creed: Works, p. vi.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum advances creative thinking by connecting today’s artists with individuals and communities in unexpected and stimulating ways.
Board of Trustees Eric G. Diefenbach, Chairman; Linda M. Dugan, Vice-Chairman; William Burback, Treasurer/Secretary; Annadurai Amirthalingam; Richard Anderson; Chris Doyle; Mark L. Goldstein; Georganne Aldrich Heller, Honorary Trustee; Neil Marcus; Kathleen O’Grady; Gregory Peterson; Peter Robbins; Martin Sosnoff, Trustee Emeritus; John Tremaine
Larry Aldrich (1906–2001), Founder
Special thanks to Laura Mitterrand and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, Hannah James, and Jennifer Jaehnig
Work No. 200, Half the air in a given space (detail), 1998 Installation view at Galerie Analix B & L Polla, Geneva, Switzerland, 1998
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