What are we going to do about ordinary life? It is always out there demanding our attention in tones sometimes muffled, sometimes shrill. Most artists wish it would just go away so they can get on with framing and hanging up little squares of painted canvas, or producing nice mysterious videos, or making pieces of abstract sculpture, or inventing strange mad installations.
Martin Creed is unusual in that ordinary life interests him. Now that his collected works have finally appeared in book form, it might be worth trying to define what he does.
Martin Creed was born in Wakefield in 1968 and lived in Glasgow from the age of three. He won the Turner Prize in 2001.
What happens is that he sees something as simple and ordinary as a pile of plywood sheets. Instead of thinking then about food, or sex, or money, his mind holds on to this image of the pattern which the plywood made. The image doesn’t just lodge there, however; it is as though inside his mind there are lights that go on and off. Somehow, a light shines on this image of the plywood.
He is amused by what he sees, sometimes startled. But he is modest and serious so that he knows, unlike most artists, that he has really very little to say. He is intrigued and fascinated by images of the known world, ordinary things like paper, lights, lines, words, doors, chairs, bit of blue-tack, knobs, people vomiting.
For most artists who are so intrigued and fascinated the problem becomes what to do next, what images to make. Creed has turned this problem around so that he doesn’t have a problem at all. There is something sweet and gentle in his imaginative procedures, but there is also something severe, tough, cerebral in his make-up as he insists on allowing nothing much to mediate between the viewer and what he, as an artist, has made.
In the days when I was thinking about all this I went to the Tate Britain to look at Martin Creed’s sprinter. Martin Creed had the idea of getting sprinters to make their way through the central high gallery in the Tate building, to whiz past you at speed. And then another one. And then another. And then the one you saw earlier whizzing past again.
It would be fun to go on about the meaning of this (as it would about the meaning of most of Creed’s work), but it would get you no further. I enjoyed the sprinters, they usurped the space and made it exciting. I looked at each one and then I looked forward to the next one coming. I wish I could say the same for life or indeed for art.
This means maybe that what Creed makes is better somehow than most of life and most of art. It is simpler and more ingenious all at the same time; it is more intense and more easy-going all in the same breath. It is funnier and, oddly enough, more grave. It merits immense concentration; it merits a single glance. It arises from reticence, from silence, from not knowing what to do; it arises also from a grand ambition not to create anything which is untrue.