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How artist Martin Creed’s works offer him a way out of despair

The multi-talented artist from the U.K is known for his whimsical style.

If you have been to the National Gallery Singapore’s minimalism exhibition, chances are you will have seen a lamp going on and off – an irreverent exhibit by British artist Martin Creed that has left some visitors amused and others exasperated by its simplicity.

Either way, Work No. 312: A lamp going on and off (2003) has a knack for getting a reaction out of people.

“When I was a child, I used to love switching lights on and off when my mother was in the toilet,” says Creed, who won the Turner Prize – British arts’ biggest accolade – in 2001 with a similar piece called Work No. 227: The lights going on and off.

“To me (art) has to be somehow funny or annoying, or exciting to make it worth doing.”

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“When the lights are going on and off in a gallery it’s really fun and stupid and I love it. It’s a relief from all those other art things. These works I do are like tiny little pieces of theatre in the gallery,” adds Creed, whose Work No. 850 (2008) consisted of a runner sprinting the length of Tate Britain’s galleries every 30 seconds.

Multi-talented

The 50-year-old is known for not just his quirky artworks.

He is also a musician who has written albums and orchestral works, and was in Singapore on Friday (April 12) to perform a half-improvised words and music show at the Gallery’s auditorium.

“I’ll come with songs and a little bit of a set list, but I’ll try to talk, think out loud, and make it up as I go along. Often (just) talking about your work can feel quite pompous,” says Creed, who grew up in Scotland and speaks with a distinctive Glaswegian accent.

His other “works” in the minimalism exhibition, whose five-month run ended on April 14, can be found in the Gallery’s ground floor retail cafe. They are Work No. 1343, where the cafe’s furniture and cutlery have been replaced with unique items in a makeover, and Work No. 840, a wall decoration.

Where does he get these ideas from? “Most of the pieces come from a sort of despair,” Creed says.

“I’m thinking, oh god, what can I do, I don’t know what to do. If you put something in a gallery, you are basically saying, ‘Hey, isn’t this great, look at this.’

“But if there isn’t anything that you feel is great or better than anything else, what are you supposed to do?”

For the Turner Prize-winning piece, he thought of “trying to make something without bringing in anything extra into the gallery”.

“That’s when I thought of using the lights that are there and just switching them on and off.”

Creed is speaking on the phone from a hotel room in Spain, where his new show, Amigos, has recently opened at the Centro Botin art centre – featuring installations, sound works, wall paintings and a roving group of live musicians.

Multi-media artist

The idea of mixing things together, Creed says, has also informed his recent performance in Singapore.

“If you turn towards one thing, you are always turning away from another thing, and that always feels bad to me… (Here) you can have visuals, you can use words, you can use music, and everyone’s together in a room. If I do a painting and put it in an art gallery, I can feel very separate from the reality of the work.”

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Creed has been vocal about his depression.

Art, for him, is “a way out”- a way of “looking for fun as well as not wanting to be fake”.

“It’s awfully difficult not to be fake, because I want people to like me, so I might smile at them when I am feeling bad. Too much of that can lead to you being divided up… All the work I do is struggling with that problem,”he adds.

His dislike for all things fake is also manifested in the way he titles his works – by giving them numbers rather than wordy titles.

Naming works

“I used to think titles are sort of pretentious, like giving importance to something with some big title.

“When was younger, I thought, I’m just going to number everything like a catalogue number… You can treat everything equally, (whether it’s) a small thing, a big thing, or a piece of music.”

But doesn’t this become pretentious in its own way?

“Yes, I totally agree,” he says.

“My response to that is just more despair.”

“You can break down walls,” he adds, “but there is probably (always) another wall. You can’t get to the bottom of it… That’s the point of working more.”

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This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photo: EPA-EFE