The last time I spoke with Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed it was against the Barbican’s brutalist backdrop, his colourful candy stripe ensemble offsetting the cold grey concrete of the City’s surroundings.
In one of the Barbican galleries’ many quiet corners, we discussed his uncluttered approach to his work and the personal process of bringing debut album, ‘Love To You’, to painstaking life. A record driven and defined by the battle between love and hate, it also marked Creed’s first proper experience of exposing his music to a level of scrutiny his visual work has always had to withstand.
This time, we’re stood in the South Bank’s Hayward Gallery to a backdrop of 39 snickering metronomes (Work No.112) and a 13ft plus neon installation of the word ‘Mothers’ (Work No. 1092) unnervingly whooshing overhead because, for two months (January 29 – April 27), the ‘What’s the Point of It?’ exhibition is showcasing a retrospective of Creed’s visual work.
“Normally all these things were made to be on their own, as I try and make things that can stand up in the world,” he explains as ‘Mothers’ completes another whirring revolution above our heads. “It was a matter of trying to fit it all in really because it’s supposed to be a retrospective of lots of work.”
The exhibition itself presented a challenge to both Martin and the curators. For the gallery, working to find the right pieces was a conundrum of budget and logistics. For Martin, it represented a proud opportunity but one that came with its own questions.
“It’s not actually a show of all the things I really wanted,” he says, “it was a mixture of what I wanted and what was possible due to money, size, space, height, weight. But in that respect, it’s probably quite similar to the way the world works, anyway. When I was invited to do the show I made a list of everything I wanted to be in it. Some of those things were paintings owned by people in Japan so when it came to it, the budget for the exhibition couldn’t pay for that because flying the painting from Japan and all the insurance and shit could be paying for a whole room somewhere else. In the end a lot of the things came down to really boring business decisions.”
The first thing you see, hear, instinctively look to avoid the moment you step into the exhibition is the immediacy of ‘Mothers’ and its imposing, moving frame. It’s a brilliantly enlivening beginning and one that seems pre-orchestrated by particularly clever positioning.
“’Mothers’ can only go in here,” says Martin. “I wanted to make it as big as it could possibly be, then to do that, I realised it would actually be quite close to people’s heads. The reason I wanted to make it big was because I thought the word ‘Mothers’ would look good, big. To be a mother, you’ve got to be physically bigger than the baby. It’s not like I set out to be dangerous but when it turned out that it would it be quite imposing, I thought that wasn’t a bad thing, and that was when I decided to make it spin round as well. It was a happy accident.”
It brings us onto other works in the exhibition that were born out of trial and error, or enforced selection. For a man whose work and music feels so grounded in the black and white of life, the difficulties of curating an exhibition seem at odds with Martin’s outlook.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s not like I didn’t expect it. When they asked me to do the show, I just said ‘Yes!’ because I wanted to have a show at the Hayward. Then the next few weeks after that it’s like ‘Shit!’ and basically a feeling that my life is now going to be taken over by this for the next two years, and that’s what happened.
“One thing is to try and make something you’re happy with or that you’re excited about. Another thing is to take that and try and play it live, or exhibit it in a gallery, and at that point it’s a different thing because it’s a case of making the best of what you’ve got. But even if you like it, maybe it doesn’t look good on that wall, so it’s a case of playing around with things. Juggling.”
As we move into the second room, I ask Martin about the works he felt compelled to have in the exhibition; those pieces he wanted to be included outright. It’s a question that makes him pause for thought initially, and a prompt that becomes increasingly redundant as the tour progresses.
“I guess I always knew the show would have ‘Don’t Worry’ in it, and the Pyramid paintings, but this fist sculpture is a recent work that I made and I think it’s a bit irrelevant to the show. I was thinking about stuff I made before, like before I was trying to go to art school and stuff like that, and this is a sculpture I made when I was a teenager and my mum kept it,” he laughs.
“Last year I got asked to make a trophy for an art prize in a primary school and I remembered this fist sculpture I made out of clay, so I had it cast in bronze and gold-plated with the idea of making a heavy, big trophy for the kids to hold up.”
It’s an interesting meeting of an old piece of work re-imagined for a fresh purpose but, as Creed admits, its place in the show goes deeper than merely repurposing.
“Although I made this new, it was cast from a thing I made when I was 14, so whenever that is… 1982. There’s also a self-portrait there I made when I was a teenager, and that fits into what you’re saying. I thought it would be good to put something in before I thought I knew what I was doing, because I basically think I don’t know what I’m doing now, I’ve just got better at thinking I do know what I’m doing. I think it was when I got to art school that I was making work I could talk about, and work I could defend using words.”
It raises the question as to whether, even now, he’s comfortable and confident putting together an exhibition of this size. It seems, to him, that the process of re-treading his own steps is an eternally unappealing one.
“It’s scary,” he says, “and the overwhelming thing was fear and kind of feeling sick. I love doing shows and I find it really exciting working on new stuff but curating your own work is like playing your own shit. It’s different from doing new work because it’s basically quite wanky, and you go to meetings about yourself. There are all these things I made a long time ago and it’s just going over the same things. I think there’s something unhealthy about that.”
Unhealthy is a word that seemed to characterise much of the process around Creed’s 2012 debut album. He described some of the songs on it as “like children kept in a basement for too long”, but a renewed commitment to letting go, and working quicker in all of his work has left second album, ‘Mind Trap’, feeling noticeably less agitated.
“I had to try and record those songs because living with them for so long was unhealthy. I’ve been trying to work quicker since that, both in my visual work and my music work,” he admits, “so the new album’s had a much quicker turnaround. I always try and control things, and I’m really anal, and keep them in too long, and by the time they come out, they’re so controlled that they’re dead. So the album, plus the new works in this show, are examples of a faster turnaround. In a way, the work’s not as finished, maybe because it hasn’t been through so many processes of letting it lie.”
Armed with this fresher focus, the gospel and orchestral influences on ‘Mind Trap’ are a step on from the banging, simple chord structures of his debut, and there’s the sense that this album comes from a much better mindset. That isn’t to say the emotional extremes aren’t there, as Creed admits.
“There’re probably a couple of songs that could have been on the first album but weren’t finished or didn’t sound right, but then there’s some new ones that had a much faster turnaround from writing to recording. I wouldn’t like to say which is better in terms of the weight of work but for sure, I feel like it’s good to try and work a bit faster. There’s still some love and hate on this second album but it’s more of a laugh, really.” And so Martin laughs.
Taking in Chicago, London and the Czech Republic, the recording process for the new record bordered on ‘one take’, focusing more on capturing the moment than blurring the details. The change in mindset allowed Creed to become less obsessed with finding every angle and putting everything into it.
“It reminds me a bit of my first show,” he says. “You want everything to be in it because if that’s the only show you’re ever going to do… The first album was maybe a bit like that and it became harder and harder to finish, because it could never have everything in it. So as soon as there’s a second album, the pressure is divided between the two. All of a sudden you have two containers for everything.
“So maybe when I did the second album, there was more of a feeling it didn’t have to have everything, and be looking at all the angles, and it could have a few of the songs from Chicago with the gospel singers, and it could have a few with the orchestra, and who cares if anyone is ever really going to listen to both of those parts, and who cares if they do? It’s more like thinking I’m going to try and do this but it doesn’t necessarily all have to add up. I think it’s just accepting I’m limited and it doesn’t have to sum up the whole world.”
Another difference between the two albums was the decision to work on tape for ‘Mind Trap’ for both aesthetic and decidedly more philosophical reasons.
“There’s a huge difference between working on tape and working digitally,” he says, “because when you’re working with digital, you’re always looking at the song, you can see the soundwaves. When you record it onto tape, the only thing you can do is listen to it or have the memory of it. You might write down ‘take one… good’ but you can’t look at it or flick through it on a computer screen. I think there’s a danger in looking at a song, it’s not a fucking visual work.”
To a backdrop of 1000 multi-coloured Broccoli prints (‘Broccoli’ Work No.1000), we talk about the different styles of the albums. Released to favourable reviews, where ‘Love To You’ might have felt like an artist making a record, ‘Mind Trap’ carries some expectation.
“Maybe,” says Creed. “It’s probably more accessible but you could say the orchestral stuff is less accessible if you’re not used to listening to those sort of pieces. I think it’s more straightforward but in terms of what people think, lately I’ve been trying not to read any press. A few months ago I stopped. I do get really wound up by it – even if it’s complimentary it’s a whole world you can just fall into, and it’s quite narcissistic and this forever revolving thing of ‘do they like me, do they not like me?’, and that’s work in itself and if you read the reviews you have to learn to accept what the person says.”
As we head back down through the gallery, the conversation turns to the contrasts between Creed’s visual and musical work. With so many different forms on display within the gallery – from sculpture and painting to sound and film – is there a natural divide?
“They’re quite similar but the album’s different because it’s a thing that’s out there, even if it’s in a digital form. This is more of a live show, a theatrical show, more equivalent to a gig, where the album’s more equivalent to a book publication. The album’s a bit more out of reach – who’s buying that? I don’t really know.”
It leads us into a discussion about the influence your surroundings can have on both creating and consuming art and music. For Creed, a gallery has a specific allure. “I suppose when you’re here, you can leave but it’s just like when you’re at a gig,” he says, “you have to make a bit of an effort, whereas if you’ve got something on your iPod or Kindle, you can put it down or pick it up,” he suggests. “That’s the thing, people here can look where they like, so in the way you select a playlist, everyone’s selecting here. So maybe it’s not that different, really. If you go to a theatre you’ve committed yourself and might not feel you can leave.”
In that sense, this exhibition forms a sort of soundtrack to Martin Creed’s life; a pic’n’mix selection of the thoughts, ideas and executions that collectively form his body of work to date. To most, looking back creates a wistful sense of sentimentality but nostalgia isn’t something that always comes easy. He says that because he’s been working on this for so long, he wouldn’t call it nostalgia. “I don’t know, actually,” he ponders. “I don’t know what it is. It feels weird; it feels removed from me, in a way, even though I was involved.
“I look at this and these are not necessarily the works that I made. What has happened here is me and the people that helped curate it have taken those things I’ve made and we’ve made this exhibition with them. All the individual pieces of work are like the tubes of paint we’ve used to create a new painting that has all of this stuff in it. It’s like this isn’t the thing I’ve made, it’s like a copy of the thing I’ve made that’s now part of this other bigger thing I’ve made, so then there’s a feeling it’s not definitive.
“It’s like every time you try and solve a problem, you just find more problems, so now we’ve been trying to do a retrospective of my works but we’ve failed to do that because all we’ve managed to do is make another work using those works. It’s like you’re doomed, just fucking doomed,” he chuckles.
It’s an interesting perspective for a man who spent so long holding onto songs, once upon a time, that they almost drove him crazy. Perhaps it hints at an artist more ruthless with his visual work but who has learned to apply that same detachment to his music?
“Maybe it doesn’t feel nostalgic because I’m different. It’s like you were saying about listening to music, if you’re doing the washing up or you’re on a train or you’re sad or you’re on drugs or alcohol, you’re going to hear the music totally differently, and I am different to when I made that yellow painting there, even though I’m quite similar too. Maybe to describe it like a big work, made of these works, is a way to try and cope with it, rather than thinking that’s definitive. It’s kind of like every song, which version is it? Is it the live version or the one produced by this one, or the remastered one or the one you heard on a wireless. They’re all different. This one is the Hayward version but if you’d seen that painting 10 years ago in another gallery…”
“It’s like this is the equivalent of me having the chance to go to Chicago and work with the gospel singers. Here we had the budget to do certain things… it’s always a sum of the practical possibilities at any given time. It’s the reason we’re all stood here, we’ve all got our vested interests,” he smiles.
Walking around the gallery, there’s a constant, comforting reminder of the simplicity of the work. It’s in the gleeful soft peril of ‘Mothers’’s metal beam scything through the air two inches above your head, the minimal intent of the crushed ball of paper in Work No.88, the disjointed clacking cacophony of Work No.112’s 39 metronomes or the various bells, whistles, fart noises and unabashed bodily functions. Sure there’s emotion, if you look hard enough, but the wry, dry humour is what gets you first.
We step into an empty, darkened room with one wall projecting films showing people being sick and defecating. Martin takes his place for the last shots of the afternoon, the wretching sounds filling the room.
“These are ones I thought should definitely be in. I thought it has to have a shit and a sick,” he laughs, “otherwise it’s not true to life, you know?”