Martin Creed rose to notoriety in 2001 when he won the Turner Prize for his installation Work No.227: The lights going on and off. It featured an empty gallery with its lights, as the title suggests, rhythmically going on and off.
As so often happens with the Turner Prize, news of his win was accompanied by ‘is this really art?’ headlines. It mattered not. The award launched his career and an exhibition at Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery is a chance to look at Creed’s development over the last decade or so.
The exhibition features a range of works, including paintings, drawings, and the neon light installation Work No.890: Don’t Worry – works which are much more accessible than some of his earlier installations.
“The reason I got into doing installation works like The Lights Going On and Off was because I really didn’t know what to do,” Creed explains.
“Exhibiting something is like saying ‘hey look at this, isn’t it great?’ I was thinking that I don’t know what’s important, or what the most important thing is in my life – so how can I possibly make something, put it in a room and say ‘hey look at this, isn’t it great?’
“But then I thought I could make the work part of the whole room – that way it wouldn’t it be this sort of important thing in the middle of the room – it would be everywhere in the room.”
While often characterised by the tabloid media as something of a charlatan, Creed doesn’t allow himself to be troubled by his critics.
“I wouldn’t try and persuade people that what I do is art,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what art is anyway. I try and do things and make things that are exciting to me that make my life better. You know, in terms of looking for excitement and pleasure and food for thought. I then hope that other people like these things that I do, but I certainly don’t expect them to.”
A seemingly simple work such as Work No. 88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball reveals itself to be a deep set of ideas. The work has been sold in many editions – from unlimited editions which can be purchased for £10 each, to a work of a single edition which cost £10,000.
The objects are the same, but Creed raises deep questions about value and finance that seem all too poignant in today’s economic climate. The final sting in this work’s tail, however, is the fact that each ball of paper sold comes with a certificate of authenticity – if you lose your ball of paper, you are invited to make your own and it still counts as the original.
“Everything is labyrinthine and complicated when you start looking into it. Every time I do something, I feel like it’s opening up this whole can of worms, but I think that I try and strive for some sort of simplicity exactly because I can’t handle the ever-increasing circles of things that come out of one thing,” says Creed.
But with this philosophical side to his work, there is also a lot of self-doubt and discomfort with what he does. Equally, he finds it difficult when people dismiss what he does out of hand.
“I often don’t like my own work and get depressed about it, so I don’t mind if people don’t like it,” he says. “I think when people say ‘that’s not art’ – it’s a bit facetious. I don’t know on what basis people say that. I don’t know what they think art is. I do get hurt when people don’t like it, so I hope that people will find it to be food for thought or something beautiful to look at, you know? It’s the reason I keep doing this.”
Martin Creed, Artist Rooms is on display at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, until October 6.