In 1999, Martin Creed held a solo exhibition at Cabinet, London. It contained, if I remember rightly, not much more than a ticking metronome or two, a ball of crumpled paper and some neatly kneaded Blu-Tak: a restrained selection even given the modest dimensions of the space. Back then, Creed’s numbered Work art works tallied in the low two hundreds. Fifteen years later, with his oeuvre running to over 1,600 pieces, Creed’s retrospective ‘What’s the point of it?’ packs a huge amount of work into a large, multi-chambered space, even colonizing the bathrooms and elevator. The stakes, it would appear, have been raised.
Metronomic clicking once again fills the air – though now it’s a thick abstract chatter resulting from dozens of the boxy timekeepers lining the walls of the opening room – and the show almost takes one’s head off from the start, with Creed’s massive rotating neon-on-steel sign Work No. 1092: MOTHERS (2011) swinging towards the entering visitor. (A nearby couch awaits the easily upset.) The left-hand wall is imposingly yet minimally decorated with one of the artist’s mathematically precise diagonal-stripe murals, and a well-known photograph of a smiling Creed, Work No. 299: Self-Portrait Smiling (2003). What we’ll come to encounter, from hereon in, are worldly objects subjected to a testing of their material properties, and their maker is smiling in advance, just as he is in the show’s earliest work, the Lucien Freud-indebted painting Self-Portrait (c. 1984). Note that, also back in 1999, Untitled magazine published a Q&A with Creed structured via Matthew Higgs’s ‘20 Questions’ format. The interview is a minor comedy classic, transcribed verbatim, with Creed saying ‘um’ a lot and not vouchsafing much at all in the way of definite opinion. Look, contrariwise, at what’s on show here: at the smiles; at the neon signs Work No 890: DON’T WORRY (2008) and Work No. 336: FEELINGS (2004) – the first a note to self (and us), the second a sort of blank, capacious vessel for all emotions – and Creed’s art twists therapeutic, outwardly at least.
‘What’s the point of it?’ is faintly uncanny: it grows larger as you traverse it albeit without amassing weight. As befits an artist who’s also a musician, it’s replete with counterpoints and motifs. There are, for example, repeated punctuations of a single type of object, stacked or lined up from largest to smallest: cactuses, tables, logoed cardboard boxes, I-beams, hammered nails, chairs and, in a work strongly reminscent of Tom Friedman’s Hot Balls (1992), varisized sports balls, from squash to medicine. There are Creed’s bright, slapdash portrait paintings and Mary Heilmann-ish stacks of brushy stripes. The show is built, indeed, on binaries: hot colour applied without emotion, the ordinary and casual arraigned, with dry comedy, into minimalist-conceptualist orders. Work is what these Works feel engineered to do, efficiently putting messy stuff in its place.
This tendency is most apparent when Creed confronts the bodily. Films show someone squatting down and taking a shit (Work No. 660, 2007), or people throwing up (Work No. 610: Sick Film, 2006). Work No. 1029 (2007–10), shows a man’s penis becoming hard and sagging down; another film from around this time, Work No. 730 (2007), not on show, features pistoning, near-abstracted sex. MOTHERS, we might think, takes the emotional unpredictability of those titular figures and makes it something threatening yet organized. This could be carried further, mapped onto the way that the portraits hem different people within Creed’s painterly stylistics, or the way that Work No. 1000: Broccoli Prints (2009–10), a gridded rainbow of single-colour monoprints made using the flat side of a halved broccoli, takes the complicated individuality of each iteration of the vegetable and organizes it into a chromatic system. Creed’s will to mastery even extends to the very atmosphere and ambience that surrounds us, as in Work No. 127: The lights going on and off (1995) and Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space (1998, which fills half the gallery area’s volume with white balloons).
What Creed knows and performs, and where the show flirts faintly with shtick as a result, is that these processes constitute the illusion of control over life’s vagaries. They can engender the genuinely, redemptively beautiful: see the curvy, shiny, modest metal tracing of positive and negative space, Work No. 380: An intrusion and protrusion from a wall (2004–05). They can be bathetic – as in a neat stack of toilet rolls (more dominating of the bodily) or a mechanized car whose doors and boot pop open, and stereo blares on, at controlled intervals – but they are ultimately unsustainable. And, surprisingly, it’s here that the show’s lightness becomes in itself substantial and that the questioning title makes most sense, not only in its anxiety but also in its determination to ask, to confront the conditions of being. You leave this cavalcade of schema having felt something after all: that all such attempts to overmaster reality equate to running on the spot. They have to be done, if you have a certain cast of mind; they make life more bearable, for an interval, but then you have to start again from nothing: build a new neat stack of dissimilar chairs; paint another batch of bravura stripes; make a bigger exhibition; crack another smile for the camera.