One two, one two

Review in Issue 22-3 | Autumn 2010

On/off, open/closed, black/white, yes/no: Lisa Wolfe explores the mathematical enigma that is Martin Creed.

On strolls Martin, in his maroon hipsters and Fair-isle tank top. He crosses the stage to where his guitar is poised and plugs in his microphone. ‘I didn’t know whether to start with the curtains open or closed,’ he says, ‘so I’m doing both.’ And he opens the curtains.

To those familiar with Creed’s controversial Turner Prize winning exhibition Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (Tate Britain, December 2001), this is a nice little in-joke. The performance builds on the binary on-off theme, and several other partnerings or counterpoints are set up over the seventy minutes of music, dance and film, all of which, in one way or another, explore mathematically-minded interests in patterns, groups and systems.

Martin Creed is essentially a visual artist/ fine arts practitioner. Ballet Work No 1020 is his first stage work, and first dance work – originally commissioned by Sadler’s Wells, with the show here at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre concurrent with an exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery. All of his works, in whatever medium, are numbered rather than named, so they are all seen as part of one whole body of work. Although this is his first dance piece, Creed has worked with live ‘performers’ before: in 2008, for the Duveen Commission at Tate Britain, Work No. 850 featured runners who sprinted through the gallery at 30-second intervals.

For Ballet Work No 1020 there are five dancers, graduated in height, and the stage is marked out as a grid. All are young, and competence differs. The choreography is based on ballet’s five positions, plus simple walking patterns of progressing round the stage, and some added lunges and leaps. It appears simplistic but must be quite a challenge, building geometrically through its use of time, speed and direction. Patterns emerge; systems are set up and disrupted. The five-strong band provides bursts of punk/thrash in Martin’s short songs which again have repeated phrases or numbers. In one he recites the alphabet, in another he counts from one to a hundred. One is called What’s The Point? and the finale is Fuck Off.

Entrances and exits are important. At one point Creed muses on what could be the least required for something to constitute ‘a dance’. Answer: the dancers coming on, and getting off. So that’s what they are instructed to do, in silence, their bare feet thudding on the ground rhythmically.

The films provide an interesting diversion from the formality of the staging. Not that they vary much themselves: all are shot on white backgrounds and are beautifully framed with vast depth of field. They include Girl Vomiting, Girl Poo-ing and Penis Going Up and Down. Some people leave at the penis film, at which the two older ladies next to me exclaim ‘they’re missing all the action!’

The dancers – who are constantly stopped, started and instructed with tasks which vary from the mundane to the ludicrous (‘roll off the stage!’) – keep admirably straight-faced through this. I smile for the whole seventy minutes. Seemingly shambolic but actually very tight, it is a very enjoyable meander through ideas of ‘opposition’ and provides some interesting displacement for the Traverse audience.

Meanwhile, over at the Fruitmarket, Martin Creed’s exhibition Down Over Up is a combination of recent and commissioned pieces and coincides with the publication of a book, Martin Creed Works. The exhibition features early sculpture work, paintings, film, and numerous constructions that could perhaps be described as interactive sculpture, including the staircase to the top floor which is fitted with sound triggers, so that gallery go-ers can play a tune with their steps.

As with Ballet, his interest here is in mathematical concepts like ordering, sequencing, grouping, steps, and progression. He has an ongoing interest in everyday materials, and in providing a new way of looking at things – planks, cacti, chairs. The disarmingly simple visual aesthetic throws questions out to the viewer. How deep is the thinking behind this? Is the laugh on us? It is a light touch, teasing and charming, particularly the up/down sounds in the lift. Creed maintains he is striving for perfection and is never satisfied with his own work. He is entertaining and self-effacing in interviews, and this carries through in his art.

But how far that too is a contrived construct, as flimsy as his ziggurat of tiny boxes, or the joke of the final missing note on the key of the musical staircase, is up for grabs.

Additional reporting by Dorothy Max Prior.

Martin Creed Ballet Work No 1020 was presented at Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2010.

Martin Creed Down Over Up, Fruitmarket Gallery Edinburgh, 30 July to 31 October 2010.

Martin Creed: Works (hardback) is published by Thames & Hudson.

Presenting Artists
Presenting Festival
Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. Aug 2010

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Issue 22-3
p. 27