Published  18/02/2014

Martin Creed: interview

Martin Creed: interview

Martin Creed: What’s the point of it?

Hayward Gallery, London
29 January – 27 April 2014


Martin Creed (b1968) became the Marmite subject of much art-world discussion when he won the Turner Prize in 2001 with his “minimalist” work, The Lights Going On and Off (2000), which, pretty much, does what it says on the tin.

He returned to the eyes – or ears – of the public with his opening gambit for the London 2012 Olympics, All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes. As we settle ourselves in the members’ bar at the Royal Festival Hall, enjoying the stunning views out along the Thames, Creed begins rummaging in his bag, hurriedly scribbling some notes to himself, and then, in his mellifluous Scottish accent, mutters some apologies for his wet wipe addiction which is, he points out, less damaging – and cheaper – than smoking. After the difficult decision (Creed notoriously struggles with making choices, as he later explains) between a cup of tea or coffee, we are ready to chat, taking as a starting point his current survey show, What’s the point of it?, at the Hayward Gallery.

Anna McNay: What does having your first major survey show mean to you? Does it make you feel old?

Martin Creed: Er, noooo, it doesn’t make me feel old. But now you mention it … No, it just makes me feel weird. In a way, the exhibition feels like a new thing that I have never seen before. And it contains works that look like things I’ve made, but I don’t think they really are things I’ve made. It’s almost like they’re copies of the things I’ve made. Although I made all of them individually at a certain time, seeing them now, they’re definitely not the same.

AMc: Because of the context in which they are being shown?

MC: Aye, I think, aye. And I do think that things are always different because every show, well, it’s a live theatrical show, and my view of it as a person has grown and changed over the years. Everything’s a live event, even a painting – you’ve got to think of it as a live event, because the experience of a painting is a live event, even if the painting itself is static. Thinking like that is maybe what got me into doing work that was a live event – I thought maybe I should turn up the volume on the live aspect of my work. That’s what led to a lot of the live events, like the running piece, which isn’t included in this show, because you really need a lot of runners. A lot of pragmatic choices had to be made. I had a list of works I wanted in the show and I couldn’t have all of them because it was too expensive.

AMc: How did you make your selection, apart from, obviously, the money aspect?

MC: Wanting to have a little bit of everything that I’ve been working on. That I think I’ve been working on.

AMc: So you’d call it fairly representative?

MC: Aye, yeah. I wanted to have a bit of everything. And I wanted to have a lot of work as well. I was always pushing for more.

AMc: Does it worry you that you’ve got so many of your works on show; you’ve said that you’d been advised by somebody at art school not to show your entire work. Does it worry you about how the public might respond?

MC: Oh yeah, it does, very much.

AMc: In particular because of having so much work on show?

MC: Yeah. Well, maybe I’m so worried about it that I’ve made up that story about feeling like it’s removed from me and it’s a new work. I’ve known about these works all along, obviously, but I suppose some people who see the show might not have seen any of my works before. So, in that respect, I suppose it is a bit like opening the door to your bedroom – it feels a bit like that. It feels a bit vulnerable. But I think I’m most worried about whether I’ll like it myself. I think liking it myself has a lot to do with whether other people will like it or not. I can’t separate one from the other.

AMc: Do you like it yourself

MC: I don’t know whether I’d use the word “like”. I’m excited. I find it quite exciting – some of it, a lot of it. I feel like it’s a new departure for me, like it’s a new work. There’s no such thing as a definitive exhibition. I’ve never seen all of those works together, but just separated in different compartments of my mind, so seeing them all together is definitely a new thing. There’s nowhere to hide. When you’re with one of them, you can hide from the other, but in an exhibition like this, you know, you can’t. Maybe it’s surprising. Maybe that’s why I’m saying it feels like a new work and not like the work as I remember it, because maybe when I see them all together they just don’t look like what I expected.

AMc: Ordering is also rather important to you, isn’t it? It seems that you work in sequences, with numbers.

MC: I think I understand you saying that, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I’m a desperate man and, given the situation I find myself in, often I try to put things in order and therefore I’m not just flailing around in a chaotic mess. But, to me, ordering things is more or less a pragmatic thing rather than a thing in itself.

With the pyramid paintings, I just basically wanted to make paintings with all of the brushes. I went to the shop and realised that there were hundreds of brushes and so the painting would have been very big – in fact, it wouldn’t have fitted in my studio – so then a pragmatic decision was to try to distil the number of brushes I was using to a smaller number. And then, on the canvas, I decided to put them in order of size. But putting them in order of size was just so that it was easy to see them. So the ordering was more or less pragmatic.

AMc: You’ve talked before about the chaos and the noise in your mind, and I was wondering if the fact that some of your works do look relatively simple – the way you’ve ordered them, you use the word “pragmatic” – whether that’s an attempt to organise the chaos?

MC: Aye. I do think that a lot of those works, the reason that I like them is that they are like a little thing in the world that I think is simple and beautiful and distilled and with all the bullshit taken out of it. I feel that the work is a little thing that helps me and I can hang on to that because it’s like a handle.

AMc: Was the A-Z that has been produced for this exhibition your idea?

MC: No, that was their idea, but I helped with it a lot. They wrote it, but I changed a lot of things and added a lot. I really liked the idea and I thought it was really worth spending some time on. Often those things you’re given in an exhibition are just bollocks.

AMc: If gravity weren’t to play a role, what would you most like to stack?

MC: To stack? Ehm. [Long pause.] Well, the mere question makes me think I must not make any more works where things are stacked. [Laughs.] I’ll be known as the guy who stacks things.

AMc: Well, you must admit, you have made quite a few works where things are stacked.

MC: Well, the world is piled up. These chairs are on this floor, so my work’s just not any different.

AMc: Where do the ideas for your works come from? Do they hit you when you’re not expecting them? Do you set aside time to sit and come up with ideas?

MC: I don’t know. I don’t really know if I know what an idea is. I think that occasionally I have had a couple of ideas, but I don’t know when they come.

AMc: You’ve said that you’re very driven, so do you get up and go to your studio every day?

MC: No, I don’t. Sometimes I am very disciplined, but I think it depends what the kind of work is, because if it’s a matter of going to lots of meetings or something like that, then one has to be disciplined to do that and to meet people and to compromise. But then the other type of work is much more open-ended. You know, working on things. I don’t have a studio really because I think that I like working everywhere.

AMc: You do have a studio in London, though, in Brick Lane?

MC: I don’t like calling it a studio. It’s a place where I can have help, so that when people help me they don’t have to come to my house. It’s more of an administrative office.

AMc: So when you’re working on a new work, is it mainly that you make notes, and then …

MC: Sometimes it’s a few notes and then just thinking about it for ages and ages, you know?

AMc: And you do that while doing other things?

MC: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It might be for years. Thinking about it in the back of my mind. The Mothers work [Work No 1092 (2011)] was in progress for years – literally, for years – from being a drawing to being the actual thing. And it wasn’t spinning around originally. The Lights Going On and Off, I was thinking about that for years and years before I eventually just did it.

AMc: How does it then become reality?

MC: I think usually there’s a chance to do it.

AMc: Through working with a gallery?

MC: Yeah, so, The Lights Going On and Off, I’d been thinking about that kind of a long time and then I was in this group show where works got added each week over the course of the show and my work was going to be added in the last week. And my work was The Lights Going On and Off. It was 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off, which is the one that’s on show at the Hayward, so that when the lights are on there’s a chance to see.

AMc: You come across as quite self-deprecating at times, or perhaps it’s the way that you use your humour. Do you think this is an integral part of your work or just who you are?

MC: It’s probably just that I’m scared. I think I must think that people will hate me if I was not self-deprecating.

AMc: Do you think it makes a difference if you are? Do you think that affects how people respond to you?

MC: I don’t know. I don’t really know if I am. I mean, if you think I am, then obviously I am, but I think the point is to try to be critical of oneself and to not trust oneself because I think that I am not to be trusted because I cannot really know what I am doing because I am at the mercy of feelings that are outside of my control. Surely I must be self-deprecating because anything else would be trying to be artificial. Given this situation I find myself in, I try to be critical of my work. And I think that makes it easier to live with myself, if I think of myself as a funny and strange animal or plant, and then try to make use of that but also perhaps forgive myself for a few things as well, rather than just beat myself up the whole time.

AMc: Does that make it hard for you to take praise?

MC: Yeah, I think I do find it hard to take praise. I have noticed that. I mean, I don’t like it when people tell me I’m a dickhead either, but I definitely find it hard, I don’t know what to say when people compliment me.

AMc: You’ve just talked about being at the mercy of different feelings, different emotions. Would you say that your work comes from feelings rather than from thought?

MC: Definitely. Feelings come first. I don’t know if it’s possible to say. I feel like thoughts or ideas are maybe a way to try to deal with feelings, to cope with them.

AMc: Perhaps that’s why you don’t like the term “conceptual”, then?

MC: Yeah, that is the reason. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “conceptual”. I don’t think there’s anything that’s separated from feelings.

AMc: So, in a way, it’s like a loop, because you’ve got the feelings to start with, and then the thoughts to try and deal with the feelings, and then the thoughts become the chaos in the head, which you then try to get away from by producing the work.

MC: But the feelings are already the chaos. I think that the thoughts are often an attempt to deal with the chaos. To give it meaning, to put words on it.

AMc: So, coming back to the sequencing, that might be an attempt to deal with the feelings, by putting thoughts on to them, ordering them?

MC: I suppose so.

AMc: I don’t want to try and over interpret things.

MC: No, no. But, yeah. Probably.

AMc: Do you know what the key feelings would be that influence your work?

MC: Feeling horrible. That’d be the key feeling, I’d have thought. [Laughs nervously.] Feeling horrible, yeah, and bad. And also excitement, if that’s a feeling. I think it is, yeah. I think I’m looking for excitement.

AMc: If you could choose only to make your music or your visual art, which would you go with and why?

MC: You can’t separate them. You can’t have music without visuals. I think I like trying to mix it up and do different things. I feel like I must do that because it wouldn’t be true to life if I didn’t – it’d be like ignoring half of life.

AMc: You’ve said before that you think it is possible to choose everything – that you don’t like choosing one thing over another. What’s the most difficult decision that you’ve ever had to make?

MC: I don’t know. I don’t think there is one. I find lots of decisions very difficult because as soon as you make a decision you’re judging, and you are having to give up something, which is a terrible thing. And because I think that the world isn’t divided up – I think the world’s a mass, as I experience it – so any decision is like a cut in the world, and that’s terrible, you know. I think that’s why it’s so difficult to work. To make something you have to make cuts in the world, and that’s brutal.

AMc: But a lot of your works are works that, as you say, are made and then dismantled and then remade. Do you find that more or less brutal than a painting work, which is made and then stays made?

MC: Maybe I’ve made a lot of works like that, that are made on the occasion of their exhibition, exactly because I must find that easier. Inherently they change in accordance with the conditions in which they’re exhibited; there’s always a new production of that work. And I feel that that’s more true to life. That is also the case with a painting when it’s exhibited, but with a painting, well, it’s kind of fixed in place, so it might lead you to believe that it’s different, but I don’t think it is really.

AMc: There are still the changes in the context of wherever it’s hung.

MC: Exactly.

AMc: How did you choose the colours for your paintings? You’ve said it was about brush size, but how did you know which colours to use?

MC: I think colours are very much like feelings, impossible to pin down, and yet incredibly strong and obviously very important. The colour of a work is obviously really important and affects it a lot. But I didn’t quite know how to choose them. Like the balloon work, the paintings were designed basically as colourless. In that sense, the work is like a designed object, like a car. The colour makes a big difference, obviously, to the owner, but, in fact, it’s the same design. The first paintings I did were black because I didn’t want to choose a colour, so then it was reduced to the qualities of black on white paper. And then I tried making each brushstroke a different colour. It didn’t really matter in terms of the design, but, of course, it does matter, because it totally affects the painting. But I think of that as a more or less random element – well, not random, but a loose element – because I might just choose a colour that I happen to like that day, or I might get someone else to choose the colours.

AMc: Do you have a favourite of all your works?

MC: Well, I have current favourites, but they change from time to time. My current is the car [Work No 1686 (2013)]. It’s amazing. I was working on that for years. I had the idea to just make a car go on and off. It came just after The Lights Going On and Off, around the time of the piano slamming [Work No 569 (2006)], I thought it would be great to get a car with everything opening, the engine coming on, the windscreen wipers, everything, including the radio, which is tuned to something like Radio 5 Live, which comes on with some bloke talking about sport, and it all comes on for 30 seconds, which is basically the shortest amount of time possible – the engine has to be on for a certain amount of time because otherwise it floods – so the engine is on for about 35 seconds maybe, and then it goes off and everything closes, and then it rests for about 35 seconds. And I think I like that work partly because it seems so easy, it’s really enjoyable. To me – and this is not true – it seems like it doesn’t have any craft in it. With the wall paintings, you can see how they’re made, but this just seems kind of clean. That’s one of the reasons why I like The Lights Going On and Off so much because it feels really clean, it’s like a relief to me.

AMc: There’s no evidence of an artist being there.

MC: Aye, and the car is just like an off-the-shelf car… but with lots of technical wizardry. It just seems like magic. All it is, is the car is doing what it does in a programmed way, but it just seems like magic.

AMc: Do you think of yourself as a creator of magic?

MC: No, I wouldn’t think that, no.

AMc: A wizard?

MC: No.

AMc: An artist?

MC: No. Certainly not an artist. Definitely not an artist, and definitely not a wizard. No, because it’s all just ordinary. I don’t think life is any different, really. I don’t even know how those things got made, half of them. I kind of do, but a lot of the time it just comes down to detail. Details and going with the flow. To get something done that no one’s necessarily going to help you with is one thing, at one end of the scale in terms of working, doing something against all the odds, you know. But then the other side is doing something that people do want you to do, going with the flow, accepting, and I think that can be just as difficult, if not more difficult, than trying to be like David against Goliath. The car idea, I had years ago. And then there was the chance to do it. Well, actually, someone asked me if I wanted to do something for BMW. BMW was sponsoring something live, and so I proposed that idea, but they didn’t want to do it. And then people just said it was really difficult, you won’t be able to do it, and I didn’t have the money to pour into researching it, and then, years and years later, I was just talking to the neon makers who made Mothers, who are heavily involved with kinetics and computerised mechanics, and I was saying about this car, and they said, “Oh, we could do that” – just like that. And they did it in a couple of months. And I’m glad I didn’t do it with a carmaker because I feel quite weird when there’s sponsorship involved. If people are giving money with strings attached, I feel weird about it, because I want to feel free.

AMc: On the note of money, how did winning the Turner Prize affect your career?

MC: It affected it a lot. It definitely gave me a bit of confidence. I felt like I’d won a school prize and I’d pleased my parents – not just my real parents, but my metaphorical parents – and therefore I could go and explore some other new things. I suppose it made me feel a bit more free.


And freedom, coupled with feeling horrible and bad, and an urge to seek excitement, seems to be what keeps Creed going. At this point, the press officer returns to announce the end of our hour. “Oh really? Was that an hour? It flew by,” remarks Creed gallantly. Nevertheless, with a couple of further interviews ahead of him, he requires some paracetamol for a sore throat, so that is my parting gift to him. His to me is something far greater: an insight into the workings of a Turner Prize-winning artist’s mind … and soul. 

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA