I WENT to see Martin Creed’s exhibition, What is the point of it? in late April this year, with my three boys then aged eight, eleven and twelve.
I meant to write about it, hesitated and it’s taken me until to now to want to say something about it.
The title of an exhibition is, I suppose, the first item on display. Like much of Creed’s work, it raised questions to which it declined to provide clear answers. Is the question mocking and defensive, predicting most people’s response to contemporary, conceptual art? Or is Creed sincerely engaging in the process of trying to find a purpose?
I suspect he would answer that both can be the case. It’s a great title, but only once you’ve seen the show.
Walking into the show, the first work I saw was a huge steel beam on top of which were sitting huge white neon letters, spelling out the word ‘MOTHERS’ and spinning around on their own axis. It sits at quite a low level. No one taller than 6′ 6” was allowed through the front door to exhibition, to avoid accidents.
I was very surprised to find the word ‘Mothers’ given such a central place on Creed’s stage. Mothers! was my first thought, always spinning around in circles, never getting anywhere.
For me, the placement of this piece at the beginning of the show immediately established the territory of the exhibition: metaphor. At the time, I laughed, ruefully. Now, a couple of months on, I’m less happy about the piece and about my response to it. It seems a bit sneering, on reflection, a bit judgemental. But I don’t think I’d feel this if Creed were a woman.
I suppose, as a mother, I’m glad Creed accepts that we are so central, the starting point. I’m glad too that he sees we’re elevated by society (after all it was public money paying for the exhibition) and that that might be a problem. But going in circles? That’s not so kind.
Creed’s decision to make the word plural is interesting. It seems careful to me. Careful of his own mother, at least.
I did admire the simplicity of the idea, its power to elicit a response from me, and I’m sure, from most people.
Moving on, the children were outraged that I took them to see the film of one woman shitting and other people being sick. I found it pretty nauseating. I won’t ever watch something like that again. But I’m glad I saw it. I don’t know what it meant. More mockery? That people will travel to see others performing ordinary animal functions? Or was it an assertion of what we have in common?
We had to sit for a long time to wait for these natural dramas to run their courses. Clearly, Creed wants us to think more about being subject to basic animal urges, about being unable to escape, perhaps, from these functions which we call base.
The woman shitting was the most interesting. She was young and, I think, of Chinese heritage. In the video, she walks into the studio, pulls up her skirts and squats. We see her side on. It took her a while to produce a really big turd. It did seem genuinely transgressive to me, but a friend who spent a lot of time in China said that the people she knew there were very unembarrassed about lavatory functions and would regularly walk in on her, freely commenting on aspects of her body which they found different to theirs. I don’t know if it’s true, or was true. I hope it’s not stereotyping.
I remember the piano which opened and slammed shut every fifteen minutes or so, making many people jump. There was a car on one balcony. Again, every fifteen minutes or so its doors would open and the radio came on. You could go and inspect the car on the balcony, in which case you would form part of the tableau for people viewing the scene from inside the gallery. I thought that was clever and economical. Like a two-fer.
On another balcony, marked suitable for adults only, there was a film of a man whose penis rose and became erect. He didn’t ejaculate. I found nothing offensive or even very interesting in this. It was a nice penis, though.
I don’t remember the graphic art at all. Perhaps the installations were too loud or distracting.
The final installation we saw was Creed’s Half the air in a given space, in which he’d filled a room almost entirely with large white balloons. The children’s guide to the exhibition explains, No space is ever really empty and in this work [Creed] has made half the air in the room visible by cleverly using balloons.
This was not what I or my children took from it. The boys loved it. They spent ages in there. Having left after ten or so minutes of pushing through latex, I listened outside to their uproarious laughter. Occasionally one would appear at the glazed wall and peer out at me, making faces, before diving back in.
It was a charming installation. Balloons constantly popping and all the static causing everyone’s hair to stand on end, something which seemed to mean that total strangers, in our still rather buttoned-up culture, were allowed to talk to each other and share their pleasure in the work. I and a few other mothers whose children were still inside chatted amicably, disarmed, barriers down, by our messed up hair.
What was this? The carnival atmosphere with the undignified dance to get in and out of the room, as visitors and attendants tried to get through the door without losing balloons from it.
For me, there was something about giving birth (those mothers again), and dying, (basic human dramas).
We struggle to get into the world and often struggle to get out – and you can’t take your balloons with you. While we’re in the world, we spend a lot of time alone in our own thoughts, occasionally breaking through to find other people bouncing around nearby. It’s all a bit baffling and our hair stands on end a lot of the time.
But maybe that’s just me.
I loved the exhibition and wasn’t surprised to hear they extended its run.
Martin Creed’s show was at the Hayward Gallery earlier this year.