Martin Creed – Forms of Attachment
Many of Martin Creed’s early works consisted of bell-like protrusions, spun or cast in brass, aluminium or plaster. These could be found fixed to the bar in a pub, to the walls of art galleries or private homes, or simply as freestanding objects. At first glance, they resemble salt and pepper shakers or draught taps. The larger plaster protrusions have fewer contours, bulging cheekily and mysteriously from walls and surfaces.
Creed explains the birth of these works from his experiences as a house painter. Painting people’s houses meant continually removing art works from walls, painting, then reinstating the works. Why, Creed wondered, couldn’t one just make a work that could be painted over with a roller? And hence the plaster protrusions which were designed as a part of the wall itself rather than something that could be fixed onto it.
These works exemplify the logic central to Creed’s endeavours: to make work that isn’t work and to reduce the structure of attachment to its bare minimum. Both of these threads are condensed in his well-known neon equation ‘The whole world + the work = the whole world’. The work here seems to add nothing to the world and at the same time the ‘+’ sign indicates both an addition and the most basic fact of an attachment, a join, a link. The metal and plaster protrusions are just that: pure additions that seem to have little purpose beyond adding something to the world.
In the same period that these protrusions were being made, Creed also began working with metal brackets and tape. “The minimum a work needs to do is hang on a wall”, Creed observed, and so to access this minimal structure, one should focus precisely on the attachment, not the work. So Creed began to work with the materials of attachment: brackets, sticky tape, blu tak and the other adhesives used to connect, mount and join. These were no longer invisible accessories to a more significant composition, but became the determining element in the composition itself. These forms of attachment became the stuff of Creed’s works, as he explored the elementary space in which one thing was joined to another.
Creed was building a unique grammar. If many conventional artworks were like words, his works were the connectives and punctuation marks between them, the adhesives that made everything else possible. Work 98, indeed, is an instruction for design or typography : ‘Every ‘and’ set in bold type’. This minimal connective, Creed says, “is the joining word”, and his work has continually found new ways of depicting, questioning and revealing joins. Journalists are often amazed at how during a press conference Creed manages to answer all questions with different intonations of the single word ‘Ay’, without realising that this is simply an extension of the artist’s project: to exaggerate the minimal element, the feature which sticks, glues, connects and joins.
Units of construction and attachment are not a background prop here but actually form what is being constructed and attached. In one work we can see tape or sticking plaster layered countless times over itself, and in another we see two synchronised videos of a boat docking in a harbour, replayed over and over again. Both works are exploring how things meet, how they join, how they become attached. Even in Creed’s sex film, in which we see a penis repeatedly entering a woman’s body, the rhythm is entirely neutral and devoid of passion, as if the sexual act is reduced to its minimal logic, an intrusion then withdrawal: the simple binary of attachment. As Creed says, the film is about a man and a woman “coming together than coming apart”.
Creed is interested in what joins one thing to another, and the attachment works gave a new inflection to the earlier protrusion pieces. Surveying the hundreds of metal and plaster effloresences, it is difficult not to think of the earliest form of attachment between two human beings – the nipple – or, perhaps more precisely, between a human being and an object – the dummy. The bells, taps and shakers all share this simple structure, as if Creed were creating work which embodied this archaic minimal form of human attachment itself. What interests him, he says, is “the point at which two things meet”.
This interest in reducing attachment to its minimum structure has a vital counterpoint in Creed’s work. If the bond between two things is being reduced to is formal, minimal level, Creed is also constantly striving to undo attachment. Links and joins imply investments: emotional and libidinal. Yet when he makes an arrangement of cactuses or nails or metronomes or colours, he is resolute that they should all have equal status. Choosing a colour, for example, would privilege it, give it a special value. It would constitute, in other words, an investment. So Creed chooses all colours, making a work from each colour in a packet of pens or a palette of paints. The same goes for objects and musical notes: unable to choose one particular cactus or note, Creed juxtaposes all of them, creating miniature universes of objects.
In work 105, for example, Creed couldn’t decide which note to play on a piano, so produced a work in which all the notes are played, with one second of sound followed by one second of silence. Each note, Creed says, is treated equally, not only in relation to the other notes but to silence itself. In work 107, the notes go up and down the scale and then back again, but now with drums and bass. The aim once again is to write music that treats all notes equally and one could cite Creed’s decision to number as opposed to title his works as yet another example of this: “All numbers”, he says, “are equal”. And so status is evenly distributed throughout the series of works.
This passion for equality works against a certain conception of art and its place in the world. Art, we are often told, is about making something special, of separating it off from the rest of the world and giving it a new dignity and status. Museums and galleries then house these objects, reinforcing the sense of privilege and inequality. Yet the internal principle of Creed’s work does exactly the opposite: it is committed, most of the time, to doing away with choice, to reducing privilege and to making things equal. This strange democracy has the effect of making audiences uneasy, as they search for a hidden meaning or some exception in the array of monochrome felt pen drawings, metronomes or sound pieces.
Creed’s strategy not only contests the traditional aesthetics of uniqueness and privilege but is at the same time a masterful resolution of the dilemma of choice. Social theorists remind us how today’s society offers too much: whatever we may wish for, we have to choose between dozens of varieties – of food, of drink, of clothes, and even of electricity or water suppliers. This new freedom comes at a price, as we become paralysed with choice, spending even more time trying to decide what to choose. Similarly, one of the most common symptoms of modernity is obsession, where the subject remains caught in an interminable procrastination. Unable to make a choice, the obsessive ends up doing nothing, submerged in rituals of decision making.
One of Freud’s patients worried that a stone he had knocked his foot against in the road might cause an accident when his loved one’s carriage travelled along it later that day. He put it by the side of the road, only to then worry that this was absurd and return to place it back in the middle of the road. The repetition of this obsessive ritual trapped him in a painful and fruitless economy of choice. In another example, a man waits for his beloved’s phone call, yet worries that perhaps his phone isn’t working. He lifts the receiver to check that the dial tone is indeed present, only to be tortured by the thought that perhaps she had tried to phone when he had been testing the dial tone. He waits then has to check the dial tone again….
Where modern psychiatry might prescribe a pill or a course in cognitive self-management, Creed offers an alternative solution: turn the inability to choose into the dynamic of creating work. Unable to choose which way the lines should run in Work , the artist makes them go both ways, generating a series of crisscross works. Unable to decide which beat a drum machine should play, he has it play all available beats. Unable to choose which paintbrush to use, he uses all available brushes. These pieces are both testimony and solution to indecision.
This strategy applies not only to the scope of materials but to the location of the works themselves. Creed is often meticulous in situating his work in the exact centre of a wall, as he is unable to choose between left and right. “It’s a way”, he says, “of not having to decide”. Work 159 consists of just the sentence ‘Something in the middle of a wall’, as if the principle of equality had a precedence over the object itself. It is as if the grammar of objects has overridden the question of semantics: the formal features of arrangement had become the very thing to be arranged.
This tension between choice and non-choice is echoed in an analagous tension in Creed’s work between separation and non-separation. Creed explores, as we have seen, the forms of attachment, but these forms are themselves ambiguous. Attachment supposes that two things are separate but at the same time joins them. This is not an abstract intellectual puzzle, as anyone knows who has been in love. The wish for proximity or identity with one’s object can bring with it not just the familiar anxiety of separation but a real terror of immersion and of losing oneself. How can one make sense of this apparent paradox?
Creed takes this question very seriously. As he says, he aims to “not have lines between things”, but at the same time experiences “an anxiety about making something totally separate from anything else”. Things must be separated and not separated. The plaster protrusions, for example, seem continuous with where they have emerged from, with no visible break or cut around their surface. This is work which is not separate from the world, again illustrating Creed’s formula ‘The whole world + the work = the whole world’. “If something is joined to the world seamlessly”, he says, “then there’s no line between it and the world: it’s all part of the same thing, not separable”.
And yet total non-separation is problematic. The tension here is brought out beautifully in Creed’s shit and vomit films. Shot crisply and with the highest production values, these short films depict a variety of characters shitting and vomiting on a white soundstage. They continue Creed’s study of protrusions, this time focusing on the body, and show a material that is internal to the body become external. The very process by which something becomes separated is the subject of these works: shit and vomit embody the boundary or edge between what is separate and what is non-separate.
The paradoxical quality of this relation is brought out in what we could call Creed’s signature set theory. Where the set of metronomes is not itself a metronome, the set of sets is certainly also a set, and hence the question of whether it is in fact a member of itself. Isn’t this the logic of ‘The whole world + the work = the whole world’? What is added is already contained within the initial set, so work can be created while at the same time nothing is added. It is separated but at the same time contained.
This interest in set-theoretical problems is reflected in a work like the neon ‘Things’ – which both named what there is in the world and added to it – and Work 228 in which all the sculpture in a collection of the Southampton City Art Gallery was placed by Creed in one room. One could see this as yet another example of the inability to decide – if you can’t choose one, choose all – and of the artist’s equality principle, but it is also the creation of a set, in much the same way that Creed has produced sets of balloons, of balls, of plants and of other miniature worlds. “There’s the thing you make”, he says, “and then everything else apart from that thing”.
Creating these sets adds to the world, yet since the artist is only using what’s there, nothing is added. In a similar way, the works which involve filling a gallery space with balloons or folding the corner of a A4 piece of paper or scrunching paper into a ball are part of the same project. They add while not changing anything, and yet at the same time they obviously change something. It’s the set-theoretical question of inclusion and containment. In a way, the shit and vomit films perpetuate this in the sense that they encompass – that is, include – the things that the body has excluded. Shit and vomit might be ejected and hence separated, but the work includes them back in again.
The same logic organises Creed’s on-off works, the most celebrated of which consisted of the lights going on and off at Tate Britain. At one level, the work resolved the artist’s inability to decide whether to have the light on or off: they now did both and simultaneously denied privilege to any one part of the room. At another level, he was aiming “to make something without adding anything”. The room was left as it was and the oscillation of lights meant that, as Creed put it, “there’s no line between the work and the world here, between the work and everything in it. You can’t say the work begin or ends here”. Other binary works such as 129 – a door opening and closing – illustrate the same principle, creating work without adding any new object to the world.
Binaries, for Creed, are the building blocks of any structure. Take what the artist calls “the blobby world” and add a binary sequence such as on/off or black/white. Through this process, the world becomes minimally ordered, and this creation of a structure is, for Creed, also the basic dynamic in artistic creation. Introducing a binary creates what Creed calls a ‘drawing’. Hence a work such as the runners sprinting through the Duveen galleries at Tate Britain should be seen as structurally akin to the lights going on and off. They incarnate the minimal presence of a viewer in a space – the runners are instructed to run as fast as they possibly can through a gallery – as well as the minimal presence of a work in a space. The runners are both us – the viewers – and the works themselves, in the sense of what we are there looking at. This logic suggests that the running piece is actually a drawing or painting, an idea that is not impeached by the experience of watching these odd figures dart through the halls on Millbank.
This question of addition is perhaps identical to that of separation and non-separation that is so central for Creed. Strange as it may seem, the parsimony of the lights going on and off at the Tate has a formal equivalence with the apparent excess of Creed’s films of people shitting and vomiting. They deal with what is added and potentially subtracted and separated, what is ‘+’ and what isn’t. To put it another way, it not only reduces certain experiences to their minimal, formal structure, but also explores the effect of structures and binaries on the world. This equivalence establishes a particular coherence to Creed’s work, one which follows the logic of the creation of sets which are always part of the initial set.
Creed’s numbered work is now well past the 1000 mark. But curiously, there’s no work number 1. If the work is always including itself, this might be no surprise, but it is difficult not to accord that status to work number 143, ‘The whole world + the work = the whole world’. Like a mathematical formula that gives the structure of some aspect of the physical world, Creed’s equation offers the logic of a work without determining what the work will actually be. This coherence is almost mathematical in itself, creating works which are funny and beautiful and always totally serious.