Interview: Martin Creed, artist
MARTIN Creed wanders along the tiled floor of the Barbican’s food hall, his black bowler hat lit from above by a series of bulbs artfully suspended in jars. He sits down, orders an Earl Grey tea with soya milk, and lays out two squares of tissue on which he neatly places an iPhone and dictaphone. “I record everything,” he explains, grinning sheepishly. “Just in case interesting things come up.”
He looks quite the artist, what with the hat, the surroundings, and the tissue-laying. A photographer recently observed that Creed is the spit of a young Donald Sutherland and it’s true. He is hairy faced and twinkly eyed, with an expression hovering somewhere between hangdog and rogue. He is excellent company: unintentionally hilarious, much smarter than he thinks, and brutally honest. Much like his art in fact. “The main shock of working is realising your stupid ideas and weird thoughts are out in the world and people are going to walk over them, hear them, look at them and say, ‘What’s that shit?’ ” he muses at one point. “The shock of that is the main problem of working for me. What stops me from doing things in a free-flowing way is the fear of people thinking I’m a dickhead.”
Creed is currently living here in the Barbican flats, not that he would have met me at home. “I don’t do that,” he says. “I don’t really let anyone in. I like my own space.” He also has a studio above a curry house on Brick Lane and spends part of the year on Alicudi, an island off Sicily. But he doesn’t like to work in a studio. Working and living in the same space are crucial because he doesn’t see any distinction between the two. “I think living with things is a way to test them out,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s kind of artificial. I did have a bigger studio once. I got it because I felt I should have a studio to be a proper artist. Though you know, I wouldn’t really call myself an artist.”
Doubt is key to understanding the work (and, I’m gathering, the man). It’s why Creed’s art can be anything: a video of a person puking, a ballet, a symphony, or a painting made with his eyes closed. It’s why it often deals in opposites, most famously a light going on and off in an empty room (Work No 227, which won him the Turner Prize in 2001), or a song that contains equal amounts of silence and noise (his upcoming debut album). It’s why he is interested in spectrums, whether a public staircase covered in 104 shades of marble (Work No 1059, otherwise known as Edinburgh’s Scotsman Steps) or an attempt to get “all the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes” (Work No 1197, for the Olympic Games).
Even his long, stuttered sentences are unsure of themselves. Most are bookended with a rolling Glaswegian “aye”, uttered at the start with certainty and ringing with doubt by the end. But Creed is not crippled with doubt. He is nourished by it. The light going on and off was never about the aesthetic beauty of opposites. It was because he couldn’t make up his mind.
“If I’m trying to write a song, I don’t know the best notes to use,” he says. “So if a song has as many rests as it does sounds, that’s a way of putting uncertainly into it. Or you have high notes and low notes. Or a bass guitar and a treble guitar. Or two guitars playing across each other in a syncopated rhythm. It all comes from not knowing which way to do it, so I just do it both ways. It’s like saying something and not saying something at the same time.”
Love To You is an album of satisfyingly short, sharp punk-rock songs. Some of them are sweet (You’re The One For Me), others are sour (F*** Off). Some nag at you in a nice way, like a cheeky little brother pulling at your sleeve. He laughs when I tell him this. “I think I do feel a bit like a naughty little brother having a laugh,” he admits. “But playing around is serious to me.”
He was surrounded by music as a child growing up in the west of Scotland. Creed’s grandmother was a concert pianist who would play her Steinway for him “with her big, arthritic hands” whenever he visited. His parents played piano and cello and he learned violin from the age of three. It was a toss-up for him between music and art school and he settled on the latter because it seemed “much more a place where you could do what you wanted”. He has had his own band for more than a decade. “I’ve been working on a lot of these songs for a really long time,” he says. “It was hard to finish the album. A lot of the songs felt like children that had been kept too long in the basement.”
The album has a very Glasgow sound, reminiscent of Postcard Records and more recently the art-rock of David Shrigley. And Creed’s lack of distinction between art and music seems particularly rooted in the city where art school graduates wield guitars. “Aye, I feel totally Glaswegian,” he acknowledges. “When I meet people from Glasgow I always recognise myself. There’s a feeling they could finish my sentences for me, like we’re twins. I think that’s why I moved to London. I wanted to be in a place where I wasn’t the same as everyone else.”
The Olympics commission is classic Creed: a simple, potent idea that’s all in the execution. “One of the amazing things about sound is it can get everywhere,” he notes. “You’ve got to be there to look at a physical thing. Sound can go to people without them having to go to it. And a bell is like a public musical instrument. So it’s a way of communicating over a long distance.” As for why it’s “all” the bells, “I don’t know which are the best ones,” he says, “so let’s try and ring them all”.
Creed’s work is changing. More and more it is coming out of the gallery and on to the streets. One art critic, referring to the Scotsman Steps, described Creed as a social artist, which he loves. “I don’t want to work in rarefied spaces,” he says. “I need to take the work into hostile environments. The art gallery is a very protected environment and that makes me uneasy. I want to go out there and try and be nice to people.”
The work is also becoming less deadpan, less clever-clever, and more emotional and direct. “Right, aye,” he says. “I was shy before. I used to be scared. I feel like I was very much still a naughty schoolboy wanting attention.
“Now the work isn’t hiding itself so much. I’m trying to show more. I think I work to try and feel better. I find myself here in this world, it’s kind of horrible, and I’m trying to live in it. If the work is like an iceberg, in the older stuff you only see the tip above sea level. It’s been honed down to almost nothing. Now the water is draining and I’m showing more of the iceberg. But it was always the same underneath.” He pauses. “I think so, aye.”
It’s doubt that has given Creed the freedom to step out of the gallery, make an album, ring a bell. He doesn’t quite know what he is or what he does, so he does anything. It’s also why he doesn’t call himself an artist. “I sometimes accidentally use that word,” he admits with a shudder. “I suppose my work is done in the field that is known as contemporary art.” Now a wince follows. “But I just don’t like using that word. I really don’t know what art is so I can’t say I’m an artist.” So what does he call himself? Creed scratches his head and reaches for his hat. “A person,” he says eventually. “A person trying to live. Aye.” «
Love To You is released on Moshi Moshi Records on 2 July. Work No 1197, All The Bells, takes place at 8am on 27 July to welcome in the Olympic Games. Sign up at www.allthebells.com
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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