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ON and OFF

Praised, panned light-switch art gets Hub showing

The walls are bare, the gallery is empty. But the lights switch on, and within five seconds, back off. Martin Creed's signature work is ready for opening night.

The Scottish artist's creation - which goes on display in the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts starting tomorrow - is called "Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off," and the title describes exactly what happens.

Every five seconds, the gallery's 67 track lights illuminate the white walls and then flick off, controlled by a laptop in a back room. The piece won Creed, now 38, the prestigious Turner Prize from London's Tate Britain, the national gallery of British art, in 2001, and it subsequently earned a spot in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.

The work also made Creed a lightning rod for critics of conceptual art, a genre in which the artist's idea for a work is typically regarded as more important than the physical form of any work produced - a far cry from traditional painting or sculpting.

"This guy got 20,000 pounds for demonstrating the same artistic talent as a defective circuit breaker," columnist Dave Barry wrote after the prize was awarded.

Curator Laura Donaldson, who has brought "Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off" to the Mills Gallery, doesn't know if it will face the same criticism here. But she's ready to defend Creed, whom she calls a "brilliant" artist.

"I love the subtlety of the piece," said Donaldson, 36. "The work really provokes a response from the audience. It has a lot of layers of conversation around it."

Creed, who studied at the Slade School of Art in University College, London, in the late 1980s, is known for conceptual, sometimes humorous, and often provocative pieces that have included "Work No. 88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball" (that's all it is) and "Work No. 200: Half the Air in a Given Space," in which Creed filled half a room with white balloons.

The Tate Britain has praised Creed's prize-winning piece for celebrating "the mechanics of the everyday" while challenging the viewer's expectations. "Our negotiation of the gallery is impeded, yet we become more aware of our own visual sensitivity, the actuality of the space and our own actions within it. . . . Creed exposes rules, conventions and opportunities that are usually overlooked, and in so doing implicates and empowers the viewer."

While some exhibitions can take years to plan, this one needed relatively little lead time. Donaldson first e-mailed Creed in June. His instructions were straightforward. It didn't matter what size the room was, or what color its walls were.

"It's very important to me that the existing [gallery] lights are used," Creed explained by phone from London. "Special lights will not be better. All lights are created equal in an artistic sense."

In the interview, Creed described how he came up with the idea for the piece more than a decade ago. "I was trying to make a sculpture for people to look at and felt unsure or unwilling to put my faith in one material," he said. "So I kind of was looking into ways of making something without making an object."

The piece has been exhibited several times, and the only real variable is how often the lights switch on and off. In 1995, when Creed installed the work for the first time in a London gallery, he set the timer for 30-second intervals. That long version, he says, is meant for group shows in which other works are on the walls. A one-second edition has been used in rooms that people can see into, but not enter. The Mills Gallery version, with 5-second intervals, is the one that earned the Turner Prize.

One of the world's most important contemporary art awards, the Turner Prize is given each year to an artist under 50 and has often provoked controversy. Past winners have included Damien Hirst, famous for displaying fish, sheep, and cows in formaldehyde, and Richard Long, who creates patterns on gallery floors to evoke walks he has taken in landscapes from the Alps to the Sahara.

Creed's victory set off a remarkable backlash. "What a pity that the little attention [artists] can get for their work in a frivolous, easily distracted age is diluted and embarrassed by the antics of charlatans," lamented John Derbyshire in his column for the National Review.

Reached this week at his Connecticut home, Derbyshire said his view of the piece has not softened. Creed's creation, he said, is insulting. "Leonardo da Vinci didn't set up his easel thinking, 'This will poke a finger in their damned eyes,' " said Derbyshire. "That's not an artistic temperament. That's an adolescent temperament."

But the piece is admired by many in the art world. "It's subversive, and there's a great element of humor," said Cheryl Brutvan, curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts. "It's great that people can be so annoyed about art. What a great emotional response, to think that we can be so engaged with something we call art."

Bill Arning, curator of MIT's List Visual Art Center, is even more enthusiastic. With the lighting shifts, "the actual environment of the space changes," said Arning. "And then there's also the hint of something wrong. Think about where the Mills Gallery is. A ton of people walk past that space everyday and then occasionally stop in. Think of how it's going to look from the outside, as if something's gone horribly wrong in there."

Mike LaChance, 36, works next door to the Mills as the City Stage theater company's program manager. Out on the sidewalk earlier this week, LaChance said he had no doubt Creed's piece was art.

"It really comes down to intention," said LaChance. "If the artist who created it did it with the intention of it being a work of art, it is. It shouldn't matter what other people think."

Nicholas Baume, chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, said he understands the concept behind the piece, and he's eager to visit the gallery to see if he actually likes it.

"Sometimes pieces that are very simple and, in a sense, kind of a very modest gesture, can be surprisingly profound," said Baume. "And sometimes they can fall flat. He's playing with the metaphor of the light bulb going off, playing with a great concept. Can that now create something that's interesting to experience? That's what we're being invited to find out."

As for Creed, he said he isn't looking to rile up anyone with the work. "I don't think it's provocative," he said. "It's just the lights going on and off. What's provocative about that?"

Creed said he's not about to explain what the piece means. "Meanings are projected onto things by people based on their hopes and desires and experiences," he said. "I don't think of myself as making meaning. It's more like the artists make things in which people can find their own meaning. And I personally hate being told what to think."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on the arts, visit boston.com/ae/ theater_arts/exhibitionist.

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