Martin Creed's art provokes debate
Some will hate it, but an avant-garde installation could set the stage for a new paradigm of art
In the empty gallery, the overhead track lights go on for five seconds and then off for five seconds. This repeats again and again all day and into the night. That's pretty much it at the Mills Gallery: a single work of conceptual art with the self-explanatory title "The Lights Going On and Off" by the internationally renowned British artist Martin Creed.
Some will say it's not art, and they'll be annoyed by what they see as a juvenile, nihilistic, attention-seeking flouting of traditional values. More sympathetic observers might view it as the setting for a meditative, Zen-like experi ence of light, space, and time. I would suggest that we take it as an occasion for philosophical reflection about the nature and history of recent art.
Start with light. Without light, you can't see. So Creed's work addresses what would seem to be the most basic feature of the art experience: seeing.
Or what used to be the most basic. Ever since Marcel Duchamp introduced an upside-down urinal as a work of art, we've known that some kinds of art can appeal more to the mind than to the eye. We've learned, furthermore, that anything can be considered art so long as it is produced by an artist, presented to the public under the aegis of some art-sponsoring institution, and accepted as art by a community of interested observers. Focusing attention on the gallery as the framework that guarantees its status as art, Creed's piece perfectly exemplifies that institutional definition of art.
For viewers familiar with modern art history and Conceptualism in particular, then, the curious thing about Creed's piece is not how shockingly new it seems but how familiar. So why is Creed an international art star if his work is so obviously based on well-worn ideas about avant-garde art? Why did he win the Turner Prize in 2001, Britain's most prestigious honor for contemporary artists under age 50?
To understand that, it helps to know something about other works Creed has produced. As it happens, there was an excellent opportunity to get to know his oeuvre recently at Bard College's Hessel Museum, which presented a major survey of his works called "Feelings." (The exhibition closed on Sept. 16.)
What struck me about the show was that almost everything in it was, more or less directly, a riff on some well-known type of Conceptual, Minimalist, or otherwise radical art. A wall painting of criss-crossing red bands was like a Sol LeWitt wall painting. Words painted on the wall that said "The whole world + the work = the whole world" could have been mistaken for a piece by the word artist Lawrence Weiner. A neon sign spelling "Things" called to mind neon-light word works by Bruce Nauman. A crumpled ball of paper echoed crumpled paper works by Tom Friedman.
A hasty, negative judgment would be that Creed is not only unoriginal but has no coherent identity of his own. But let's assume that Creed knows exactly what he is doing, that he is an artist of mandarin sophistication with a larger purpose in mind.
You could say that he is consciously toying with different types of artistic radicalism that once seemed liberating breaks from conservative traditions. Now each of the kinds of work that Creed recycles is just another device in the toolshed of contemporary art, available for use by anyone. The revolution has turned into an academy; gestures of freedom have been branded and commodified.
When Yves Klein did an exhibition in Paris in 1958 called "Le Vide" ("The Void") that consisted only of a completely empty gallery, it was shocking for most people but an inspirational sign of artistic and social freedom for a few. If an art exhibition could be nothing but an empty gallery, then anything was possible. The cultural revolutions of the '60s were soon to come.
Half a century later, an exhibition consisting of nothing but the gallery lights going on and off excites no such utopian euphoria. It's more like high-brow business as usual. Is this what Creed means us to take from his work? The thought that art's cutting edge is no longer moving forward but going in circles, producing only more or less amusing variations on established precedents? If so, is "The Lights Going On and Off" a critique of contemporary culture, a gesture of despair, or a wake-up call?
I'm not sure what he intends, and I think the provocatively enigmatic silence of his exhibition is one of the best things about it. But I'd also like to imagine that by revealing the exhaustion of 20th-century avant-gardism Creed's art helps set the stage for the advent of a new, as yet unknown paradigm.
Ken Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.