Martin Creed: 'I can still recall the naked, fat Polish woman...'
The Turner prize-winner tells Marcus Field about life drawing, light bulbs and his Olympic plans
I see Martin Creed's hat before I see his face. He is walking along the street outside the Barbican in London where he lives and his large beige fedora is bobbing above the crowd. He turns out to be quite the dandy in a striped shirt, knitted blue waistcoat and a pair of tight black trousers with satin details. His appearance, complete with moustache and romantic curls, comes as something of a surprise; he is, after all, the artist best known for works so minimal that they are almost not there at all, most famously Work No. 227 The Lights Going On And Off, the installation which caused such bafflement in his Turner prize-winning show at Tate Britain in 2001. And now here he is, a minimalist in maximalist clothing. What does it all mean? And will he be prepared to tell us?
We are meeting to talk about his new album, a bona fide pop record called Love to You which contains 18 tracks written by Creed and performed by him as the lead vocalist and frontman of his band. He sees this work, he explains, not as part of his art or separate from it but just as more stuff he has made. "I wouldn't call the other work I do art anyway, so this is no different." It's true that the record can be listened to as you might any other pop offering; Creed would like it to be treated in this way and indeed several music publications have accepted it on these terms, including Uncut, which described the sound as "percussive, propulsive, punk-funk clatter" and likened the band to "Talking Heads in their Eno-mentored prime".
But there are also themes and patterns to the songs that link them to Creed's work as an artist. For example there is "Thinking – Not Thinking" which Creed has described as his attempt to get to the heart of what it's like to be alive. "I decided life consists of thinking and not thinking and that's about it." Like The Lights Going On And Off this is experience stripped to the bare essentials. There are also songs such as "Fuck Off" and "Nothing" in which the titles are simply sung over and over to a backing of guitars and synth.
What, I wonder, is it that compels him to make things – be they installations, paintings or music? Creed says it all springs from the same desire "to have something to hold on to in a world that I find scary and difficult. It's like wanting to have a person to be with. Often I wake up with a horrible feeling, like a nightmare carried into the day. Trying to make something that someone else might like makes me feel better."
And people do like Creed's work – think of the crowds who flocked to Tate Britain in 2008 to see his installation "Work No. 850 Runners" which featured sprinters racing up and down the Duveen Galleries – and they very often laugh at it too, which is the reaction he welcomes most. His friend Nick McCarthy, the guitarist in Franz Ferdinand who has co-produced two tracks on Creed's album, thinks this is central to his appeal. "He is a funny man, his work has a lot of humour in it," he tells me. Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna, has even been drawn to comment on Creed's brand of humour, claiming its origins lie in his own "Melbourne Dada". Other reactions to the work range from contempt (critic Brian Sewell said of The Lights Going On and Off that it caused the Turner Prize "almost mortal damage") to – and this is rather extreme – actually urinating on it. Last year, Creed created a piece of public art in Edinburgh in the form of a marble covering on a staircase called the Scotsman Steps, and these are regularly used as a kind of unofficial pissoir. Does he mind? "No, I like it. I chose marble partly because I knew people could piss on it and they could wash it off."
Creed laughs a lot when he is talking. He speaks with a Glasgow accent, something he hasn't lost even after 25 years living away from the city. He was born in Wakefield in 1968 but moved to Glasgow when he was three. His English father taught silversmithing at the School of Art, while his German mother, a musician, encouraged Creed to play the violin and guitar. "They are Quakers and I grew up being taught that art and music were the highest things you could do," he explains. As a teenager he was a fan of The Jam, The Smiths and Billy Bragg, and became passionate about art after he went to summer school in Poland aged 15 and was introduced to life drawing. "I was so embarrassed by the naked fat Polish woman in front of me; I can still remember it." Critics of the Brian Sewell persuasion might find it hard to believe now but it was Creed's love of drawing, together with his admiration for the 19th-century French painter Ingres, which inspired him to apply to the Slade School of Art in London.
Creed says he enjoyed art school but still doesn't feel like his training makes him a professional. "I don't find it helpful to think of myself as an artist. I think that everything that everyone does is a form of expression and my work is just like that. And I would recommend art school to anyone, partly because it's just a place to do crazy things like throw baked beans at the wall."
Moving away from home was an important moment in his life, a kind of challenge to find out who he really was. These days he feels the same about shifting his work out of the studio or performing his music live. "You've got to take it into hostile environments to test it," he says. It was for similar reasons that after he won the Turner prize he bought a house on the Italian island of Alicudi and went to live there for four years with his girlfriend. "I thought it was really important to live somewhere with no art world, no structures; life is simplified in such an understandable way." After he split up with his girlfriend they kept the house, and he still goes there occasionally.
Four years ago he moved to the Barbican and now has a new girlfriend, the Australian psycho-analyst and writer Anouchka Grose. Like Creed, she is multi-talented and plays steel guitar and sings backing vocals in his band. She has written about their relationship in the Daily Mail, saying she is "overly attached" to Creed's asymmetric nose and noting "how funny he can be when he suddenly gets garrulous at bedtime". One can only imagine what breakfast conversations must be like.
After several years under the radar Creed is suddenly high-profile again, not least because his next piece of work has been specially commissioned to mark the opening of the London Olympics. Called Work No. 1197 "All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes", the idea is that anybody can join in and ring a bell at 8.12am on 27 July. Why 8.12am I wonder? "It's because of the BBC," explains Creed. "I'm happy they're involved but it's the news at 8am so it had to be afterwards." Some of his friends are planning to go to the Scotsman Steps to ring their bells and he is especially pleased that several official organisations have agreed to join in, including the Royal Navy and the National Trust.
Before he rushes off, we go back to what his work means. He always resists this question, he says, but his reasons are characteristically thoughtful and poetic anyway. "I feel like it would be fake to give an answer. I would hate to sound certain about anything because I think if I'm certain about something I must be deluded. Who knows about anything? What the work means is not up to me; it's what it means to someone else who has their own heart and their own history and their own mind. And I like that. I don't put meaning into things. Meaning is something you find for yourself."
'Love to You' (Moshi Moshi) is out now. Martin Creed and his band play the Dalston Victoria, London E8 (020-7275 1711) on 1 Aug
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