Martin Creed: 'I try to be true and honest. The truth is often ridiculous'
Martin Creed has had a prolific year, and it will be crowned by a book paying tribute to him. It just a shame about those Tate labels
Sometimes when Martin Creed gets introduced to people for the first time, they slap him on the back and say: "Good on you." "It's as if they're congratulating a criminal who has got away with a crime," says Creed. "People think I am getting away with something. They don't realise that I work very hard."
When Creed "gets away with it" he attracts a fair amount of attention, because for some people he seems to embody everything that is ridiculous about contemporary art: a crumpled ball of paper as an artwork, a piece of blue tack stuck to the wall, a light going on and off or a video of someone being sick.
Yet over the past year he has had exhibitions at Tate Britain and Birmingham's Ikon Gallery and a range of luminaries from Germaine Greer to the Australian comedian Barry Humphries have written essays about his work for a new book.
"I have never met Barry Humphries," says Creed. "We only had contact through his agent but I know that he saw my work when he I did a show in Melbourne. Comedians seem to look for the absurd and ridiculous, for things that are silly, in the same way that artists do."
Creed's work can be very funny. He has a sense of the absurd that is delivered deadpan so no one can quite work out whether he is being serious or not, and this work has endeared him to the public. Two years ago, he installed a singing lift at the Ikon Gallery. There are videos on YouTube of families giggling as they press the up button, and the voices of a choir sing an ascending scale as the lift climbs the building. Once at the top, the choir sings descending scales as the lift goes down.
A work he made earlier this year involved writing a piece of music for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It was his first time writing for an entire orchestra. He wrote the music with the idea that every instrument in the orchestra would be given equal value and the composition would work using the highest and lowest notes of each instrument.
"Michelangelo said the sculpture was inside the marble and it was a matter of finding it. I thought that was a beautiful thought. And it's closer to the way that I work. With the orchestra, I'm trying to find a tune, a story, rather than having a story and using it to find a tune.
"I write lots of music and then I try it out. Some of it has sounded bad and some of it was unplayable. But I want it to sound beautiful. I never want anything to be horrible," he says.
In person, Creed is not half as peculiar or eccentric as you'd expect, and he's not at all stuck up or full of himself. He's quite shy and vulnerable looking with big eyes and a boyish pale face. He has a Scottish accent (he was brought up in Glasgow) and his voice is soft, far from assertive and he sometimes struggles to find his words. There's an awkwardness about him.
"I search for absurdity and feeling," he says. "I want my work, so to speak, to be silly. I want to make things that are stupid and that contrast with that which is around it."
This search for the absurd started very early on in his career and has had occasionally embarrassing results. One work he made while at London's Slade School of Art still leaves him pink-cheeked with shame. "I was thinking, 'What can I do on a wall?' Instead of making something for the wall I thought why don't I go in from the wall. I made this thing going in and one piece going out from the wall and put them opposite each other. It was called 'In and Out' piece.
"When it was done I realised how overtly sexual it was. I was still a virgin at the time and I had made this really sexual piece. It was embarrassing. If work embarrasses you it's often a sign that there's something there. I like work like that," he says.
One of the difficulties with Creed's work is that because it is appears quite simple and uncomplicated no one is quite sure what to say about it. Which can lead to some woefully pretentious explanations. In the Duveen Gallery of Tate Britain, Creed has organised runners to sprint through the hall every 30 seconds. To one side, there's a giant interpretative label which reads: "This work celebrates human physicality and the human spirit... Work No 850 presents the beauty of human movement in its purest form..." And then a very average scrawny-looking runner wearing baggy shorts puffs past and visions of noble Olympian athletes fade and it all feels a bit ridiculous.
Creed was not so keen on the Tate's grand explanations either. "I think the fear of emptiness is one of the biggest fears. Being alone with nothing, nothing to define your life, no person to love. If you translate that into the art gallery, it's perhaps that fear that leads to awful press releases and stupid labels. They want stuff to fill up the world. They want an explanation. I always think the challenge is to make labels better. It's nice if there is some explanation that might help people. If I am watching cricket, I need commentary because it can help me to find a way in."
Runners are not the only living beings Creed has brought into the gallery. There are also Orson, an enormous Irish wolfhound, and Sparky, a tiny chihuahua. He first brought these dogs into a gallery in Los Angeles where their owner used to drop them off every morning at 10 with their baskets and they'd hang around the gallery all day and sleep.
Creed liked them because they are each at the extreme ends of dog breeds and he was working with ideas of opposites and binaries at the time: lights on and off, big trees and small trees, black and white. So why not a big dog and a small dog?
"They were a moving sculpture in the gallery," says Creed, a glint of humour in his eye.
"I don't know how to be funny. I'm not very good at telling jokes. I try to be true and honest. That's often funny. The truth is often ridiculous."
And despite all this, he does take his work very seriously. He says that he is an artist more suited to exhibitions than making art objects in the studio and then selling them. When I ask him if that is because a screwed-up bit of paper might look like art in a gallery space but outside of that it is just, well, a screwed-up piece of paper, he looks quite offended.
"The ball of paper are beautifully made," he says. "They are crafted objects and I pack them in shredded paper. I designed all the packaging.
"People do buy them and I've seen one in someone's house. It was on the mantelpiece," he says. And then he laughs.
'Martin Creed, Complete Works' is published this month by Steidl books, price £35. Martin Creed at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, to 16 November. Work No 850 is at the Duveen Gallery, Tate Britain until 16 November
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