If nothing is enough, why have any more? The difficulty is that nothing cannot be achieved. We might well be satisfied with nothing, but we can't get hold of it. Everything is something. Every gesture, however we strive to empty it, is loaded. The aim of minimalism in a universe of loaded gestures is to arrive at the emptiest possible gesture. A minimalist masterpiece is a gesture that successfully resists being loaded. Though hoo-ha and hullabaloo may greet its appearance in public, the minimalist masterpiece will retain its utter purity. The truly successful minimalist work is one that can be neither bought nor sold. The lights going on and off is the ultimate uncollectable. It can't even be photographed, let alone reproduced. You can't stick a poster of it on your wall to show how hip you are. All of which is obvious, like the blueness of the sky, but, like the blueness of the sky, not understood.
Minimalism is not new. As a movement, though it may not always have been called such, minimalism has already lived a whole century, longer than Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Modernism, Futurism, or Surrealism. Malevich is still a hugely relevant artist, though most of his admirers could not tell you why, which is as it should be. The lights going on and off is a lineal descendant of Alighiero Boetti's Yearly lamp (1966), a light bulb that would be illuminated only for a random 11 seconds in any year, hidden in a box. What we should probably infer from the longevity of minimalism is that its possibilities are far from exhausted. If Kant is right to define the object of aesthetic judgment as an object with no ulterior purpose, use or function, all art strives towards minimalism but is usually deflected by the conditions in which the work exists, by patronage, politics, established religion or the artist's personal ambition. Art that invokes moral values, that tells a story, that engages with actual events, that has become a trade object, has already compromised its art-ness. When a minimalist work becomes so embedded in its own reputation that it is treated as a symbol denoting a mass of notions that are essentially nothing to do with it, it is no longer minimalist. The gesture is then overloaded with purport and overwhelmed, its playfulness extinguished.
Art being a part of life, the threat of such extinction is ever-present. Nature, as distinguished from art, abhors a vacuum. The beholder, having decided to experience The lights going on and off is not about to confess to experiencing nothing as she stands within its space. The artist's gesture will be filled with something, even if it is only the beholder's awareness of her pupils' expanding and contracting out of sync, or her disappointment, outrage, or delight. As one who was delighted when Martin Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001, I have to admit thinking very hard all the time I spent in the room at Tate Britain, as the lights went on and off, about the unnecessary lengths artists go to to dramatise spatial relationships, about light as their true medium, about the space being one living cell pulsating within the art establishment mausoleum, but also that I didn't need to be thinking about such things at all, or thinking at all, the sheer gratuitousness of the gesture, the luminosity of its total pointlessness was as near to perfection as human achievement ever gets. The blue of the sky is the blue of utter emptiness.
Most of the male American minimalists with whom the movement is usually identified have packed too much ego into their work for it to survive as minimalist. It is when we consider the work of women like Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse that we draw closer to the still centre where ego has been eclipsed, and to Creed. Martin's humility, all of whose ways "are empty", is close kin to Creed's egolessness; both are rare in any artist since the Renaissance. Creed's response to Martin's soft grids can be seen in works like Nos. 461, 472 and 557. Martin was influenced by Indian tribal art, and it is a curious coincidence that Creed's haptic approach to filling his A4 picture space with contiguous lines arrives at a minimalist version of the classic Pintupi images of the straightening of spears. In Work No. 175: Two drawings, Creed's homage to Hesse is touching and transparent, but her spirit can be sensed more subtly elsewhere, in Works Nos. 83, 263, 264, 340 and 384, for example.
Like Hesse and Martin, Creed avoids the regimentation and machine-made regularity usually associated with minimalism; when his felt-pen tracks across the page it obeys the pressure of his hand and arm. The result is organic rather than geometric. As for self-glorification, Creed has evaded it even more successfully, because he has made works that have no signature and do not even require his agency. Given his meticulous instructions, anyone could install a version of Half the air in a given space (Works Nos. 200, 202, 268, 360). Whenever and wherever Half the Air in a Given Space is installed it is a different work; Creed does not insist on controlling every aspect of it. Neither the balloons nor the people among them behave in predictable ways. When for once Creed capitulated to the pressure to show that he could draw, he drew a doodle with a marker pen (Work No. 438), as Hesse might have done, but it is a perfect doodle, a super-doodle that he must have practised a thousand times. The marker pen travels six or seven feet with unvarying pressure on point and paper as it swiftly describes a spiral of nine coils and the four pinnacles within the spiral. Easy, when you know how. Making it look easy is part of the minimalist project; the fun part is what Creed has most strikingly in common with Eva Hesse.
Creed's struggle for emptiness never ends. He strives for utterances that will not yield an ulterior meaning to even the most dogged (mis)interpreter. How difficult this can be became apparent from Creed's 2006 project for the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan, which was called simply 'I like things'. On the face of it, the Palazzo dell'Arengario was a perfect site for the installation; the smooth blankness of its pared-down Neo-Classicism is justified by the same Platonic authority that underpins Creed's formalism. However, the values projected by the Palazzo dell'Arengario, which was designed by a committee of Mussolini's favourite architects in the late Thirties, are not so much formalist as Fascist. The building brought its own tragic personality to the event, and the work was inevitably corrupted by it. The lights going on and off was installed in the Sala delle Colonne; this time instead of remaining on for five seconds and then off for five seconds, the lights were on for a second and then off a second. People entering the space were buffeted by a wind machine; members of the Road Runners Club of Milan occasionally dashed past them. When "one of Martin Creed's iconic works", the slogan "Everything is Going to be Alright", which had been mounted in Times Square in 1999 (Work No. 225) and dozens of places since, was replicated in white neon across the façade of a Fascist building that was damaged by Allied bombs and never officially opened (Work No. 560), its insouciance was penetrated with so much painful irony that, like the whole show, it turned conceptual. Conceptualism is the obverse of minimalism; it deals in proliferating meaning. It projects information and it harvests information shared with the viewer. 'I like things' inspired thousands of words of interpretation: the show was a critique of consumerism, post 9/11 paranoia, godlessness, fundamentalism, and so forth. 'I like things' was the first time the public saw Sick film (Work No. 610), which seems to enact emptying out, as if it were a work of revulsion, a sudden violent discontinuity with the tenor of Creed's frolicsome creativity.
It's no wonder then that Martin Creed is on record as saying that he is sick of thinking – he doesn't say whose. The Italian media have grown up with Arte Povera and were not about to complain that what he does is not art, but in the discussion of I Like Things in the Italian media, Creed must have found himself identified with causes to which he was not in the least committed. Closest to the spirit of the artist was probably La Gazzetta dello Sport, which not only reported the show without sneering but also pointed out that art and sport have many things in common.
This Creed would not deny. He differs from the great exponents of Arte Povera in his utter lack of self-importance; he does not roll a two-metre ball of crumpled newspaper through city streets but crumples a single sheet of blank paper into a sphere and leaves one in every room in a house. He didn't throw a neon tube about the wall of the room in the Tate Gallery to dramatise the space, he simply turned the lights on and off, a process rather less simple that it was made to seem.
The ultimate irony is that, if I should now write that I think Creed is a great artist, I shall have proved him a failure. He would rather I said I love what he does, which would be the truth.
This is an extract from 'Martin Creed: Works', with an introduction by Martin Creed and texts by Colm Tóibín, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries et al, published by Thames & Hudson on 30 July. Martin Creed's Down Over Up is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (Fruitmarket.co.uk) 30 July to 31 October; 'Ballet Work No. 1020', Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (Traverse.co.uk) 8 to 15 August
To order 'Martin Creed: Works' (Thames & Hudson, £36) at the special price of £26, including UK mainland delivery (overseas costs available on request), call our distributor, Littlehampton Book Services, on 01903 828503, quoting "TH076". Offer is subject to availability.Reuse content