Charlotte Mullins: The tailor who created the emperor's new clothes

'Martin Creed makes works of nothingness and convinces others that they are the future of art'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So, Martin Creed has won this year's Turner Prize. If you had seen the previous shows he was nominated for, you would have seen balloons half-filling a room, a small Blu-tac blob occupying one wall, a crumpled-up ball of lined A4 paper sitting in a perspex box and a couple of neon signs that equated art with nothing.

Earlier this year, in these pages, I described Martin Creed as being the emperor from the emperor's new clothes, riding through the streets of the art world, parading his works of art made from next-to-nothing. In the past few months, however, I have been forced to revise my opinion of him. For in reality, he's not the Emperor, but the Emperor's tailor, making works of nothingness and convincing others – curators, directors, writers – that they are the future of art.

Artists have been challenging what we perceive to be art for nearly a century, from Marcel Duchamp's provocative placement of a signed urinal in an open-submission exhibition in 1917, to Yves Klein's empty white gallery exhibited as The Void in 1958. Perhaps we should be grateful that in Creed's Turner Prize artwork, the lights go on and off every five seconds – in 1966, Arte Povera artist Alighiero e Boetti unveiled his Yearly Lamp, which flickered into life on only one unspecified day per year.

Creed has a lot in common with Boetti and his fellow Arte Povera artists: a knowing wit, an interest in common materials, a subversion of Minimalism, a leaning towards subtle intervention rather than sensational statement. My problem with Creed's work is that Boetti just did it better; Klein did it earlier; and even fellow Young Brit Michael Landy trumped him when he destroyed everything he owned earlier this year and created the ultimate work of nothingness on Oxford Street, London's shopping highway.

Creed's work at Tate Britain, Work #227: the lights going on and off, was first made for an artist-run alternative gallery space six years ago, and has since been recreated in a commercial New York gallery, and now Tate Britain. That's how Creed works – he has the idea, numbers it, then adds it to his repertoire. At present it flicks on and off in the largest gallery in the Turner Prize show. After thinking that the lights are broken, you realise that the ongoing fault is the artwork. It's designed to make you question the space you stand in and to be aware of yourself in the room.

The problem is, it just doesn't work. The gallery is, in part, naturally lit, so unless you arrive at night, the effect is not that dramatic. The gallery is in the centre of the show, so it operates more like a giant corridor between one work and the next rather than a work in its own right. And Work #227, the only artwork presented by Creed in this exhibition, is next to Mike Nelson's installation, which also deals with architectural space and subverting how you experience gallery space. Nelson's work succeeds in every way that the Creed work fails.

In Nelson's installation, you have to yank open an old-fashioned security door to enter a musty corridor, which twists and turns until you finally enter a storeroom, with vertical racks to hold old canvases, some leatherette chairs and an unplugged space-invaders game. Your heart pounds – have you stumbled into some back rooms by mistake? Your sense of unease mixed with fascination doesn't dull the more you visit, it grows like the layers of dust on the storeroom mirror.

I can only speculate why Mike Nelson didn't win the Turner Prize. Maybe it was because Creed would guarantee that we would all still be talking about the awards ceremony (once we had got over the fact that Madonna was announcing the winner) days and even weeks after the event. He was the one who was hyped by the press after all, and this year, more than any other, the award ceremony was an over-hyped affair, with minor celebrities such as Sophie Ellis Bextor and Zadie Smith being asked to comment on the art instead of art world insiders, and a star giving away the prize. Even the prize's announcement was moved to allow Channel 4 to screen it during peak hours on Sunday night.

Or perhaps they chose Creed's work ironically – with a room filled with people who love commodities and who buy art, they chose a winner who shuns all that and makes art out of nothing. Or perhaps they really do believe in Creed's artworks – just as the emperor was foxed into thinking he had the finest suit in the world by the tailor. He ended up with nothing except a hole in his bank account and acute embarrassment.

As the tailor, Creed certainly took the cash and, although Madonna joked that £20,000 wouldn't keep anyone going for long in London, Creed just smiled and carefully tucked the cheque into his coat pocket. It's not surprising – just think how many years' worth of A4 and Blu-tack he could buy with that.

Comments