Kinetic art has a perfectly respectable pedigree: it's defined as "art or sculpture in which movement (produced by air currents, or electricity, or sound, etc) plays an essential part". What's a little out of the ordinary at Tate Britain this week is that, in Martin Creed's new "Work No. 850", the movement is produced by having athletes run, hell-for-leather, past the spectators.
As art experiences go, it seems limited. You stand there, surrounded by bare walls, and every 15 seconds, a man or woman dashes through the 86-metre-long Duveen Galleries as if a score of slavering demons were snapping at his heels. "Each run," notes the Tate website poetically, "is followed by an equivalent pause, like a musical rest, during which the grand Neoclassical gallery is empty."
Creed cannot expect to escape criticism for offering such an unusual artwork. It's formally hard to classify, since it appears and disappears at high speed. Instead of paint, wire, wood or plastic, it's constructed from unusual, seldom-seen media: human being, singlet, shorts, trainers, socks, wristwatch. It's hard to inspect for compositional details when it zooms past you at 25mph. And you can't buy it, without committing yourself to feeding and housing several athletes for years to come.
Along with criticism, Creed must anticipate some abuse ("Oi! Your paint is running" was The Sun's witty response yesterday) and philistine raillery over his work. It won't be long, I fear, before piss-taking tabloid journalists turn up at the Tate in designer sportswear, anxious to join in. Wicked 10-year-old schoolboys, dragged to the gallery by their art teachers, will find the fast-moving human exhibits an irresistible temptation. Traditional-minded art-lovers will watch the runners dash by and mutter: "My five-year-old kid could do better than that..."
It would, however, be wrong to treat Creed as a maverick. He's in a tradition of subversive artists that stretches back to Marcel Duchamp (born 1887), who tried to free art from imprisonment in hushed galleries, where it could be expressed only in paint or marble, and where it held meaning only for its creator.
"The creative act is not performed by the artist alone," he wrote, "the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications, and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."
Creed has enjoyed sparring with "the external world" of art critics and the press for years, while he has pursued his special brand of arty minimalism. He's been roughed up for exhibiting the smallest things that can appear in galleries, as if they were art. A lump of Blu-Tack on the wall? A sheet of paper crumpled, by a kind of yob origami, into a ball? The lights going on and off?
There's something very Beckettian about Creed's search for the ultimate teeny-weeny creative gesture. Some thought his climactic work would feature the spectacle of a gallery visitor merely breathing in and out – though that might lack even a minimal visual impact.
Instead, he's taken a brilliant step forward. He's rejected smallness and hopelessness and embraced energy and inclusivity. As visitors watch an athlete dash through the galleries every 15 seconds, they're offered a fresh perspective on the human frame in action – caught, as it were, in an extended, 13-second freeze-frame so we can marvel at its beauty.
The gallery becomes a living theatre, the artwork becomes a speeded-up ballet, and our response to the spectacle is a joyful blink, rather than a solemn, chin-stroking inspection of brushwork. It's an unprecedented little dance of art and reality; art and sport; perception and illusion, all performed in 15-second bursts – in, among and around the gallery visitors. It's in such simple but ingenious scenarios that modern art is most likely to proceed.
The actual running itself isn't unprecedented. In Bertolucci's The Dreamers, the three Parisian lovers run full-tilt through the Louvre, emulating the same scene in Godard's 1964 movie Bande à Part. Creed says he got the idea for "Work No. 850" from his experience of running through the catacombs of the Capuchin monks in Palermo, when he turned up five minutes before closing time.
"It made me think," he said this week, "why do we have to look at paintings for a long time? Why not just look for a second?" The clever Creed proves himself to have his finger firmly on the Zeitgeist button. After fast food, speed dating and Kwik-Fit tyre repairs, he has single-handedly invented speed art appreciation.
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