Martin Creed doesn't like you very much

I have a great love for the Rennie Museum, I admire its laser focus:  a gorgeous architectural space, the spotlight on a single artist, small guided tours.  So far out of the two shows I’ve seen, I’ve fallen in love with the work of Richard Jackson, and been intellectually intrigued but emotionally distanced by the Mona Hatoum works. Naturally I was interested to attend the Martin Creed show. I already knew his illuminated text piece on the roof garden of the museum: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, and l liked it very much.

The show begins wonderfully. You have to swim through a pool of gigantic pink balloons, which is fun and childish and exciting. If you never got to experience a ballroom as a child, this may be as close as you get.  You emerge at the end where the tour guide beckons nervously, pushing balloons back while opening the door. Another delight is watching people emerge from the balloon room, their coiffed hair spiked with static and a look of pleasure or disgust on their faces.

Unfortunately for me, the great pleasures ended right there. Although I don’t dislike conceptual art, I do dislike art that needs to be explained to be properly appreciated. Instead I prefer conceptual art that causes you to ask questions or seek more information if it is not immediately understandable.  This exhibition is explanations followed by passive observation.  Strong threads run through Creed’s art, the most prominent being an idea of binaries or oppositions. The balloon room is calculated to be half the mass of the room’s volume. The next piece features gold and silver salt and pepper shakers, which are supposed to be art pieces, left in pubs and other places which apparently elucidates the idea of what art is. A film showing the shakers being used in a pub (to salt and pepper food, surprisingly enough!)   features an orchestral soundtrack, which the docent tried to talk over as he introduced the museum, the show, and the artist.  Sadly, at my age (and I was one of the younger people in my boomer tour group) I have trouble hearing over loud noises, so I found it tough to concentrate on the explanations.

Inadvertent distractions are what plagues the whole show for me. I can’t focus on the wall art since runners are doing laps of the gallery at the same time, or because the loud noises of many metronomes or piano lids crashing are bothering me.  I feel uncomfortable that people, like the anonymous runners and a girl whose only job is to rewind metronomes, are scattered around the gallery like robots who neither interact with me nor feel the credit of being appreciated as art. Also being used are the people throwing up on film to explore Creed’s ideas about painting. Besides some interesting vegetable prints and marker paintings, Creed also makes the kind of art that people who hate modern art love to reference: a crumpled piece of paper you can buy for only £165.   By the end, I felt that much of the show was a huge practical joke staged by an artist who didn’t like people very much.  Instead of exploring the gallery afterwards as I usually do, I left immediately.

Nardwuar and Martin Creed enjoying themselves greatly in coordinating outfits ( from

Still, in order to write this review, I felt I needed to research Creed a little more. I found to my delight he did an audio interview with Nardwuar the Human Serviette, a local musician and humourous character. This was the perfect meeting, since Nardwuar brings both naïveté and great research to his work. If Creed was a phony, Nardwuar would ferret that out.  In fact, Creed turned out to be an extremely pleasant man with a lilting Scottish accent, who lacked any pretention but also seemed quite at a loss to explain any of his artwork. It was as if the art dropped from the sky and landed in his studio.  (They talked more easily about Creed’s music and his band, and I am happy to report that unlike Michael Ignatieff, Creed does know that the correct signoff to any Nardwuar interview is “doot-doot!”) This interview got me thinking about what might be wrong with the Creed show at the Rennie.

I wrote earlier that the quality of the docents was significantly better at the Richard Jackson show than at the Mona Hatoum show, and I speculated that this was because Jackson had spent so much time installing his work at the gallery. Along with the time, he had generously shared his ideas about art and producing art.  Hearing Creed be so modest or even disingenuous about his art made me realize that once again, the viewer suffers because the docents are handcuffed.  I think that rather than art school interns who are overly impressed by the Emperor’s new artist, perhaps maybe the tour could become a performance with a different kind of docent: a mathematician to explain the binary progressions, a stand up comedian to riff on the humourous aspects, or a musician to link the music and art.  Or if Creed does not want to explain the art at all, maybe it would be better to have the viewer walk through and explore and then partake in a docent-led discussion at the end. 

One happy aside to the show, I found out that the fantastic Richard Jackson wall paintings had not been destroyed but instead a false wall was built in front of them. I hope to see them again sometime.