Martin Creed wants you to fuck off. He says as much in Work No. 1358: Fuck Off (2012), in which an illuminated screen goes dark the moment the piece begins and a minute-long, post-punk-style audio track performed by Creed and his band plays. The only lyrics: “fuck” and “off.”
The phrase has at least two meanings. Is he cranky and provoking us? Or does he want us to have fun and stop taking ourselves so seriously? As inferred from the British artist’s retrospective at the Park Avenue Armory, the answer is probably both. The works in the survey, Creed’s largest in the United States to date, showcase the kinds of artistic mischief that scandalizes those who seem forever compelled to define what art is and is not. People were predictably offended when Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000) won the Turner Prize in 2001. The American columnist Dave Barry, for example, titled his column about it “This is art? Rubbish.”
Such criticism has always missed the point. Work No. 88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995)—smart, absurdist minimalism and another target for straw-man attacks by folksy forehead-slappers like Barry—becomes institutional critique when one learns that Creed, before he was famous, mailed it to the director of London’s Tate. The director’s assistant reportedly flattened it and mailed it back.
Much of Creed’s talent lies in his ability to distill entire discourses into crisply economical objects and images. Indeed, that talent is partly what gives his provocations force. Interventionist installations like Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space (1998) are exactly what their titles describe, but also much more. Pushing through a room filled halfway up with balloons forces us to rethink, like amateur physicists, what it means to say something is “empty,” particularly when the task is so delightfully challenging.
Videos such as Work No. 600 (2006) and Work No. 660 (2007), which depict, respectively, a black woman and an East Asian woman defecating in a seamless white space, dare viewers to look. Several videos show women making themselves vomit; another, a penis and a woman’s nipple hardening, the footage played backward. But it is a distinct pleasure of Creed’s work that even when he’s making poop and dick jokes, he’s still one of the smartest guys in the room. The abovementioned videos go beyond mere gross-out; with razor-sharp focus, they isolate and test racial and gender prejudices and our deep-seated revulsion toward the most quotidian bodily functions, dragging it all into a discomforting light.
Creed continued to push those themes in the exhibition’s most impressive segment, which comprised several new works presented within the Armory’s cavernous 55,000-square-foot drill hall. Entering, one confronted an immense video screen floating overhead amid vast darkness. A series of six videos played in silent succession, showing various women, including Creed’s mother, opening their mouths to reveal tongues pasty with chewed-up food. After each video ended, the screen went dark and a large door in the back of the hall opened to the outside—hence the exhibition’s title, “The Back Door,” no doubt a double entendre. The open door framed a view of Lexington Avenue, seeming to place visitors inside a giant pinhole camera. Those few yards of street and sidewalk were surely far more interesting to observe than usual.
Puerile, oddly sexual, yet somehow solemn: food is chewed, the back door opens; we peer into open human mouths; we peer out of mechanical mouths. What does it mean? Creed himself has said he does not know. But we leave feeling that our perspective on the messy inner lives of people, and on our relationship to the world outside our heads, has somehow been freshened.