If Martin Creed had been alive in Medieval Europe, it is easy to imagine him as an admired court jester, entertaining the royals with dashes of absurdity while at the same time speaking truth to power, gingerly prodding the monarch. Creed delights in tweaking, and even flouting, convention. He hatches harebrained schemes—usually just single, simple ideas, if we’re being honest—and executes them with absolute commitment. Against all odds, his deadpan Duchampian strategies spill over into profundity.
Everyone knows Creed’s most famous work, Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off (2000–01). At his magnificent survey, “The Back Door,” which runs at the Park Avenue Armory in New York through August 7, it is stationed in a stately little room with a small door that is continually opening and closing, which is another Creed work (you may guess its title). His art is one of constant, extreme change: on or off, opened or closed. It is about things, situations, people that are here one minute and gone the next. It invites you to live in the moment, for a moment, between those states.
Good retrospective exhibitions deftly assemble an artist’s work to tell a story that we know parts of but want to hear in full; great ones offer up myriad new tales by presenting old work in fresh ways. This is a great show. Curated by Tom Eccles and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, it marshals a solid selection of Creed’s greatest hits along with plenty of lesser-known nuggets, tucking them into the intimate and out-of-the-way sections of the Armory that are not often used in the art shows staged there. It renders familiar art and architecture deliciously uncanny.
Most importantly, the exhibition leaves the grand drill hall space almost completely empty, in glorious contrast to the more maximal projects that have filled it over the years. It is dark when you walk in and it takes a bit for your eyes to adjust. The only real light comes from a large screen, hanging near the back, that shows short videos of women opening their mouths to reveal piles of food on their tongues. They are presenting their insides to the outer world, showing things that are about to disappear. After each video ends, a door at the center of the back of the Armory slides open, light floods in, and people are revealed going about their business along Lexington Avenue, unaware that they are figuring in a major artwork, that we are following their movements at a distance, rapt, watching a kind of real-life cinéma vérité.
Utilitarian spaces along the drill hall are home to a number of Creed’s videos, which are projected along the walls and in makeshift little wooden spaces so that viewers must get up close and personal with them. They are as straightforward and beguiling as his sculptures—a man kicking and then attacking a bunch of flowers, a woman defecating—but sometimes come with surprising doses of emotion and politics, and a snappy soundtrack by Creed. In Work No. 1701 (2013), a camera follows all types of people, one by one, cross a street near Gavin Brown’s old West Village gallery, walking with a hobble, a limp, or an unusual gate as Creed sings a rollicking pop song that includes lines like “In my car/In my bed/In my head/You return.” It climaxes with a man nobly pulling pulling himself across the roadway with just two gloved hands, unstoppable. And in Work No. 2530: Let Them In (2014), Creed declares in a jaunty, Sgt. Pepper’s-style number, “People/Let them in,” as marchers at a pro-refugee demonstration move across the screen.
Creed is the wily, black-sheep heir to the odder inventions of 1960s and ‘70s–conceptualism and Post-Minimalism. In 1969, Robert Barry released various inert gases into the atmosphere; in Half the air in a given space, a work he has reprised in various forms over the years, Creed fills balloons with just that. At the Armory, the balloons are huge, opaque and white, and housed in another well-ornamented room, transmuting a piece that in some iterations has been a fun-house selfie machine (lines stretched around the blocks for his room of red balloons at Brown’s Lower East Side gallery last year) into an experience that takes on connotations of cleansing, self-obliteration, and death. You vanish in the whiteness, lost to yourself and to others. (Though, to be sure, people are still snapping photos.)
And while Fred Sandback used acrylic yarn to stage subtle perceptual mysteries, Creed delivers more direct works like Work No. 88. A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995) or sculptures that consist of cactuses lined up in height order in a row or chairs or cardboard boxes stacked nimbly atop one another. Reality, in Creed’s estimation, is pretty strange and wonderful as it is, and so the diverse antics of his art serve as a means for underscoring, highlighting, and testing that belief. His art that feels wonderfully at home in the world. As Creed put it in a work that used to adorn Brown’s gallery: “the whole world + the work = the whole world”.
As you wander the coves and hallways of the Armory, a ragtag marching band may pass by—with a violinist, a flautist, a trumpeter, a percussionist, and a vocalist on a megaphone. They play a new Creed song, one that revels in procrastination, another in-between state. “I’m going to do something”—a long pause—“soon,” the leader sings through his megaphone. “I’m going to do something/very, very soon.” Of course, he is already doing it.