Not on display
Work No.203: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT is a large word-based sculpture made in white neon consisting of a single line of unpunctuated text that reads ‘EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’. Thirteen metres in length and half a metre in height, the sculpture resembles large-scale commercial neon signage in its proportions. Work No.203 is consistently displayed well above head height across the façade of a building, in keeping with the conditions of its original installation as a temporary public art commission for the Clapton Portico in Hackney, east London.
In response to the commission from PEER (an art commissioning organisation whose activities focus on east London) together with the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust, Martin Creed devised Work No.203 to fill the entablature of the Portico’s neoclassical structure, which at the time was derelict (the building is now part of Clapton Girls’ Academy). The artist outsourced the production of the neon lettering to specialist lighting providers Neon Circus. Alongside the sculpture, PEER also commissioned Creed to produce three songs (Work No.207: I LIKE THINGS, Work No.208: NOTHING IS SOMETHING and Work No.209: I CAN’T MOVE) published on a CD titled ‘EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’, conceiving these parallel projects as a singular ‘exhibition which exists simultaneously in the public and private realm’ (http://www.peeruk.org/projects/creed/martin-creed.html, accessed 26 April 2014).
The text selected by Creed comments obliquely on the site’s history: built in 1825, the Portico was home to the London Orphan Asylum until a local typhoid epidemic required that the orphans be relocated. The building was then bought by The Salvation Army who used it as a training barracks, and painted the word ‘SALVATION’ onto the entablature in large white letters. After the charity moved out in 1970 the majority of the building was demolished, leaving only the Portico and wings standing in a disused state described by PEER as a visible sign of contemporary ‘social and economic hardship’ (Swenson 1999, unpaginated).
Placed within this particular context, the ambiguity of the phrase ‘everything is going to be alright’ – at once an optimistic assertion and a cliché betraying anxiety – is heightened, as the range of interpretations applied to Work No.203 demonstrates. While PEER described the neon text as ‘a positive and upbeat gesture’ (Swenson 1999, unpaginated), the artist Dave Beech, observing that ‘there has never been a worse time to decorate this place with the phrase’, concluded that ‘the neon says everything is going to be alright but the art is not so sure’ (Beech 1999, p.24). When questioned about the work’s meaning Creed reinforced its ambivalence, responding: ‘It means everything is going to be all right’ (Jonathan Jones, ‘What’s So Minimal about 15,000 Balloons?’, Observer, 14 March 1999, http://www.peeruk.org/projects/creed/press/mc-press3.html, accessed 26 April 2014). This open-endedness allows Work No.203 – Creed’s first work created for the public realm – to fulfil what the artist has described as a desire to ‘say hello’ through his art (Jones 1999), by prompting an active response from the viewer in trying to determine the statement’s meaning.
Work No.203 is Creed’s first work in neon, a material that he has subsequently used numerous times to illuminate other choice words and phrases including ‘DON’T WORRY’ (Tate AR01149), ‘BABIES’ and ‘FEELINGS’, realised on a variety of scales. As a raw material that, while present, cannot be seen, neon is appropriate to Creed’s work as a whole for it entertains, as one critic has put it, a ‘paradoxical desire to produce both something and nothing’ (Matthew Higgs, ‘Martin Creed 20 Questions’, in Creed 2010, p.xxvii), as seen in his inflated balloon installations, which fill rooms with air.
Although Work No.203 is a unique sculpture, its electrically illuminated phrase has formed the basis of a number of related works, each assigned its own number according to Creed’s ascending numerical naming system. A red neon text has appeared in New York’s Times Square (Work No.225 1999, commissioned by Public Art Fund), a thirty metre-long version was installed in Detroit (Work No.790 2007), and another text ran the length of the Rennie Collection’s façade in Vancouver’s Chinatown (Work No.851 2008), one of the country’s poorest districts. As site-specific sculptures, fabricated according to the dimensions of each setting, these neon statements take on slightly different inflections according to the circumstances of their display, veering, in the words of one critic, ‘between melancholia and exuberance’ (Jonathan Jones, ‘Let There Be Light’, Observer, 18 March 2000, http://www.peeruk.org/projects/creed/press/mc-press5.1.html, accessed 26 April 2014).
Ingrid Swenson, Martin Creed: Work No.203, Everything Is Going To Be Alright, exhibition catalogue, PEER UK, London 1999.
Dave Beech, ‘Reviews: Martin Creed’, Art Monthly, May 1999, p.24.
Martin Creed, Martin Creed: Works, London 2010.
Supported by Christie’s.