Martin Creed’s Work No. 960 2008 comprises a row of thirteen, neatly lined-up live cacti, each in a terracotta plant pot placed directly on the floor. Each plant is a different variety of cactus and they are arranged in order of height, from the smallest Lasiocereus rupicolus to the tallest Vatricana guntheri. New plants are required each time the work is displayed. Their arrangement – methodical and almost pseudo-scientific in its presentation – articulates a desire to organise and calibrate that is a recurring theme in Creed’s work. The expectation is that the cacti are bought for each display.
The way in which Creed has taken an ostensibly unremarkable group of objects and has presented them in an unexpected way, thereby making strange our encounter with the commonplace, is typical of his practice. Indeed, it could be argued that for over two decades, Creed’s entire body of work has emerged from an ongoing series of investigations into commonplace phenomena. His subtle interventions reintroduce us to elements of the everyday, as in Work No. 227: The lights going on and off 2000 (Tate T13868) which consists of the lights turning on and off in an empty room. Creed’s choice and use of materials – plain A4 sheets of paper, Blu-tack, masking tape, party balloons, simple or ‘unpoetic’ language as text or as lyrics to songs – is a thoughtful celebration of the ordinary, a focused reading of the ambiguity of stuff. Creed’s works are identified primarily by numbers, with each piece added to his inventory having equal status, regardless of its size, or what it is made of.
Creed has said ‘I find that it’s difficult to choose, to decide that one thing’s more important than the other ... So what I try and do is to choose without having to make decisions’ (quoted in Louisa Buck, ‘Martin Creed,’ Artforum, vol.38, no.6, February 2000, p.111). His idiosyncratic approach is born out of acute indecision and a playful concern with the conundrum of wanting both to make something and nothing: ‘the problem was to attempt to establish, amongst other things, what material something could be, what shape something could be, what size something could be, how something could be constructed, how something could be situated … how many of something there could be, or should be, if any, if at all.’ (Quoted in Virginia Button, The Turner Prize: Twenty Years, London 2003, p.172.) His interrogation of his own motives reveals an anxiety about ‘making something extra for the world’ (ibid.). The economy of means of Work No.960 is an example of Creed’s attempts to make work with minimal physical intervention.
Creed’s tendency to work serially and to impose an almost ostentatious ordering of his chosen objects is, for critic Jonathan Watkins, essentially concerned with the human condition and a deep-seated yearning to make sense of the chaotic flux of human experience: ‘His frequent use of readymades and regularity conveys fascination with our ways of navigation through life rather than generalised observations on ways in which the world works. The impulse to organise things … is about resisting chaos and making sense of what happens to us personally.’ (Jonathan Watkins, ‘Shit, Sex and Shit’, in Ikon Gallery 2008, p.13.)
Martin Creed, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2008.
Martin Creed: What’s the Point of it?, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2014.