Martin Creed

Work No. 232: the whole world + the work = the whole world


Martin Creed born 1968
Neon lights and metal
Unconfirmed: 500 x 15500 mm
Presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) 2001


This sculpture was commissioned as part of a programme of exhibitions in 2000 to mark the transformation of the Tate Gallery of British Art into Tate Britain. The equation ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’ was rendered in lower-case white neon letters and installed in March 2000 across the blank pediment of Tate Britain’s neo-classical façade which is over fifteen metres wide and determined the dimensions of the installation (50 x 1550cm). The artist has specified that if it is installed in a different environment the individual neon units may be broken up in which case its dimensions may vary according the space in which it is displayed. Creed first used the equation ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’ in Work No. 143: the whole world + the work = the whole world, 1996 (courtesy the artist), when he wrote it in ink on paper.

Creed’s titles always begin with an inventory number for the artwork. Although this gives the appearance of a systematic archival approach to his work, he misses out as many numbers in the sequence as he uses – about half the numbers between 1 and 232 have been missed out. After the ‘Work No.’ there is always a description of the piece written in lowercase. This usually includes an object and a context for it, and often an action upon that object, for example Work No. 115: a doorstop fixed to a floor to let a door open only 45 degrees, 1995 (Private collection), and Work No. 227: the lights going on and off, 2001 (Private Collection), which was installed at Tate Britain for the Turner Prize (which he won) in 2001. Each piece explains itself in such a way that is appears precise by listing the materials, actions, and contexts. Other variables, however, that might come into consideration remain open-ended and are dependent upon the conditions in which it is exhibited. Anyone may follow the instructions laid out in the title, and most of the materials are readily available and a familiar part of everyday life. As an intervention into everyday life which reorders already existing phenomena, Creed’s work recalls one of Tate’s most notorious acquisitions, the rectangular brick sculpture Equivalent VIII, 1966 (Tate T01534), by American minimalist sculptor Carl Andre (born 1935). Creed is also a musician and his songs and artworks follow the ‘do-it-yourself’ ethos of punk by keeping things as simple as possible.

Although Work No. 232: the whole world + the work = the whole world identifies a context (‘the whole world’) and a thing (‘the work’), it broadens the scope of Creed’s approach by shifting the emphasis from a literal description of its own structure to an abstract philosophical proposition. Like many British artists who emerged in the 1990s, Creed’s work echoes the strategies initiated in the 1960s by such Conceptual artists as Lawrence Weiner (born 1942) and Joseph Kosuth (born 1945). Weiner’s works, such as Cat.#82: An Accumulation Of Sufficient Abrasion To Remove Enough of an Opaque Surface to Let Light Through With More Intensity, 1981 (Collection The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), are always titled with a catalogue number followed by a description of an action. Initially Weiner enacted his ‘statements’ to produce sculptures. Since the late-1960s, however, the statements have been presented as dead-pan, modular linguistic propositions painted on the gallery walls that describe and action the viewer has to imagine.

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 Buck, p.111). This involves keeping both options available, like having the lights on then off, or the door simultaneously half open and half closed. In much the same way, his Work No. 232 presents this indecision as two options bound into an equation that can never be solved. Although the piece has been interpreted by critics both as a positive statement of the inclusiveness of art, and a negative statement of art’s irrelevance, it is neither. It can never express an opinion because it is a tautology – a statement that is irrefutable because its internal logic covers all possible conclusions. The artist has said about his work that ‘I find it a lot easier if it negates itself at the same time as pushing itself forward – so there’s an equal positive and negative which adds up to nothing, but at the same time is something too’ (quoted in Buck, p.111). While none of the conclusions can be false, none can be true. The meaning of the work is caught in a loop which feeds back into itself and continually frustrates all attempts to give it a fixed meaning. By placing the sculpture on the façade of Tate Britain Creed highlights the ambivalent position of art within society.

Further Reading:

Louisa Buck, ‘Martin Creed,’ Artforum, vol.38, no.6, February 2000, pp.110-1

Martin Creed: Works, exhibition catalogue, Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton 2000

Intelligence: New British Art 2000, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2000, reproduced (colour) p.108

Ben Borthwick
February 2003

Display caption

Originally made for the entrance of Tate Britain, this neon wall sculpture presents a text in the form of an equation. While the use of an equation suggests a definitive formula, Creed’s words remains ambiguous. It has been interpreted as both a positive statement about the inclusiveness of art, and a negative statement about art’s irrelevance. ‘I find it a lot easier if it negates itself at the same time as pushing itself forward – so there’s an equal positive and negative which adds up to nothing, but at the same time is something too,’ the artist has said.

Gallery label, December 2016

Film and audio


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