Martin Creed @ the Hayward Gallery

This is a brilliant, must-see show, full of laughter and delight.

Minimalist biography

Martin Creed was born in 1968 in Wakefield but moved to Glasgow where he grew up, before studying art at the Slade from 1986-90. He is reluctant to be called an artist or for his work to be called art. He prefers ‘interventions’ (rather as Richard Deacon prefers to be called a ‘fabricator’).

Martin Creed Self portrait smiling #299

Martin Creed Self portrait smiling #299

Numbering the works

Early in his career he abandoned naming works, instead giving them numbers. He’s well into the 2000s now. Both these gestures indicate a refusal to be dictated to by Art’s grand traditions. Creed wants to evade the rhetorical and meaningful and slip in the sly and unexpected and witty and disconcerting.

I literally jumped when the hidden loudspeaker outside the loo suddenly emitted a laugh (#412). I wasn’t expecting there to be a work in the lift, where a harmonica plays a simple descending scale as the lift goes down – or an ascending one as the lift goes up 🙂

The Turner Prize 2001

Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001 with an empty room in which a light switched on – then off – then on etc. (Work number 227 the lights going on and off). A version of that work was here at the Hayward, though the space in question was a big exhibition room filled with other works. I suspect a completely empty room would be best. Imagine standing in completely empty aircraft hangar, and the lights going on for 5 seconds – and then off into pitch black for 5 seconds. Then on again. Forever. As you stroll along the next room looking at acrylic paintings fixed to the wall, you come to a door which is just… opening and closing (work #129).

Some works

The on and off theme was echoed in #990, a pair of curtains opening and closing across one of the long wide observation windows at the top of the gallery. Being wide windows it took the curtains a fair few seconds to close and then immediately open and, if you stopped and focused, it became quite hypnotic, and also lent a new interest to the otherwise dull view across Waterloo Bridge to the grey National theatre.

On one of the three outdoor sculpture platforms was a complete Ford Focus in a work pithily titled Ford Focus (#1686). Every few seconds the doors, boot and bonnet opened, the lights went on and the radio went on (tuned, tellingly I thought, to Radio 4). For a few seconds. Then they all closed. As if the car came to life for a few moments… again and again…

  • #112 39 metronomes beating at every possible speed, permanently, lined up along the wall
  • #299 self-portrait smiling, in all his gawky art studentness (2003)
  • #293 sheet of paper crumpled into a ball (2003)
  • #1092 MOTHERS a vast fluorescent sign reading MOTHERS, as a hoarding 12 and a half metres long, which fills the first room in the Hayward and swings round on its axis like an advertising sign
  • in the toilet was a set of tiles stuck over one of the existing tiles until it made a cube of tiles
  • at the end of the second room was a loudspeaker with the repeated sound of someone blowing a raspberry #401
  • in the big room upstairs were a set of works all using I beams or steel girders piled on each other
  • and the piled on top of each other theme continued with office desks of diminishing size atop each other – a set of ever-smaller cardboard boxes piled on each other – wooden planks of diminishing thinness
  • #1812 out on the third sculpture platform was a wall about 20 foot high, made of bricks – but each course was made of one colour and the entire wall used every colour of brick which is available
  • the idea of testing out everything available also applies to #1000 which is a massive wall covered in prints of broccoli (touch of the Warhols) printed in every colour he could find (there must be more, but this is an impressive start!)


For all the critics who accused Creed of helping kill off painting when he won the Turner prize with such a minimalist/conceptual work, there is ironic rebuttal in the form of scores and scores of paintings, from portraits and self-portraits, abstract works in oil and acrylic, to the enormous works where he has covered entire walls of the Hayward with orange lozenges or multi-coloured stripes.

At first I paid close attention to each one eg #1497 portrait of Luciana, an almost abstract portrait sized work decorated with brown tape. But quite quickly they became very samey – this page on Creed’s website shows a selection – crosses, squares of different shapes, parallel bars, or portraits of various degrees of realism or abstraction. They all lacked the crispness, the definition, of something like sheet of A4 paper crumpled up or the very simple Lego tower #792 or the 2.5cm squares of elastoplast stuck on top of each other until they make a 2.5cm cube (#78)!


There were four or five videos scattered through the show: #1090 Thinking/Not Thinking features a chihuahua and a wolfhound, the smallest and the largest breeds of dog, trotting across a white background to the accompaniment of Creed’s band.

A man sits on a pavement and pulls himself backwards across a road by his fists – You Return #1701 (2013). Outside on one of the three sculpture platforms was a large ad display screen such as you get in Piccadilly Circus showing in black and white, close-up profile, a man’s penis (#1094) very slowly rising and then just as slowly falling.

In a darkened room run three videos, two of people puking, one of a woman pooing. The puking I couldn’t watch, it was quite soon after breakfast. But the pooing I found enchanting. A young Chinese (?) woman walks on screen, squat, pulls down her pants and then… oh the suspense, nothing happens for a minute and then… a few premonitory drops of poo and then… a large and satisfying squidge of poo is very satisfyingly excreted onto the white studio floor, before the woman pulls up her pants, pats down her skirt, and strolls off happy. Leaving us to contemplate her work of art!

Is this all art is? Freud thought so. Everything we make originates in this primal ur-act, where we first learn to control the interaction between inside and outside. Creed’s works are dazzling, inventive and wonderfully funny variations on the act of creation.

Related links

Press reviews

Other Hayward Gallery reviews

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