Martin Creed at Edinburgh Modern

In the middle of Edinburgh’s Modern One, a giddy crowd cram themselves into awkward seats. The room is cramped, and latecomers position themselves awkwardly along the wall as to avoid leaning against the paintings that hang there, awaiting the artist Martin Creed.

Until I saw Martin Creed in all his Doc Brown-ish exuberance, being the only Scot I’ve ever seen in a tweed three-piece and a colorful wool beanie that could swallow a watermelon, I imagined him to be a grim man who worked in existential platitudes and hard materials. The whimsical one-off music performance he gave on Thursday evening flipped that impression on its head. The uncomfortable room, the silly hat, the vexing appearance; it gradually became apparent that Creed was leading the audience through a series of perceptual traps, guiding them via song as they racked their brains trying to discern between joke, anecdote, and philosophical musing.

According to the internet, Martin Creed is best known for his ‘Work No. 227: the lights going on and off’, in which the lights in an empty room (not even an installation, mind you) flicker at five second intervals. This work won the Turner Prize in 2001, and Creed sold three versions to galleries for £45,000 apiece. Cue discussion of what is and isn’t art. I’ll simplify it for you: Creed claims to make art that interferes, that presents us with a small, temporary deviation from what is normally there, and thus interacts with us. Any argument to the contrary is, frankly, going to be far more boring. His work is whimsical, jutting from the scenery like a giraffe in Antarctica.

In his native Scotland, at least, Creed enjoys a more quiet fame for some truly iconic works. Any rail traveller in a hurry will know Creed’s 107 beautiful flavours of marble upon the Scotsman’s steps. Additionally, ‘Work No. 203: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’, adorning the Modern One gallery in brilliant neon lights, has become a bit of a mantra amongst Edinburgh’s students. It has even inspired a knock-off: a smaller neon phrase, the words that gave wisdom to Gandalf the wizard, sits at the corner of Cowgate and Robertson’s close.

Before he picked up a guitar to debut his newest song “Border Controls,” Creed chastised the audience for what they were about to do over the course of the hour: define him. “It’s not good to be clever because life is stupid,” he said. “You can’t outthink it. Life doesn’t think.” The hour passed in this way, with Creed sharing his musings and acting unabashedly silly. It was an intimate performance with little point, almost as if impromptu. The performance provoked more questions than it answered, and some audience members appeared visibly chafed that Creed wouldn’t take questions at the end. For all the indulgence, though, the best part of the evening came from the fact that Creed managed to bring to the audience the curious, personal sense of awe that accompanies all of his work.

Image: Brian Ferry.

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