Karsten Lund is a Curatorial Assistant at MCA Chicago.
Martin Creed likes to count or he feels an urge to run the numbers. Some of his pop songs are basically a progression of numbers wrapped around some little sentiment (“I’m the one for you/ I’m your two”). He even assigns each of his works a number but only rarely gives one a descriptive title. In this same spirit I’d like to share thirteen thoughts for thirteen cacti, some brief notes on Creed’s Work No. 960, on view in the MCA lobby.
1. Martin Creed likes things. That’s been evident from the start when he installed a neon sign last January that spells out that very word in colored letters (Work No. 845), THINGS. On a basic level a cactus is just another thing itself—another object not so different from the stuff you might find in your desk drawer, or the table you put next to the couch. (If you forget everything you know, most artworks are just more things, too.)
2. But where do these things come from? Chicago isn’t cactus country. These plants are desert dwellers. Finding them here is a bit like seeing a band of strangers walk into town. (“You’re not from around here,” the old saying goes.) Creed enjoys a surprising or amusing shift of context, the small thrill or confusion of discovering something out of place. See also all the crumpled paper balls scattered throughout the rooms of the museum (Work No. 190), or rooms half filled with balloons.
3. This set of cacti amounts to another version of one of Creed’s favorite motifs: a progression of shapes, steadily getting larger and rising up in the air. Each cactus is taller than the last, and they’re lined up in order. You also see this kind of thing in many of Creed’s small paintings and in his stack of cardboard boxes (Work No. 916).
4. The artist is imposing a sense of order on a world that’s usually a lot more disorderly, even seemingly illogical at times. You’d never find thirteen cacti growing in a straight line in the desert, and certainly not with the shortest plant on one end and the tallest on the other. The effect is pleasing, but also quite absurd.
5. Numbers and patterns aside, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize the cacti in this work—to see them as stand-ins for people, especially since some of the plants are the height of a person. This artwork is like a police lineup (pick out the culprit), or a group of sullen kids standing side by side, in order of their height, for a family portrait.
6. This work operates on a sense of commonality and difference, fundamental similarities but also variation. We recognize all thirteen plants as the same kind of thing, but in fact, none of them are the same species or look exactly like one another. One is fuzzy, as if wearing a sweater, another is spiny like a porcupine, but all of them are cacti.
7. There is a tension between perfection and imperfection here, between a rigorous sense of geometry, or a set of fixed parameters, and slightly looser results. These thirteen cacti are arranged in a regimented way, but some of the taller plants curve slightly; none of them are really perfectly straight. The same goes for the wall mural across the lobby (Work No. 1349), a perfect pattern made of squares with wavering edges.
8. When the famed exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (curated by Harold Szeeman at the Kunsthalle Bern) went on tour, the artist Ger Van Elk was invited to create a new piece. As Barry Barker describes, Van Elk traveled to London to “shave a cactus, which was filmed and then placed forlornly on a low brick wall in the gallery [The Well Shaven Cactus, 1969].” Creed has a different idea: he doesn’t want to do anything to his cactus at all. He only wants it to show up, just as it is.
9. Creed relocated the set of cacti to the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater as the backdrop for his multimedia ballet performance (Work No. 1020). At one point during the performance a matter-of-fact video of a man’s erection plays on the screen behind the dancers. The cacti are obviously phallic forms, too, but this aspect is treated as another nonchalant fact, deadpan, just another question of common forms (though maybe still a little tongue-in-cheek).
10. Work No. 960 splits the difference between banality and wonder. Creed’s works are often not elaborate in form or virtuosic in execution. Instead, they favor everyday materials and basic rules. You might not even notice one of these works. Then again, it might just stop you in your tracks. A line of thirteen cacti is a good example: it’s like something you might come across in your life, only a little better.
11. In the end, maybe this work is about those basic rules, which in theory anyone could follow—a work in the spirit of Fluxus, perhaps. All you need in this case are thirteen cacti, each one of a different species, each one just a little taller than the one before it. This turns out to be trickier than it looks. Behind the scenes, these different heights are hard to come by. It turns out succulent growers are a protective lot. Most commercial cacti come from California and there’s always the risk of having trouble moving cacti across state lines.
12. Thirteen cacti—some of them taller than me—are easy to admire. Maybe this artwork is exactly what it looks like, and we can leave it at that.
13. I’m out of ideas. Then again, maybe that wasn’t the best place to start. The artist himself says you can’t have ideas without feelings. He implies the latter might be the more important thing in the end. So, the question is, how does this work make you feel? And then what do you see?