The best part of selecting Martin Creed for the MCA’s 2012 residency was that the work appeared to be so accessible—each object was composed of familiar, everyday materials arranged in unfamiliar yet logical ways. The residency format was also the perfect approach for the MCA to present his work: for the next twelve months we would place the works in unconventional places in the museum building, breaking with the logic of a traditional exhibition. Working in collaboration with Martin, we’d simply give the building over to his ideas and works.
Just weeks into the project, we realized that all the checklists and timelines we’d developed for the residency fell hard and fast in the wake of a series of unforeseen challenges. Who knew cacti can only be brought to the Midwest within a certain window of time? Since when did pigeons make it a habit to chase neon signs? The entire team had to react quickly and fluidly with newfound flexibility, challenging how we function as an institution. But it was also a time for experimentation, creative thinking, and some fun, novel solutions. Here are a few of the lessons the MCA learned during the 2012 residency:
1. Alternative projects need alternative interpretations.
Museums generally see their basic function as a place to exhibit artworks and to explain works to their audiences, but it’s not always the case that artists are super thrilled about how museums interpret their artworks. Martin Creed, for instance, resists using the word “art” in relation to his practice and specifically did not want traditional extended wall labels next to his work. Gasp—that’s 50% of our basic function! But that didn’t mean we had to be passive about interpretation and, after a series of conversations with Martin, we landed on the idea of having the artist himself speak to some of his ideas—recordings of which became the audio tour—and we also developed a residency newspaper. In the paper, we invited friends from Chicago (mostly non-museum people) to offer their thoughts about the work, as a way of talking around and about Martin’s work without explaining it away. Guess what? Martin loved it! And now we have a beautiful record of the residency to boot.
2. Make a plan, stick to it, and then be prepared to throw it out at a moment’s notice.
What better time to exhibit plants than in the spring when the earth is budding after the cold, hard Chicago winter? Little did we know that plants don’t like traveling through that cold, hard winter to get to Chicago in time for a spring debut. That and, well, it took about five tries to find a greenhouse that could provide thirteen different species of cactus in the right sizes and in duplicate (we needed back-ups). That was one of about six projects whose dates had to be switched because they presented a material or time challenge (I offer a free tour to anyone who can come in with a 40-penny nail within three days of this posting). But what we soon learned was that we could incorporate these surprises into the residency itself. Unlike a conventional exhibition, where everything is planned in advance and executed accordingly, we had to be organic in mounting and unveiling works as the time and materials allowed us.
3. You’re not an expert at everything.
So, it takes a few thousand more balloons to fill a space than we originally imagined—should we hire more interns with healthy lungs? Labor aside, we also didn’t realize beforehand that you simply can’t stuff a few thousand balloons into a space: the static will pop them all. Also, how do you control these unwieldy things? No, we can’t handle thousands of balloons at a time on our own, but we learned to lean on friends and partners to help when necessary. This is where experts such as the Northern Illinois Balloon Network, who’ve been doing exactly these sorts of things for years, come in handy. But we also learned to be creative about some things. When Martin called on as many people and institutions as possible to ring a bell at the start of the London 2012 Olympics, the MCA really wanted to participate but didn’t want to turn the building alarms on, scaring the neighborhood and the local fire department. We simply sent out a building-wide meeting reminder for that time (about 2 am CST) and asked everyone to keep their computers on and volume up. We got a great certificate of thanks from the Olympic festival committee!
— Nicole Catalano (@NicoleMarieSays) December 12, 2012
4. Sometimes the audience will tell you what the work is.
One of the funniest Creed works consists of placing a crumpled paper ball in every public space in the building. Firstly, this actually requires a special crumpling technique to make sure the paper stays in a perfect ball shape. Secondly, we never expected that this would become a profile test for visitor behavior. Some deeply concerned visitors picked up the balls and handed in the “trash” to the admissions desk! Less cautious visitors kicked the balls out of their set places. “Enterprising” visitors took the balls home. The most creative response was that of a visitor who took a sheet of paper from a Félix González-Torres work that is currently on view, crumpled it into a ball, and placed it next another crumpled paper ball. It was an inter-artist collaboration (or reinterpretation?) we could have never imagined. While we knew that Creed’s artwork was designed to “disrupt” the space, it was our audience who really made the work into something interactive and unanticipated. Generally, I don’t think I would be so charmed by these events—and I would like to underscore that a work in a museum should NOT be touched unless otherwise noted! But Creed’s wry sense of humor and work with humble materials allowed us to step back for a moment and look afresh at our audiences’ relationship with the building and understanding of what can constitute a work of art.
5. We can do things we didn’t know we could do.
Tuesdays on the Terrace is a warm-weather institution here where we present amazing jazz. So, when Martin decided to cut his first solo album and needed trained back-up singers, we looked right into our Rolodex and found two talented ladies who had performed here in the past. The MCA isn’t really in the business of producing albums, but we were able to galvanize and pull together the resources to make what Martin calls his best album yet.
What does it take to install a forty-foot sculpture on the MCA’s plaza? We didn’t quite know at the start of the residency but, in record time, we figured out how to rig the plaza with power, work with a specialized fabrication and programming crew from England, maneuver some massive shipping containers through international customs, and, of course, practice diplomacy with our ever-understanding neighbors who will live with the MOTHERS sign for some time. And what a gift it has been to the city. Sometimes, it takes a new project to awaken new skills.
On an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning last March here in Chicago, British artist Martin Creed set himself up for the week at Soma Studios, a renowned (in certain circles) recording studio on Division Street (next door to the Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village, as it happens) run by self-described “owner/engineer” John McEntire, to spend the week recording an EP. The resulting record, Chicago, was recently released by The Vinyl Factory, a British music label and actual vinyl factory: they are known for their high-quality vinyl produced on a Type 1400 press, which they inherited from the old EMI Records pressing plant in the west London suburb of Hayes (along with key staff from the plant to keep the machine running). Joining Creed from the UK was producer Andy Knowles, who, together with fellow Franz Ferdinand bandmate Nick McCarthy, forms the music production duo The Nice Nice Boys.
Soma has a certain legendary status not only due to the musicians who have chosen to record there (like David Grubbs, Jim O’Rourke, Radian, Red Krayola, Stereolab, Will Oldham, and famed local heroes Wilco) but also because McEntire himself is the drummer and multi-instrumentalist behind the Chicago bands Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, Gastr del Sol, and countless projects and collaborations of his own, not to mention the recording engineer and producer for albums by a number of the Soma guests listed above. Even though I only arrived in Chicago just over two years ago from London (via the Netherlands), I’ve followed McEntire’s work since the release of Tortoise’s seminal 1996 album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, an influential record for me at the time, on heavy rotation during my final year of graphic design undergraduate study in south London. Soma was therefore a slightly mythical place on my imaginary, pre-US-resident Chicago map, pinned on Google satellite view alongside such sites as the Newberry Library, Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at IIT, Myopic Books, and Sol Lewitt’s Bands in Four Directions (right here in the MCA’s back yard and visible from space).
Suffice it to say, for an EP titled Chicago, Creed was in as Chicago a joint as you could get. Add to that the record’s engineer Bill Skibbe (if not an actual Chicago legend, then at least a Midwestern one, with his equally famed [in certain circles] Benton Harbor, MI, recording studio The Key Club Recording Company, host to bands such as the Fiery Furnaces, Franz Ferdinand, and the Kills) and Creed’s backing singers for the week Dee Alexander and Yvonne Gage, who have worked with, among others, contentious Chicago cultural phenomenon R. Kelly, and you have, collectively, a rich psychogeographic map of Chicago and its hinterlands with streets converging at the corner of Division and Damen.
Creed was there, plugging in his guitar, testing the acoustics, in his capacity as MCA Chicago’s artist in residence for 2012. The result of his week at Soma was a recording—or, perhaps, a “work.” But what kind of work? An artwork? A piece of music? An art piece? If the record was the work, what were the four songs on that record? Pieces? If the songs are each considered discrete works, does that make the record an installation in which the works are housed? I suspect Creed himself doesn’t know. Or would say he doesn’t know. All of his works are titled as just that: Work. With a systematic number attached. The record we’re talking about is actually Work No. 1370. So it is indeed a work, with a capital W. But is it art or music? “I don’t know what art is,” Creed said to arts writer Charlotte Higgins last June, in a Guardian story on his Olympic project Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes. “Martin Creed’s bad music is good art,” said critic Alfred Hickling, in a prior Guardian article, describing Creed’s Work No. 955, an orchestral composition by the artist performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2008. “Music is art,” says The Vinyl Factory’s mission statement on the “About Us” section of their website.
Funnily enough, my own discovery of Creed was through his music, specifically the album Nothing by his former band Owada (you can still track down CD copies on Amazon for around 10 bucks), released one year after Millions Now Living Will Never Die in 1997, at which point I’d graduated with my bachelor’s degree and started my master’s at the Royal College of Art. Nothing was just as influential to me as that Tortoise album while I was starting to decide whether I should work as an artist or a designer. The record included an instant favorite, “Circle,” with its concise pop-history documentation of the 1960s conceptual art scene:
Stephen Willats thought that /
Art & Language were ripping him off /
Art & Language thought that /
Joseph Kosuth was ripping them off /
Joseph Kosuth thought that /
Lawrence Weiner was ripping him off / (etc.)
This was music and Owada was a band. A band that happened to have an artist as its singer/songwriter. Of course I later came across his neon typographic works (also appealing to a graphic design student) like EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, admired his deadpan, minimal 2001 Turner Prize–winning The lights going on and off , and my London studio even ended up being commissioned by Tate Britain to work on the design for Creed’s Work No. 850 project in 2008. This was definitely art and Creed was definitely an artist—an artist who was able to tell the Tate he wanted a continuous loop of runners sprinting down the Duveen Galleries every 30 seconds for four months, to which the Tate replied “OK” without batting an eyelid.
Perhaps we should forget the art or music question and just listen to Chicago (the work, Work No. 1370, not the city—or the band). Although here’s where I should mention a slight snag: We are unfortunately not allowed to stream it for you (and actually I have to admit that I haven’t even heard it myself yet). That’s because it’s only available for $288 in the very special form of a hand-painted record sleeve containing four all-analog Soma-recorded songs on 180 gram heavyweight vinyl in a limited edition of 200 from the MCA Store or The Vinyl Factory.
As a teenager, I have ambivalent feelings about MOTHERS. On one hand, the work is reminiscent of my mother hovering over me, constantly watching and never missing a thing. On the other hand, I’m glad to have someone who’s always here to take care of me. Either way this work pays a well-deserved tribute to our mothers and the all-encompassing role they played in our lives as children. On second thought, what if Martin is questioning our undying devotion to our mothers? What if he’s asking us if we can over-praise (if that’s even a word) or over-value our moms? What if he’s making a statement on how we all focus on the mother and not the father? (Compare Mother’s Day festivities to Father’s Day ones.) Maybe I’m overthinking it now. Maybe he just wanted to make a nice spinning sculpture.
In April, three Painting and Drawing MFA students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago enjoyed the unique opportunity to meet with Creed and serve as studio assistants in the creation of several painted works for the residency project. The students assisted in painting the album artwork for a special edition vinyl album Creed recorded while in Chicago as well as several canvases going on display at the MCA this year. Two of the students, Seth Hunter and Ceyda Aykan, share their experiences with Creed below.
Two students, Martin, and Martin’s assistant Rob, went for tea. Sitting for three and a half hours, we discussed: portraits not landscapes, smiling not frowning, sick film not well film, balloon work not raisin work, certified art not anonymous art, how children are smart and sneaky not how children are stupid and obvious, drinking too much not drinking too little, vomiting not eating, psychoanalysis not psycho-complacency, therapy not illness, TV not books, parents and children, being a little bad not being a little good. Two students, Martin, and Martin’s assistant Rob got up and went home.
I think the charm of Martin’s work is its communication with and directness to the viewer. It has playfulness and ambiguity in just the perfect amount to create some space for the viewer to breathe in and play with the work. Martin’s works possess a certain attitude, as if they just happened by themselves, as if they are just natural. When you look at them you don’t necessarily picture them being made, but rather like plants growing by themselves just with enough water and light.
This is not an easy feeling to capture or an easy task to accomplish. Whether it is a neon sign, a huge installation, or the entire surface of a wall covered with patterns, Martin’s work is never under- or overdone. It is always just enough. The work becomes almost transparent because the viewer is able to experience the idea and the playfulness of the process of creation itself.
In sans-serif neon caps a single-word marquee spells out the origin of us all. M-O-T-H-E-R-S spreads above the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s plaza on a steel pedestal that spins the letters high enough to keep anyone standing below from losing their heads but low enough to still feel dangerous. It’s the mother of all mothers monumentalized, and artist Martin Creed has said of Work No. 1357, MOTHERS that the size of the word is meant to reflect the ultimacy of the relationship as well as the physical scale of a baby in utero. Envisioned to inhabit a public space, MOTHERS is the amplified version of the pithy conceptual language Creed uses in his life and art. Unlike the smaller text in works like Work No. 845 (THINGS), the glowing characters, with their stark presence over the open space, feel ominous, as if declaring an unknown wrath in rhythmic rotations—have you cleaned your room, have you spoiled your appetite, have you called your mother today? In plural form the word is all-inclusive and anonymous: mothers are both yours and mine but not just yours and mine. The term envelops an archetype of a life-giving nurturer and elicits the psychological complexity of a relationship that begins even before the umbilical bond is severed. Even when they do not fit this ideal, the concept of a mother is something we return to—like soldiers dying on a battlefield, we cry out for them.
Creed acknowledges the sentimental strength of the word but recognizes looming maternal power as frequently being the most confounding and overbearing of familial relations. “Words are work,” he says. “Words are things, shapes.” Visceral associations and anecdotes must strike passersby when they catch sight of Creed’s big word. They must tear it apart: Mother ship, Motherland, Motherf**ker, Motherhood, MOTH, OTHERS, HERS. Something women are built to be. Something women shouldn’t have to be. Something I don’t want to be. A familiar word outlined and hollow, its letters framing the sky, with no easy answers despite the artist’s seeming straightforwardness. Like motherhood itself, art is a thing that is hard work.
As 2012 comes to close, so too does Martin Creed’s yearlong residency at the MCA. A lot of our visitors chose to share their experiences of Martin Creed’s work on the web so we’ve selected some of our favorite responses to include here. Though we couldn’t include everything we loved, we tried to. Logically some works attracted more attention than others (say, the huge neon sign rotating on our plaza) so not all of Martin Creed’s pieces are represented. The following tweets are in roughly chronological order, beginning with the most recent. If you have a good photo you’d like to share with us, please leave a comment below, or let us know on Twitter or Instagram, @mcachicago.
This is the 3rd ball of paper I’ve seen @mcachicago today w/o reference on object labels. is someone playing a prank?
— Nicole Catalano (@NicoleMarieSays) December 12, 2012
— Nicole Catalano (@NicoleMarieSays) December 12, 2012
OK. THE PAPER WAS A THING. I CAN’T DECIDE IF I FEEL DULL OR CLEVER ABOUT ALL OF THIS. @mcachicago Courtesy of artist Martin Creed.
— Nicole Catalano (@NicoleMarieSays) December 12, 2012
— drew_in_chicago (@drew_in_chicago) November 2, 2012
— Daniel Craig Kittaka (@danielkittaka) December 8, 2012
— 701 CCA (@701CCA) November 2, 2012
— Jon (@gayforsatan) November 30, 2012
MCA is making me question life… And art. What is art? How does it relate to my life?
— Adam Burba (@adamburba) November 16, 2012
— Drew Blau (@drewlblau) October 24, 2012
— Tyler Blackwell (@TylerBlackwell) October 25, 2012
— nicole forester (@nicoleforester) November 27, 2012
— John Laning (@JohnLaning) September 12, 2012
For this issue’s installment of visitor comments, we asked vendors and passersby at our Tuesday Farmers’ Market for their reactions to MOTHERS.
“What’s neat is it generates a lot of ideas and questions, which is what art is supposed to do.”
“I think of plants and food because I’m growing things, and everything comes from the mother.”
“Why does it say mothers? Why not fathers? Both parents are special.”
“I saw a couple of mothers pointing at it with their babies, which is cool. Good picture opportunity.”
“I did not think it would look like that. I saw it going up last week. But it’s cool.”
“Definitely not what I expected. It’s kind of random that it just says ‘mothers.’”
“It’s pretty awesome. It’s really orderly out here, but the rust of the sign takes you to another place.”
“I don’t know what to think. What does it do? It turns around. I don’t get paid to turn around.”
“How heavy is it? Is that support sufficient?”
“I do like it, but I have no idea what it might mean or imply. But aesthetically, I like it.”
“Can’t go wrong with a theme like mothers.”
“I think it’s kind of cool, especially when it’s moving, but what does
“Why only mothers? Why not women in general?”
“I like it because I’m pregnant. Baby is on the mind.”
“My first thought was, ‘Hey! I’m one!’”
“It’s a very strong statement.”
“I mean . . . it’s just plain cool.”
“The piece is very applicable to us. We’re on a mothers’ getaway weekend.”
“I appreciate the kinetic aspect of the piece.”
“Honor your mother!”
“Where’d they get the beams to make sure it’s structurally sound?”
“I didn’t understand it at first and I still don’t. You know, like, why does it rest on that pedestal? Things like that.”
“Mothers make the world go around.”
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?
The United Kingdom’s most prestigious art prize, the Turner Prize, was awarded yesterday. Congratulations to Elizabeth Price, who won the award.
In 2001, Martin Creed won the Turner Prize with the work shown below. We thought the occasion of the 2012 prize would be the perfect time to share this slightly hard-to-find video with you, plus a couple other of Martin Creed’s well-known works.
Martin Creed. Work No. 227, The Lights Going On And Off, 2000. In the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, learn more.
Martin Creed. Work No. 850 at Tate Britain.
We also thought our audience might like to see this video of Martin Creed’s installation at Hauser and Wirth, since a number of these works have made appearances at the MCA.