Half the air in a given space

The Year of Magical Thinking


Posted January 15, 2013


Martin Creed
Work No. 798 (2007) and Work No. 1349 (2012)
Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York
Installation view, Martin Creed Plays Chicago, MCA Chicago, 2012

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.

Easy, right?

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.


Martin Creed: Work No. 960, 2008. Cactus plants. 13 parts, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York. Installation view, Martin Creed Plays Chicago, MCA Chicago, 2012. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

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!


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.


Martin Creed
Work No. 204, Half the air in a given space, 1999
Red balloons
Multiple parts, each balloon 16 in. diameter; overall dimensions variable
Installation view, City Gallery, Historic Water Tower, Chicago, 2012
Collection of Amy Hokin and Thomas Hokin
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Please join us today until 6 pm for the final day of Martin Creed’s Half the air in a given space in the City Gallery at Historic Water Tower.

Directions and more information.


Martin Creed
Work No. 204, Half the air in a given space, 1999
Red balloons
Multiple parts, each balloon 16 in. diameter; overall dimensions variable
Installation view, City Gallery, Historic Water Tower, Chicago, 2012
Collection of Amy Hokin and Thomas Hokin
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

It is the last week to see the final Martin Creed balloon installation, Work No. 204, Half the air in a given space currently on view in the City Gallery at Historic Water Tower. Visit this popular and fun exhibition before it closes on October 25.

Please note that the installation will be closed during inclement weather, such as rain. Follow the MCA’s Twitter account (@mcachicago) for live updates of the status of the exhibition, or call 312.280.2660. 


Martin Creed. Work No. 268, Half the air in a given space, 2000. Black balloons . Multiple parts, each balloon 16 in. diameter; overall dimensions variable. Installation view, 1113 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, 2012. Collection of Karen and Andy Stillpass.
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Please join us this evening at 1113 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. from 5–9 pm for the final night of Martin Creed’s balloon installation Half the air in a given space, open specially on the occasion of the Spotlight on Edgewater Arts Showcase.

When I heard that Martin Creed’s Half the air in a given space would be installed at the Garfield Park Conservatory, I jumped at the chance to work as a “balloon wrangler.” The Conservatory has long been one of my favorite places in Chicago, and the prospect of slingin’ some art while in the midst of flowers exotic and local . . . no brainer, right? The audience response at the Conservatory was varied. Many people seemed to think the piece, a room half-filled with balloons, was only for children, or even a children’s playroom. This was partially due to the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike that went on for two of the weeks that the installation was up, but nonetheless waves of children with parents on impromptu field trips made a happy discovery. There were times, after successive trammelings, when the balloons got very low, drastically changing the dynamic of the space.

One day, an avuncular old man sat across from us and began to pepper us with factoids about plants and the Conservatory: “Before the Chihuly exhibit [there was a lot of Chihuly chatter] almost nobody came to the Conservatory,” “Did you know that poinsettia were named for the US’s first ambassador to Mexico? They grow wild down there,” “Did you know that a woman has all of the eggs that she will ever have in her life, by the age of 13?” Ok, that was a weird one, but it was said. He kept repeating “check the Internet, you can find it on the Internet, I didn’t find it on the Internet, but it’s there.” He was a joy to be around.

On another day a young man came in with a DV camera and asked to film the balloons. I said, “Of course.” After a long time in the work, he talked with me excitedly about it, called his friends to come check it out, and, before leaving, went up to the security guard and asked, “Hey I know this neighborhood’s reputation, and I was wondering what might be a good area to go check out, to film like wasteland type areas and urban blight, you know? Like Detroit.”

Hoosh! I guess at some point it’s in the culture, this eavesdropping, snooping-out of meaning, or simply the exoticism of the abstracted landscape, the “danger zone.” I sensed a familiar naïveté about the city from this young man and this is what I like about the Creed project: its messy engagement with other spaces in the metropolis and the variant responses that are forced from this reach. Who knows, maybe this John Waters, Jr. captured some insightful, groundbreaking new footage on his voyage. Or maybe he catalogued one more undergraduate’s pixelpoem to “heaviness,” “realness,” and himself. The room could be half-empty or half-full.

Entering the sea of balloons from Martin Creed’s Work No. 1190, Half the air in a given space (2011) was not at all like I expected. As the Social Media Coordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago I had already seen a number of pictures of smiling, laughing people posted on Twitter, so I hitched a ride with another staff member to see the artwork that everyone was enjoying firsthand.

It being a Monday morning it was peaceful at the Hyde Park Art Center, and I was ushered into the balloon gallery alone. Immediately I had some reservations, along with a bemused smile. Balloons quickly and completely envelop you—that’s part of the fun, but it’s also disorientating. Your attention is immediately drawn to your physical being. Even as your senses are hindered by balloons, they seem to be at their height as you attempt to negotiate a path through the balloons. I imagine the feeling is something like a sensory-deprivation chamber; your faculties are paradoxically heightened as they are impeded. Your sight is compromised by balloons, reduced to only a couple of feet immediately in front of you, peripheral vision is cut off entirely. Your nose is filled with the smell of latex (allergic visitors please beware). That day the room was silent, interrupted only by loud squeaks of balloons on balloons as I attempted to move, which once again drew my attention to my bodily movement through the space.

This is a dimension of the serious side of Martin Creed’s very playful and fun artwork—its ability to bring your attention to the space you inhabit every day, but perhaps do not always notice: your body. You could write this work off as too crowd-pleasing, not “serious” enough, but that would miss what the artist is trying to show you about yourself.

View Martin Creed Plays Chicago in a larger map

As part of Martin Creed’s yearlong residency at the MCA, the museum has partnered with Chicago venues to present Creed’s Half the air in a given space—an installation that fills half of a room with balloons. With this work, Creed gives tangible form to something that’s usually invisible: the air around you. This artwork is meant to be enjoyed as you walk through it and not just viewed from outside.

The first presentation is at Hyde Park Art Center and can be experienced Tuesday through Sunday, 12 pm to 5 pm. Additional venues for this project are planned, check back for more information as it becomes available.