When Martin Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001, at the age of 33, the tabloids railed—and art critics raved—at his installation of lights flickering on and off in an empty gallery. Lately, the recalcitrant Briton has left the white box altogether, reaching art audiences through a partially improvised combination of music, theater, dance, and talk known as Martin Creed’s Variety Show. With the help of the Public Art Fund, he’ll be performing it at the Abrons Arts Center this week. Creed spoke to Karen Rosenberg.
What, exactly, are you doing with this show?
Parts of it are improvised. I’m working on new songs all the time, so I try them out—trying to think out loud, really. It comes from doing talks about my work, showing slides and talking about them, and thinking that the slides seemed a bit pointless. So I started doing talks without any slides.
People have compared you with John Cage, who once said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
It’s funny, because I’d never name Cage. He’s someone who’s very important to me, but probably more his writings, his lectures. I’m a big Mozart fan, a big Beethoven fan, a big Bob Dylan fan. Probably I’d choose a song by Johnny Cash, or Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, which I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Beethoven and Johnny Cash have a lot in common—they’re both really solid, kind of simple.
Let’s talk about your piece Work No. 227, the Lights Going On and Off, which is up now at MoMA. It’s certainly met with strong reactions.
One angry person [at the Tate] threw an egg at it. I don’t think he knew where to throw the egg, because there was nothing to attack. So he threw it at the wall. For me, the lights going on and off comes from music—it was a conscious experiment, trying to make a visual piece that was more like music. Sound always takes the shape of the space that it’s in. Also, I think of art galleries as theaters in which the audience is coming and going as they please and the artwork is static. In a traditional theater, it’s the other way around. That’s a big difference, and I think about it a lot.
In 2001, you won the Turner Prize. There’s nothing quite like it here, in terms of general media attention. How did your life change?
I loved all the press attention the Turner Prize gets— taxi drivers know about it. For a couple of years, I noticed that I would be invited to more of a certain type of show, but less to shows by young curators—if you win, you’re no longer “emerging.” In a way, the art world gets along fine on its own, and the prize is more about reaching out to the mainstream.
It can’t get much more mainstream than having Madonna present you with an award.
It was great. She said I had a nice coat. Which I did. I said she had a nice coat, too, but that’s because I couldn’t think of anything to say.