Martin Creed’s ‘What’s The Point of It?’

A review of sorts of Martin Creed’s ‘What’s The Point of It?’ at the Hayward Gallery

  • I feel a certain reluctance to retrospectively intellectualise, not to mention psychoanalyse, and yet here I am in a room dominated by a giant spinning sign that reads MOTHERS in bright white neon. It is tempting to say that Freud is the giant spinning neon elephant in the room, but to do so feels crude and unnecessary; it would overlook Martin Creed's interest in the experience of the body in space. So I won’t. Instead, I, like everyone else it seems, find myself repeatedly ducking under the swinging beam, starting at the edge, passed by blurred Ms and Ss only slightly overhead, before slowly being drawn to the middle, which somehow feels safer. There's no need to duck, really, but I do so anyway, such is the dominance it has on the space. I’m likewise powerless to resist my urge to risk a jump into its path, to enter its space, but only when it's safe.

  • It's the first day of half term and the children-to-adults ratio is roughly 1:1. The galleries are loud already: ticking metronomes, a self-slamming door, a man playing a piano. But this is accompanied and almost overcome by loud voices and the sound of small feet running. This is reassuring somehow; silence here would be unbearable.

  • Repetition and playfulness are the strongest themes here. And piles of things. Repetition, playfulness and piles of things. And colour.

  • There is something comforting about Creed's discomfort with hierarchy, with value judgements of his work. The subsequent numbering of his pieces are just a part of a methodology that defends itself from outside axiological interference. But how, then, does that affect a review if it is stripped of its arsenal of axiological adjectives? Is it possible to review his work without reducing it to what is essentially a list of things seen or experiences experienced? Or is that precisely what a review is?

  • Part of my reluctance to go to any lengths to intellectualise this exhibition comes from the responses I see to the work. Both adults and children seem to drop their guard and they become less self-conscious or concerned with how their responses might be perceived by others. Their reactions are unmediated, unreserved and kind of pure in the way that only a child’s reaction can be. A boy walks up to a row of cacti which have been arranged by height, the tallest of which towers over him. He says, out loud, to no one in particular, “the point of cactuses is that they're spiky.” Pleased with himself, but concerned he has gone unheard, he repeats himself, louder this time,“the point of cactuses is that they're spiky.”

  • There is a kind of joyful carelessness about the whole space and show that is difficult to communicate and even harder to summon retrospectively. Outside the gallery and across the footpaths that weave around the Southbank is a giant bed filled with elderly and heavily pajama’d men and women on display in a window of the Royal Festival Hall. My best guess is that it's a promotion for a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I think that's how I can best describe the feeling of the show: Willy Wonka-ish.

  • Outside on a sculpture terrace, past two sets of doors whose glass has been frosted so they are barely translucent and bears a sign that reads '18+ only', is a large video screen. Next to it are an elderly couple, their brows deeply furrowed. The man is reading from the exhibition guide, “Many of Creed's works,” he recites, in a deep monotone, “focus on ascent and descent; on going up and going down and the differences between them. The Black-and-white film, Work No. 1029 (2007-10), is a large-scale projection of an, err ... an erection ... in slow motion. Screened outside, against a backdrop of variously phallic buildings, a man's penis is shown gradually rising then collapsing with equal grandeur.” The woman has her head cocked to one side in thought and says, after a pause and with a straight face, “well, that's about the measure of it,” before they both wander back inside.

  • A list of things in the exhibition: a forest of coloured broccoli prints; a trio of unremarkable photographs of people smiling; an array of balls from various sports or games scattered on the ground; a pile of chairs; a pile of boxes; a metallic recess that I just can't help but stick my finger in to see how far it goes, and others do the same; breast-like protrusions from the wall (Freud again?); a very big dog and a very small dog.

  • To return to the subject of axiological concerns, regardless of what is said, or what judgements are made, by you or me, I find that people tend to vote with their feet. As such, children flock unashamedly and adults gather despite themselves around a speaker in the corner of the gallery which is playing a loop of someone making fart sounds with their mouth, presumably. One girl, taking it upon herself to speak for the crowd, acting as reviewer, as critic, exclaims confidently that “this is what we like”, before bursting into fits of laughter.

  • I cannot not mention the balloons in the room, the room filled with balloons (more officially known as Work No. 200 Half the air in a given space [1998]); and, claustrophobia or no claustrophobia, static electrical accumulation of hair or no static electrical accumulation of hair, it's a blast.

  • Before I arrived I read a review of the exhibition that referred to the penis in Work No. 1029 as "in various states of tumescence". Tumescence. Say it out loud; I find it an oddly satisfying word to annunciate. Tumescence. At the time of reading I thought it was an awkward choice of word, betraying the writer's discomfort at having to use the words ERECT and PENIS in close proximity. But now I think about it, I would describe the entire show as tumescent: filled, teeming even, with ideas and emotions – and also just kind of fun.

  • Cock, shit, ass, balls. The experience of the body in space. I'm unable to stay long with the films of sick and shit and upon leaving I am hit in the face with an awful smell but I convince myself that it's psychosomatic.