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Martin Creed: Scales opens at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Martin Creed performing Work No. 1020. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

By: Kelly Taxter

RIDGEFIELD, CONN.- Visual artist, composer, musician, performer, and choreographer, the multifarious activities of Martin Creed are contextualized as artworks, yet he resists that definition; rather, he catalogues his output by a simple taxonomy: a number followed by a descriptive title. Since the initial Work No. 3, Yellow painting (1996), the intervening seventeen years have seen the accumulation of nearly two thousand works, including Work No. 1652 (2013), a Victorian-era upright piano whose lid mechanically opens and then drops closed. The abrupt, loud slam causes the simultaneous resonance of every key, an atonal drone that slowly fades until the movement repeats. What might be considered music in this work is as much tied to the object’s inherent qualities as to an incremental, relative, and nimble exercise in classification. Michelangelo, master of the High Renaissance and progenitor of the multi-hyphenate, is supposed to have said that the sculpture was inside the marble and it was just a matter of finding it. Creed often refers to this anecdote as “a nice way to think about working—finding it, not making it.” Scales assumes this exploratory methodology, finding music both sonorously and conceptually in the most obvious and least likely of ways, in works in paint, ink, sculpture, and video.

I don’t know what I want
I don’t know what I think
I don’t know what I see
I don’t know what I feel
You know?

Work No. 320, I don’t know what I want (2003–04)

A ballad to indecision and an ode to neurotic paralysis, these achingly direct lyrics echo throughout Creed’s works. This unresolved state renders the artist’s approach like that of a ravenous record collector, more completist than selective. For example, Work No. 227, The lights going on and off (2005), presents both sides of a binary, acknowledging that one cannot exist without the other.

A mechanism integrated into the Museum’s electrical circuits switches the lights in South Gallery on and off every five seconds. This interval, long enough to feel the difference between light and dark but too short to grow accustomed to either condition, creates a temporal and fleeting art experience. The lights going on and off is not affixed to a wall or placed on the floor, it behaves more like music, hanging in the air and moving in all directions, made in real time in front of the viewer. The flickering light spills out of both entrances to the space, leaking across the mezzanine that connects the two sides of the Museum and out into the passageway towards the Balcony Gallery. Presented anywhere that can accommodate its technology, the work is created by an electrician who follows instructions, like a musician following a score.

The most critical element is the rhythm between light and dark. Carefully considering the dimensions of the gallery, the artist determined that five seconds was just enough time for viewers to experience both states before passing through the room; if the interval were too long, the event might be altogether missed. This scientifically rigorous approach is characteristic of Creed’s process, wherein parameters are gathered, data is compartmentalized, and the object of his inquiry is subjected to a variable—in this case a room blanketed in five seconds of darkness and five seconds of light—to observe how something seemingly so minor might generate such major effects.

This process takes a more maniacal turn beneath the stuttering lights, where Work No. 189, Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed (1998), occupies the floor.

The petite, pyramid-shaped wooden structures each beat one of a possible thirty-nine time signatures, resulting in an aurally chaotic click-clack. Aligned parallel to the gallery’s longest wall, the arrangement is determined by placing one metronome at the center of the wall, pulled out into the room at a distance equal to one half of the object’s depth. The remaining thirty-eight are spread out to the left and right, at intervals equal to the width of one metronome. From this low-lying vantage, a multitude of hand-wound arms swing back and forth in disunion, their beats rendered incoherent by the din. Some devices will wind down before the others, eliciting a metaphorical endurance test imbued with the weight of life passing.

One Two Three Four
One Two Three Four
One Two Three Four
One Two Three Four

Work No. 118, 1234, (1995)

A thirty-six-second song about a band getting in sync and never falling out, 1234’s counting off never develops further. The work stops at the beginning, a point Creed says is his favorite moment in a piece of music, “Everything sounds good at the start. It’s exciting. It’s like a relationship: it’s easy at the start, but it’s hard to go on, and it’s very difficult to finish.” Endings—mute, lacking the questions, complications and excitement that riddle the working process—are difficult for Creed.

Two beginnings hang in Scales in the form of scores. An ink drawing of two half-beat middle Cs, Work No. 138, A love duet (1996), is to be played fast and loudly, on both the treble and bass clefs at once. Similarly, Work No. 101, For pianoforte (1996), is of two full-beat middle Cs, to be played at a moderate tempo, very loudly or very softly, on both clefs at once. These renderings of simple, harmonious and potentially infinite meetings carry a romantic tone, a desire for what might be. Creed seems to seek out and hold onto potential, when things are fresh, pure, and whole. His difficulty in choosing one thing over another, preferring beginnings to endings and process to product, are consistent themes; perhaps methods to avoid insinuating himself—his taste or aesthetic—into the work. To do so, it seems, would muddle the experiment.

One whole to go
Seven-eights to go
Three-quarters to go
Five-eights to go
One half to go
Three-eights to go
One-quarter to go
One-eight to go
Nothing to go

Work No.193, One whole song (1995–96)

Lyrics that break up a song into metric units provide the comfort of order; each can be filled in from beginning to end. It is an exercise as precise as determining the distance between two points, and all that falls between. A similar logic applies to work No. 1037, four vertically oriented paintings of black pyramids, composed of horizontal lines. The pyramids’ shapes depend on the lines, which thickly stretch edge to edge at the bottom of the canvas and grow progressively thinner and shorter as they move towards each pyramid’s apex. Four different multi-packs of differently-sized brushes were available at the art supply store. Creed magnanimously bought them all, and made one painting for each pack. The number and character of the lines are beholden to the number, width, and quality of each brush in the pack. Working off things “as-is” derives another unfettered system, a distillation that results in works entirely self-possessed, imbued with a rhythm and balance, at ease within the dimensions of the canvas. A sense of relief lingers on the surface of these paintings: decompression of anxiety, freedom from choice, the satisfaction of averting failure.

The notion of the readymade remains in play in Work No. 122, Drum machine (1995-2000). It comprises a drum machine atop a white pedestal and an amplifier sitting on the floor, with the two elements presented at equal heights, creating a sculptural unit. The amp emits sixty seconds of silence followed by a sixty second roll call of every available drum sound. The machine is programmed to play each of its sonic units single-file, rather than as a set of artfully combined and temporally reconfigured beats. It’s a percussive, somewhat undulating burst of noise, albeit derived from a flat-footed application of the device’s capabilities. The intervals of silence produce the rhythm, determined by the amount of time it takes to cycle through the catalogue of drums. The starts and stops subtly anthropomorphize the machine; silent for one minute as it gathers its breath, and then erupting with noise as it empties itself for one minute more. This feeling reiterates and mutates inside the Museum’s elevator, where Work No. 371, Elevator ooh/aah up/down (2004) incarnates the journey between the exhibition’s two floors. The time it takes to travel from one floor to the next is synced with a piece of music, and as passengers travel up a chorus of bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices sings an ascending chromatic scale between low F and high C. The downward journey features the opposite movement, beginning with high C and ending with low F. Moving up is full of excitement, while down is like a closing “sigh.”

Below all of this mechanized activity a large-scale video projection in the intimately scaled Screening Room plays out a very human drama. Work No. 548 (2006) begins with a clapperboard cutting into frame that snaps off the take. A woman dressed in black with her head down, trudges into a starkly white room and wretchedly vomits an enormous amount of reddish liquid. The traumatic event signals the end of a presumably long-endured nausea, a physical relief shared with the viewer. The visual impact of her emptying out formally suggests a sly commentary on painting, particularly as it relates to Jackson Pollock 51 Hans Namuth’s film of the preeminent action painter at work in his studio. In the context of music, Work No. 548 feels linked to the pathos and energy required to give something of oneself, to interact with a public who has come to watch you play in the hopes of relating to your private world, to share in the catharsis of emotional release. While gross and difficult to watch, Creed considers the video a portrait. His only instruction to the actor was to throw up; she was free to decide how, stylistically and viscerally, to express herself.

B sharp
B flat
B natural

Work. No. 216, Be natural (1998–99)

A door guards the entrance to the Project Gallery. Once pulled open, countless numbers of gold balloons jockey to escape. Like a pool, the balloons fill half of the gallery. And as with water, visitors are supposed to enter and wade around. Work No. 1190, Half the air in a given space, is realized by calculating the gallery’s cubic volume and dividing it in half, a measure by which the total number of balloons needed to fill that volume is determined. Viewers walk amidst soft, buoyant orbs, individually transparent, but opaque en masse. Comprehending the space is possible using only touch and sound, a perceptual limitation that may provoke discomfort and vulnerability, blurring the line between fun and fear. Like the clamoring, stuttering and slamming above, this work stirs a little bit of chaos. The artist provides the installation plan, but the environment is activated by unpredictable trajectories. Moving people churn the contents of the room, inevitably causing some balloons to pop or escape, bodies to collide with each other or the wall. The swish of static on fabric and skin, the squeak of mingling rubber, screams and laughter, all are emitted from within as a low muffle. There’s a sense of ridiculousness here, of capable people flailing around, unsure of themselves, perhaps reveling in the moment of not knowing.

By responding to attributes essential and inherent to balloons, a drum machine, piano, lights, an elevator, metronomes, brushes, paint, scores, and people, the artist brings forth unexpectedly complex expressions. Not immune to this process, Creed approaches himself with the same logic. He writes, “The more I work, the more I think I don’t know what I am doing...What have I done? I can say I have moved. What have I made? I have made movements.” Scales brings together works of varying media and modes, bound together by the artist’s consistently applied methodology. His penchant for deconstruction and automation yields works as much about music as all creative expression. In breaking things down by units and measures, new subtexts emerge, ideas about happiness, love, relationships, anxiety, fear, failure, relief, and death. Consider these works as amongst Creed’s on-going experiments, which might illuminate some things we didn’t know and help us enjoy the process of finding out.

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