Tuesday 8 July 2008

Running out of ideas

Martin Creed: 'Work Number 850', Tate Britain, London

‘Work Number 850’ is an exhibition of people running up and down a gallery, with a pause at the end. Apparently the pause is important. I haven’t seen it, but in this case I don’t think it matters. I’ve seen people running, and I’ve seen Tate Britain. I can imagine the two together perfectly well without going in person and getting upset by the desecration of the gallery. In any case, the critics have necessarily focused on the idea rather than the execution; art critics don’t have much to say about whether it is run well or badly, but they can wax embarrassingly about ‘ideas’.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, was quoted in the Daily Telegraph: ‘In lifting an everyday activity out of its usual context and dropping it into the central galleries of Tate Britain, it upsets any preconceived ideas of how to move appropriately through an art space. At the same time it asks us to reassess a mundane activity as if it were a theatrical event.’ Yeah, those stupid preconceived ideas about walking slowly and pausing to look because it’s an art gallery – how passé.

In The Times Rachel Campbell-Johnston writes: ‘Work No 850 raises myriad possibilities. Is it a simple celebration of vitality? A paean of praise to the human anatomy? A live version of classical statuary? Does Creed want to question the way that we look at art? We presume we should solemnly linger; but here is a fast-mood alternative for our busy modern age. Or maybe the piece is about our Olympic bid? Or there to remind us that we are a nation of fatties? All these interpretations can be raised by a tiny change of pace’. Or is Creed just as ridiculous as Rachel Campbell-Johnston? (Though to be fair, this is probably a clever spoof.)

The reviews are hilarious; the thing itself is more problematic. The antics of gullible critics are harmless fun that does no great damage. But turning an art gallery into a play pen imposes real costs.

First, the Tate’s galleries exist to show works of art owned by the Tate. Giving over limited space to show something utterly commonplace, which can be seen anywhere, denies us the chance to see the unique things whose display is the gallery’s very raison d’etre. The Tate Modern is raising money for an extension so that they can show more of the works currently in store. That claim is undermined when they can allow galleries to become running tracks (that they show a lot of art that ought to be in store is another matter again…).

Second, this work inherently, deliberately, degrades the gallery. Creed mocks the way that people move around in art galleries slowly, occasionally even stopping to look at stuff. But the whole point of galleries is to look at things. Slowly. People who find that dull can choose to go to the athletics track rather than an art gallery.

Some see ‘Work Number 850’ as clever and subversive, but unfortunately trying to turn galleries into something other than places where people can see art is mainstream and conventional. Lots of people who don’t much like galleries pontificate about what they ought to be – crèches, instruments for social inclusion, generators of tourist revenue. Running track just another variant on a tiresome theme. Galleries are not spaces where people can just ‘do their thing’; activities like running around make it impossible to do the one single thing that galleries exist to support, namely to look at art.

Creed told the Independent that he prefers to ‘breeze past’ exhibits rather than look at them closely. Maybe that’s why the Tate is so keen on the work; if people run past exhibits they’ll be able to boost visitor numbers even further, keeping away those pesky slow-moving people who want actually to look at stuff.

The third problem is that the triviality of this piece – and the imprimatur of approval granted by a major gallery – belittles the potential of art. Even if you believe that galleries are enriched by performance, the ideas here are vacuous. Creed has rightly refuted claims that the work is pretentious – whatever critics read into his work, Creed’s own claims for his ‘art’ are so limited as to be absurd. Interviewed on Bloomberg he said ‘I don’t consciously try to do things’ – he just thinks running is beautiful to watch. The attraction is that it ennobles critics and curators, who can interpret and pontificate, elevating themselves to creative partners. Art becomes a collaborative work of social commentary and theoretical interpretation. The debate about whether that is valid, or whether it constitutes art at all, is abstract and sterile. The problem is that it is so consistently trivial in practice. If you want conceptual art, have a look at Poussin or Piero della Francesca. There you get great ideas beautifully executed.

‘Work Number 850’ is insulting, but consolation is at hand. Martin Creed is in training, and hopes to be in good shape to become a part of his own daft project. His installation will be improved by sending the fool sprawling across that wonderfully hard floor. This is what to look for:

Stick a leg out if you see him.


Till 16 November 2008


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