Martin Creed appears. He is dapper in a pressed suit, with combed grey hair, wire-framed glasses, well-worn brogues. Under his jacket he sports a bright orange turtleneck; in his left hand he holds a glass of kale and cucumber juice. He’s been here at Hauser & Wirth Somerset on a residency over the last couple of months, creating new sound installations and working with the local community to produce Pollock-like paintings. It looks like he’s made himself at home.
What You Find is a domesticated version of What’s the point of it?, Creed’s 2014 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery. Instead of the menacing neon MOTHERS which rotated above visitors’ heads at the Hayward, a smaller neon MUMS DADS KIDS GODS beams from a barn wall. Several of the artist’s treasured plastic bags flutter on a tree in the courtyard, caught like flies for Louise Bourgeois’ Spider. Piles of rubbish transported from his Barbican flat have been curated into corners of the gallery – Creed (a vegan) appears to be a loyal patron of Holland & Barrett.
There’s no sense of a major departure from previous exhibitions, but Creed’s art is more about reassuring accumulation than radical progression. It’s ok, the show seems to say. Art’s still being made, life’s ticking along. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. Creed follows a system of carefully choreographed chaos: an artwork is created by applying a rule (a particular palette, gesture, surface area) and seeing how far he can push within its parameters. It’s a way of getting the decision process over and done with: ‘You have to separate a piece of art from the world in order to work on it, and that involves judgements, exclusions which I’d rather not make,’ he explains. ‘Any definite border is against nature. Definition is death.’
That said, Creed doesn’t deny the allure of ‘nice lines, shapes framed in a square’. The exhibition is full of them: stripy tapestries, canvases the width of a brush, panes of perspex measured to human height. Even his cars line up nicely, red, green and blue ‘like a painting’; each appears to be newly hoovered, MOT certificates on the front seat. ‘Lines and borders make us feel safe, but if you stop people from moving around, life is fucked’. That’s the thinking behind two new videos which address the migrant crisis, set to a soundtrack from Creed’s upcoming album Thoughts Lined Up. The mood is unassailably jaunty, expressing the same understated playfulness as the rest of his work. Breathe and repeat: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.
Except that, for many, Creed is a symptom of everything that’s wrong with contemporary art. He’s been accused of tedium, narcissism, conservatism, plagiarism, and of being that most insidious of things, a charming artist. It’s true – if you’re not charmed by Creed himself, you probably won’t like the art.
The show is essentially autobiographical, prioritising ‘being’ over ‘making’. Wall-mounted speakers are a testament to the artist’s obsessive self-recording; we hear him shouting at the TV, moaning gently as he falls asleep, humming a little tune about shit and someone called Jenny. The music video for Understanding, the track which headlines the new album, shows Creed trying out different looks from his extensive wardrobe: the pinstriped professional, the tweedy retiree, the stern schoolmarm. It’s like a game of paper dolls, Make Your Own Martin.
There’s something happy and homegrown about the Hauser & Wirth exhibition, and Creed’s attitude to art and life has found global appeal. A 25ft tall neon, UNDERSTANDING, was recently installed at Pier 6, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Creed’s first US retrospective will open at Park Avenue Armory on 8 June. What gives Creed the right to play emperor, strutting around in his new clothes? His work was originally viewed as a practical joke on the art world, now it’s being consumed as an alternative coping mechanism – a sort of anarchic mindfulness. You can’t exactly call Creed’s work therapeutic, but it does allow the viewer to recognise their relationship with chaos and control, and to work out their route from there. We’ll hold court to the emperor a little longer.
‘Martin Creed: What You Find’ is showing at Hauser & Wirth Somerset until 11 September.