Those planning to visit New York’s Park Avenue Armory this summer may be overwhelmed by the urge to plug their ears, shield their eyes, or breathe deeply into a paper bag--not what we typically associate from the grand and elegant historic space.
But these physical and emotional responses won’t surprise anyone familiar with the British artist Martin Creed, who has invaded the Armory’s entire first floor with the largest-ever retrospective of his work in the U.S.
TitledThe Back Door, the exhibition opens Wednesday and features films of people vomiting and defecating; a room where lights flicker on and off; a piano that opens and slams shut, as if by the ghost of an angry composer; the incessant ticking of metronomes; and another room filled with white balloons.
For two months, the Armory will be transformed into a kind of fun house filled with the Turner Prize-winning artist’s installations, including a series of short films from his new, site-specific “Open and Closing Mouth” series, on view in the Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall.
The series begins with a video of a poised, silver-haired woman sitting on a couch, her mouth opening in slow motion to reveal a creamy white substance on her tongue.
The irreverence of that image is compounded when we learn that the woman depicted is Creed’s mother. The elfin-faced model Lily Cole is also featured eating something bright orange, not unlike the color of her hair.
The back door at the far end of the Armory’s dark, utilitarian Drill Hall rises and shutters briefly before the series begins again--a cheeky reference to the body’s own “back door” and, of course, the exhibition’s namesake.
In adjacent bunker-like rooms are eighteen more films on six screens (three per screen), including Creed’s infamous Shit and Sick films. A small “Parental Advisory” sign warns of what we can expect from the last film: a woman’s areola shrinking and pruning as her nipple becomes more erect, and a man’s flaccid penis stiffening as it rises, softening as it falls: up, down, up, down--echoing the repetition we see throughout the exhibition.
It’s hardly titillating: both the nipple and the erection are disembodied, and one can still hear retching from the Sick video down the hall.
Some visitors might feel nauseated at the sight of a cute Asian woman hiking up her pale blue dress and squatting down to defecate, though for me the ear-plugging, eye-averting urge was strongest when catching a glimpse of the Sick film. In fact, I rushed through doing just that on the way out.
I was similarly uncomfortable making my way from one end of the balloon-filled room to another, not because I’m claustrophobic, like another woman who was trying not to freak out behind me--but because startling loud noises trigger a hot, prickly feeling on the back of my neck, not unlike the way I feel before vomiting.
His Turner Prize-winning work (like all his works, possessing a numbered title) was Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, which earned Creed instant notoriety from the usual mob of 'is this really art?' critics and journalists.
“I feel bad to say I’m an artist, because I don’t really know what art is,” Creed recently told The New York Times. “I would say I’m a person who tries to do things and work in a field that is commonly known as art. I try and do things because I find life is difficult and I want to make it better. More bearable.”
Is Creed trying to provoke these reactions with his work?
“I don’t like to subject people to stuff against their will,” he tells me. “In fact I feel very strongly with these works that people should feel free. I hate exhibitions where you feel like you’re being manipulated to go one way or another, like when you round a corner in a gallery and there’s a film at the end of a long corridor.
"We tried to separate sound between films to a minimal extent, so it’s not like you’re suddenly around a corner and then you’re in a room that you don’t quite know how to get out of.”
Creed is wearing a well-tailored and well-worn grey suit (one of the jacket buttons dangles on a black thread) over a feminine, silk beige top with black piping, tied in a loose bow at the neck. His wiry grey hair is pulled back in bun.
The work is a way of confronting his own anxieties, he says in a soft Scottish lilt, the same way that psychoanalysis helps him confront anxieties.
He confesses that he’s afraid of cheese, meat, and fish.
“It has to do with the horrible insides coming out, like vomiting,” he says of his work, adding that he found it very challenging to edit the Sick film at first but got used to it after a while.
“I’m definitely scared of the insides, but in a way, the most difficult thing in life is bad feelings. All of these physical bad things--sick, shit, smelly cheese--they’re just analogies or metaphors for the bad feelings that come up inside you. To me that’s what those works are about: feelings you can’t actually see.”
Along with the Armory retrospective, Creed worked with the Public Art Fund on a large-scale installation at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6: a 25-foot-tall, rotating neon sculpture titled Understanding, which--like much of his work--is at once serious and humorous.
“When I was invited to do these shows it coincided with the refugee crisis in Europe, and so I had a strong feeling of guilt about my pissing around art world stuff,” he says. “Growing up you’re taught to love your neighbor and all this shit, but when there’s an actual example of loving your neighbor in the world everyone’s like, Oh we fucking can’t let them in, whatever their stupid reasons are.
"It seems obvious to me that we’ve been pissing around in the Middle East and these people from Afghanistan think they’ve got a right to come to Europe, and I think they fucking do too.”
Creed wanted to make something that reflected what was going on in the world but was also about communication and, well, understanding. Originally it was going to be a three-part work, but due to economic constraints, peace and love had to go.
“I decided that is in a way not realizable, because conflict is part of life, internal conflict as well as conflict with others. And we can’t be expected to love people we don’t even like necessarily. But it is possible to try to understand other people,” he tells me, adding that the installation is a joke too. “It’s funny that people can stand under Understanding.”
Understanding is also the title of a song on Creed’s new album (he’s in a band, too, and has been making music for years).
“I work because I want to feel better," Creed says. "That might come in the form of excitement or beauty or nice colors, or it might come in the form of fear. I think what you’re afraid of is very meaningful.”
What does he fear most?
“I think I’m afraid of losing myself. I’m afraid that I’m just nothing, that I’m at the mercy of the world, like a plant or a flower growing towards the light or whatever. It’s probably just a fear of being out of control or something like that.
"Basically I am just an animal, an amoeba-like collection of weird feelings and stuff like that. I’m conscious, or relatively consciously living in here with this monster inside me. I fear that I’ll reveal myself, or that I’ll be revealed as this monster or whatever it is,” he says, motioning with his hands when he says “revealed” as if his insides are coming up and out of him.