OTHER PEOPLE: A spinning, white neon, double allusion greets viewers at the entrance to Martin Creed’s Back Door exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory.
“Hell is other people,” writes Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit. This reference to hell towering over the entrance to the show necessarily evokes Dante’s Inferno, in which the gate to hell bears the inscription “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
Is this Creed’s hell? Is he encouraging his audience to abandon hope?
The flights of whimsy in the Dadaist celebration of the absurd found inside, however, are anything but scary. Directly opposite “Work No. 2662: OTHER PEOPLE” plays “Work No. 2656: Understanding,” a music video for Creed’s song “Understanding.” The catchy pop-punk tune describes an argument in which both sides feel victimized, while the video depicts Creed wearing silly hairstyles and outfits against loud and colorful backdrops and piling eyeglasses (spectacles?) upon eyeglasses on his face as giant, Monty Python-esque feet keep time tapping toes.
In the adjacent Mary Divver Room, “Work No. 223: Three metronomes beating time, one quickly, one slowly, and one neither quickly nor slowly” audibly, chaotically counts off time. In the next room over, the Board of Officers Room, Creed’s portraits and abstract paintings — rendered in a bright (even glittery) palette — “provide a point of contrast to the military 19th- and early 20th-century portraits that permanently adorn the walls.”
Across the hall, the Colonel’s Reception Room is half filled with the big white balloons that comprise “Work No. 2497: Half the air in a given space.” In the Parlor, viewers find “Work No. 160: The lights going on and off” and “Work No. 129: A door opening and closing.” In their own way, all three of these pieces reify — render visible — empty space by highlighting the void, an idea that is really driven home in the 55,000 sq. ft. Drill Hall. That massive room is darkened and empty, save one screen, onto which is projected a series of six short videos showing six women chewing and then opening their mouths in slow motion. Behind this, at the far end of the room, “Work No. 2721: Shutters opening and closing” is the titular “Back Door,” its garage door opening and closing, letting in light and spilling the show out onto Lexington Avenue.
Eighteen different videos are projected in a corridor off to the side, many of them accompanying Creed’s songs as music videos of sorts. “Work 1090: Thinking/Not Thinking,” shows two dogs, Orson and Sparky, walking back and forth across the screen to Creed’s song of the same name. Another shows a man kicking flower bouquets. Creed counts to 100 in “Work No. 1454: 1-100,” and repeats the phrase “fuck off” over a blank screen in “Work No. 1358: Fuck Off.” Ironically, neither the video showing two women shitting on camera (one after the other, not simultaneously) nor the one that zooms in and out on a man’s bare ass, nor the one depicting a series of people vomiting bear any kind of warning, but “Work No. 1177” and “Work No. 1029,” which show the nipple of a naked female breast being pinched to make it erect and a flaccid penis becoming erect and then returning to its flaccid state lie just beyond a Tipper Gore PMRC style warning sign. “Work No. 2530: Let Them In” and “Work No. 2533: Border Control” are the only overt political statements
Back in the finished, ornate wing of the Armory, a black curtain opens and closes automatically (“Work No. 990”). Beyond this curtain, in the remaining three galleries, are the pieces which most ardently seem to thumb their noses (“take the piss”) at either “the art world” or the dignified grandeur of the space in which they are shown. (Actually, the Sick film and the poop film probably do that best, but I digress.) The titles say it all: “Work No. 88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball,” “Work No. 218: A sheet of paper crumpled into a ball,” “Work No. 142: A large piece of furniture partially obstructing a door,” “Work No. 319: A sheet of paper crumpled up and flattened out,” “Work No. 429: A sheet of paper folded up and unfolded,” “Work No. 880: A sheet of paper torn up,” “Work No. 74: As many 1″ squares that are necessary cut from 1″ masking tape and piled up, adhesive sides down, to form a 1″ cubic stack,” “Work No. 78: As many 2.5 cm squares as are necessary cut from Elastoplast tape and piled up, adhesive side down, to form a 2.5 cm cubic stack,” and “Work No. 79: Some Blu-Tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall.” To see these “objects,” more or less garbage, sealed off in plexiglass cubes on pedestals amidst silver candelabras and urns and other trappings of wealth and decorum is pretty hilarious. And through all this, at seemingly random intervals, a marching band comprised of a violin, flute, tambourine and trumpet led by a man with a megaphone winds and weaves itself through the sumptuous galleries.
Still, it seems like opportunities were wasted. If the idea is to frustrate viewers, would the piece consisting of the lights turning off and on not be better placed in a gallery containing objects viewers strain to see, rather than an empty room? Likewise, if Creed is indeed taking the piss out of the establishment (sticking “gum” on the wall!), wouldn’t it be so much more effective to show the shit film in the Drill Hall than the series of “see food” films? This “see food” series of videos is described as “site specific,” but I fail to see what ties this series to this particular place. Likewise, “Work No. 1358: Fuck Off” is shown in a type of viewing booth — a peep show, if you will — which suggests that so much more effort went into making this simple statement (fuck off) than it warrants, in this critic’s opinion. (I have been told that you might need to be British to truly “get” Creed’s oeuvre.)
Meanwhile, down at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Public Art Fund has commissioned Creed’s Work No. 2630, UNDERSTANDING, a spinning red neon sign reading, quite simply, “UNDERSTANDING” — echoing the new song and video viewers find in the Armory’s foyer.
With a new song, video, and sculpture called “Understanding,” it seems that effective communication is on Creed’s mind at the moment.
“I want to be understood,” he told the Guardian recently. If this is indeed the case, then Creed can rest easy knowing that this fun, accessible show has little chance of being misunderstood, though it’s also possible he may have erred too much on that side — that in attempting to be broadly understood, he has mounted a show that does little to challenge its audience (excepting those with weak stomachs).
Or could it be, returning to the neon sculpture at the entrance, that this is indeed Martin Creed’s idea of hell, and that there is indeed “no exit?” Fortunately, for audiences who fear getting lost in this funhouse, Creed has built a self-referential third allusion — after Dante’s Inferno and Sartre’s No Exit — into that piece. There is no need to abandon all hope and fear that there is no exit, for the Back Door is available, offering not just a way out but also letting the light in.