“I wanna do things that make me happy”
Martin Creed in conversation with It's Nice That
Visiting Santander’s Centro Botín gallery the day before Martin Creed’s Amigos show opens, the press representative informs me that we simply have to take the lift – despite the fact that we have no need to go upstairs. The gallery is closed at this point, empty besides an employee who joins us and quickly fixes something inside. As the lift begins to rise, it becomes clear why we’re doing this – a group of opera singers chimes in over the PA system, loudly singing “sí, sí, sí” in higher pitches as we ascend, and then “no, no, no” as we head back down. Due to language barriers, there’s no fine-art chat about the concept behind this piece by the exhibiting artist; instead, we all just can’t stop laughing.
This is the effect Martin Creed’s work has on you. The British, Turner Prize-winning artist and musician makes things that are inclusive, in the broadest sense of the word, whether you’re one of the world’s most coveted curators (Amigos was curated by the revered Benjamin Weil) or someone who has not the slightest interest in artistic practices.
Ever since graduating from the Slade School of Art in 1990, Martin has made work which is inherently human, often picking up on societal behaviours. He’s created pieces in which a light switches on and off, filled gallery rooms with balloons, asked everyone in Britain to ring a bell at once, and constructed light installations to inform passers-by that “Everything Is Going To Be Alright”.
But his most recent show at Centro Botín transformed the space, so that it became a work of art in itself. As you entered the garden outside, light fixtures spelt its title in the trees. Inside, you were greeted by staff wearing uniforms splattered in paint, before spotting that the walls were covered in patterns by the artist following a continuous line – other than to make room for a light switch or two. This was all just leading up to the main event, as a group of performers entered the space, playing instruments, sprinting around and performing Martin’s songs. The artist hadn’t just created an exhibition, but facilitated a smile-inducing experience for everyone involved.
The following day, in between Martin making final touches and saying hello to his countless new friends in Santander, we sat down to discuss humour, the awkwardness of going to a gallery, job interviews and how to look for joy in life.
INT How do you usually feel the day before a show opening?
MC Usually quite nervous and excited. But usually by this time it’s too late. I just have to make the best of it now, so in a way it’s easier. It’s like doing a live show, going on stage and whatever happens, if you make mistakes, you just have to accept it. One week before, there’s still time to actually make changes and that’s when a lot of stress happens. That’s why I prefer live shows, because you can’t go back. In a way it’s a relief, but there’s also more adrenaline and it’s more scary in some ways.
INT The Amigos show is particularly joyful. Were you hoping that people would find it a joyous experience?
MC I hope that people do, yeah! If it’s like that, then I’m happy. I think it’s very difficult to work on things with a predetermined goal. If something makes people laugh, or if it makes them happy, then that to me is brilliant… I wanna do things that make me happy. Usually to me, that comes out of difficulties. Like, feeling bad and wanting to feel better and seeing colours makes me happy.
INT There’s also a lot of humour in your work. How would you describe your sense of humour?
MC Well, I find it very difficult to talk about being funny or anything like that. I like things that make me laugh. I feel like, if I thought, “I want to make people laugh”, I just wouldn’t even know where to start in terms of doing that. I like things that make me laugh, but I do feel that the only way to work is to work seriously, and then, like I say, if it’s a byproduct of that, then that’s good.
INT What makes you really laugh, then?
MC Something like, having a laugh in the kitchen sort of thing. Just you know, not some big official comedy, but just joking around about a cup of coffee. Something like that, aye. The little things.
“To me, the toilet is almost as good as the gallery, if not more helpful in fact.”
INT Earlier you mentioned how visiting galleries can be a self-conscious experience, and you’re right. It can be such an awkward thing to do.
MC Aye! I think looking at things is really weird… But if you put work in a lift, it can help that problem. Or if you see something right in the doorway before you’ve even thought you were in the gallery, that can help, because you’re not self-conscious or whatever. It’s the same reason to put stuff in the toilets, or in the corridor down to the toilet. To me, the toilet is almost as good as the gallery, if not more helpful in fact. You can’t go to the toilet in the gallery, so why not look at something in the toilet.
INT It makes sense, then, that this show is all-encompassing. Was there a moment when you visited that you thought, “Let’s go all out for this”?
MC Aye! Actually I think it was the uniforms of the staff that was when I probably realised like, fuck, we actually have all these grey uniforms and it was actually possible. After we had a meeting to actually do it, there was the idea that there could be uniforms for the staff, the walls, plus music and live action, without anything really being brought into the gallery, just to have it as part of the infrastructure.
INT I was reading something you said about when recording an album, you’re writing and thinking about it for a while, but you do it in a week in a studio and then it’s done. Do you think that, if more artists worked in that way, it would produce more interesting work?
MC Yeah, I think it’s a great problem – over-working things, you know. You just take the life out of them. But fear makes you over-work things and that’s quite understandable.
INT What’s your favourite part of a gallery other than the work displayed?
MC What I like about art galleries is that you’re free to come and go as you please. That’s more difficult when you’re in a concert hall or theatre, because you get kind of trapped. You can have a laugh if you’re with people and walking around, the freedom of it. But I do realise that maybe some people don’t feel free. In fact, in art galleries I tend to not like works where you have to queue up to look at them. Or if you have to take your shoes off. Oh god, there’s loads of works where you have to take your shoes off, like a room installation with a white carpet or something.
INT But when you put on shows it’s very common that you’ll shift the space and play with what it can be. Did you have a particular experience with galleries, when you were younger?
MC I was always getting taken round art galleries and going to the theatre a lot – The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. I was seeing amazing stage sets, but also getting taken round galleries and seeing installations, also a lot in Germany, because my mother is German.
My parents are Quakers, which is called the Society of Friends. I grew up going to Quaker Sunday School and Quakers don’t believe in any hierarchy, they don’t like church, they call it a “meeting house”. There aren’t any sacred spaces, it’s just functional. Basically, art galleries are considered sacred, they’re special and you have to protect the work. You end up with this sacred space, where people feel like they can’t be at home. I feel like that probably affected me quite a lot, that whole Quaker thing.
INT The Amigos show is very welcoming in its use of language, with performers speaking in both Spanish and English.
MC I’ve been working on that for quite a few years, to try to do something with different languages – but this is the first time I’ve done it. Some of the stage shows I do, when I do them in other countries like Korea or places like that, I have a translator on stage. This is more a way of doing it with a performance, but here it is integrated, saying the same word in Spanish and English at the same time.
Martin Creed: Work No. 850, 2008, Runners, Dimensions Variable, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Martin Creed. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photography by Hugo Glendinning.
“It’s quite arrogant to even speak and expect anyone to listen anyway, you know?”
INT Is it important to you that locals of Santander visit the gallery?
MC Aye. That’s the reason I was trying to use Spanish, I don’t want to come in and just use English. I’m really excited about it, because it’s to do with the problem of words. One of the great problems with words is that you’re speaking or using words, by implication it’s as if you’re speaking sort of authoritatively. It’s quite arrogant to even speak and expect anyone to listen anyway, you know?
INT You’re also known for numbering your works and it’s a concept discussed a lot about your work – it seems to really fascinate people!
MC I know! It’s like a library has catalogue numbers. I took that from music, from doing classical music and all the Beethoven stuff has a notice number. When I thought that I didn’t want to have titles, I started numbering them. It means you can treat everything equally, which is good, helpful, whether it’s a small thing or a big thing.
INT Do you listen to music when you’re working?
MC I quite often listen to music to help me sleep. Apart from that, I often don’t listen to that much music when I’m working. Actually, I remember this producer guy that I work with said that if you want to make music, you shouldn’t listen to music. It just gets into your head and you regurgitate what you’ve heard.
INT You’ve been working with musicians in the lead-up to this. How have the workshops been?
MC The people are great musicians and I’ve just been trying out different songs and different bits I wanted to. I think they’re amongst the best musicians I’ve ever worked with, and I’d work with them again, separately or together. They’ve all come from different places and didn’t know each other.
I think there was an expectation at the start as well, because they had the expectation that I would be really picky about who I work with. I remember doing job interviews with people for the role of studio manager at my studio. I did all these interviews with some people, then of course I did more interviews and then second interviews. Then, I started to get to know them and liking them. It just got worse and worse, because I got attached to all of these different people. I couldn’t make a decision… I think job interviews are just shit. They don’t work, it’s totally artificial. The only way to work with people, I think, is if it happens. If that’s the way it goes, you meet someone in a bar and they say I play the violin, and then you try it. It’s the same way we were talking about looking at art, if it’s all self-conscious then it’s just not fun.
INT But it’s quite amazing that you’ve created an artwork that has given someone a job. Maybe they’ll make friendships or some of them will fancy each other or something.
MC Yeah and that aspect of work is what I feel is really important. To take away the idealism in the way of things and just concentrate on the reality. They are a human being and they are doing this to earn money, but they might be interested in it as well, but what their motives are is up to them. That’s the way. You can have as many ideas floating in the clouds as you want, but, you know, in the end, you have to go to the toilet and you have to go to sleep.
Martin Creed: AMIGOS, Centro Botín, photography by Belen De Benito