Lights On Lights Off Sucks

and Ain’t Afraid to Say So

21 December 2001

I probably wouldn't write this today since I've grown to appreciate minimalist work of this type, but at the time I did find it really annoying. (Sept 2015)

“Work No. 127, Lights Going On and Off” (2001), Martin Creed

I wanted to write about Martin Creed’s piece, which won the Turner Prize this year. It consists of an empty room where the lights go on and off every 30 seconds. A version of it is currently showing at the Art Gallery of Hamilton as part of their Contemporary Projects Series.

I want to say that I hate this piece, and I don’t feel any responsibility to defend it – I say that because that’s what I feel is going on. Too many critics are talkin’ about how good it is, which it seems they have to do to justify their education and the establishment represented by the Tate Gallery. I also want to say that just because I hate this work, doesn’t mean I have anything against Mr. Creed personally. I can well imagine us bonding over the inside joke nature of this controversy. The work does have its merits. The part of me taught to be politically correct and open-minded can find some reasons to like it. I’m especially drawn to Creed’s statement about how he didn’t want to clutter up the world with more stuff.

However, that being said, I resent being in the position where because I’m supposed to be an artist with a modicum of intelligence, I am supposed to line up and defend the committee’s decision to give the prize to what I think is an insignificant work, to fulfil my duty in educating a misguided public. While I have no problem with Creed’s right to express his idea, what I really have a problem with is that it was awarded the Turner Prize and that it was part of the Turner exhibition. It’s a minor work that doesn’t deserve to be given hierarchical status by the Tate gallery. They could have gone with his “Half the Air in a Given Space” (2000) which consists of balloons filled up with just that. A better work it seems to me, mostly because it involves something and requires some effort of execution.

Now if only they had The Clapper installed in the room where they gave out the award, so that the applause would recreate the piece, then I would be ecstatic. That would have been great. It would have been dependent on the audience’s participation and presumably the lights would have flashed on and off much more rapidly. It would also have echoed the original work, and made it instantly more complex.

The Turner Prize has become associated with rewarding shock art, to such an extant that the Channel 4 website (co-sponsors of the Prize) list a chronology of Shock Art in order to make the point that “the shock of the new” is old school. What we/they/whoever accept as the banal establishment, was once controversial. So the agenda seems to be set: the award goes to what pisses off the “ignorant” and media jaded public.

It seems so glaringly obvious that he won only because his work was the most controversial. Before Creed was announced the winner, people were already complaining about it. The works by the other artists, Richard Billingham, Isaac Julien, and Mike Nelson, had more going for them aesthetically, if not conceptually. (Personally, I like Billingham’s photos, so I was rooting for him).

But my discomfort is not merely the disappointment of my fave losing. It’s because the winner is so literally vacuous. This work is too easy. It’s too easy to explain as something wonderful. This is a pure bullshit piece. It is too easy to defend using bullshit. It is too easy to say stuff like ‘it represents the dialectic of good and evil ‘ (Christ is often metaphorically referred to in relation to Light, right?) too easy to say that it encapsulates in a silent (and therefore poetic) way the relationship between life and death. And extending this life vs. death concept, is it too much to say that “Work No. 127, Lights Going On and Off ” reminds me of Buddhist teachings of what happens in death – the question being where does the soul go when we die? The answer: do we ask where a flame goes when we extinguish it? F-off I want something more substantial!

The National Post stated in its Commentary page “Mr. Creed literally made nothing. He has achieved the logical end of art, for if anything and everything may be regarded as art – even a room devoid of anything except a light bulb – then nothing is art. This is obviously all to the good. The practitioners of contemporary art can all go home – and we can all ignore them”.

“For if anything and everything may be regarded as art – than nothing is art.” Isn’t the Post the very paper run by capitalists that want anything and everything to have a price? I suppose then, in the end, nothing will have a price? If I pulled this argument on them they’d shake their heads and call me a stupid artist. I could say that this twisted argument is thus far the most convincing in favor of neo-liberal economic theories. Open markets will make everything in the end free, for if an empty room is not art because it is art, than Winnona Ryder is not guilty of shoplifting, since she already owned those clothes.

Not so far fetched actually. One of the Buddhist mailing lists I’m on had a quote by Zen master, in which he stated that the whole world belonged to us. His glasses for example – we let him wear them because we knew his eyes were bad. They didn’t belong to him, and they didn’t belong to us. They represent an act of mutual agreement, rather than of ownership.

I appreciate this piece in the sense that it is able to inspire someone like me to consider what I feel is valuable in art, but “Work No. 127” is like a naked Osama streaking through Time Square – an obvious and glaring target. In this case, x marks the spot for this kind of cynical and nihilistic criticism lobbied by people who don’t care about art to begin with. Instead of going with the “everything can be art” and suddenly digging Fluxus and Yoko Ono, and appreciating the wonderful variety of life (that’s what it does for me anyway) they have to go with “…therefore nothing is art and we can ignore artists”. Nothing is art anyway, just like nothing has a price – these are just constructions we cherish for whatever stupid reasons we humans have. These jerks have been ignoring artists all along, and are seizing this masterpiece as the proof that they were right – just like I seize on the fact that that free trade is rotten if it requires CSIS investigations of the Ragging Granies and Jaggi Singh (while Montreal terrorists plan to blow up the Los Angeles airport) to be implemented on a hemispheric scale. Does that mean I get to ignore evils of capitalism?

My attitude may suggest he should have censored himself, to know better than to provoke the right wing. To me, it’s no so much about censorship as it is deciding what’s worth one’s time. It’s not worth the time of the right wing because they’ve got their golf business meetings. Golf isn’t worth my time since I’ve got openings to go to. But I hope that the opening is going to be rewarding in some way. If I thought about making a piece consisting of lights going on and off, I’d think I could do better than that. I don’t want to waste the gallery’s time, or the audience’s, with something so vacuous. And I don’t feel that driving down to Hamilton to see this work is worth my time or the gas. The context that the gallery provides doesn’t do enough for this piece – I still feel that if I want to experience it I can just play with a light switch.

There’s no reason that Creed need censor himself, but I thought the whole jury process involved in getting an exhibition helps guard against works that waste our time. Unfortunately, given that I haven’t heard a lot of glowing reviews of much of anything in the art world lately, it seems the juries aren’t doing their job – leading to an attitude that says “we might as well have lights going on and of in a room, and might as well give it a prize”.

This type of thing was done much better 40 years ago by the Fluxus crew – and their legacy set the stage for this work. As the headline for the article, (link below) says, it’s “as exciting as hearing old jokes retold”. As such then, it’s the perfect artwork to end this stupid year, full of foot and mouth disease, kamikaze terrorism, and a war, crises that haven’t been examples of the best thinking. From now on, I’d like the Powers That Be to have more brains, which would include awarding the Turner Prize to something more deserving and not necessarily controversial. In the meantime, I have to make a salad.

Related websites:

Contemporary Art Project Series: Martin Creed continues at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until Feb. 3.

(originally published in Instant Coffee Saturday Edition)

Instant Coffee Saturday Edition

  1. Dec 2001: Appeared in Instant Coffee Saturday Edition Issue No° 3
  2. 2002-2015 Archived on my websites & blog
  3. Sept 2015: this version produced