A portrait of the humble artist

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His empty room with the lights switching on and off had traditionalists in uproar, the media spinning and the public in a state of confused intrigue. “Work no.227, the lights going on and off” won the Turner Prize in the year 2001, but Martin Creed, a friendly Scotsman, contemporary artist and low-fi punk musician, insists that winning the award does not automatically mean that you have it made.

“The Booker Prize might help a novelist sell more books, and [the prize] has definitely helped me in that way,” he says reasonably. “But art’s very difficult to quantify. It’s very difficult to know how it works, but I think that’s why I always liked it.”

He then humbly likens the winning of the prestigious art award to having completed his homework. “It was as if I’d passed an exam, as if I was pleasing my parents or something like that,” he laughs. “It helped me to go on and try new things.” When asked what he thinks of the Turner Prize nominees this year – Karla Black, George Shaw, Martin Boyce and Hilary Lloyd – he answers smoothly, “If I was going to bet on it, I’d bet on Martin Boyce.” He then goes on to explain that winning the prize certainly injected some confidence into his practice, referring to it as an “institutional stamp of approval”.

Another artist, Jacqueline Crofton, attacked his Turner Prize piece with eggs, protesting against the perceived absence of creative skill. But Martin is amiable about the debate his work caused. “It was around that time that I realised I quite liked talking about things. ’Is this art?’ To me, aggressive questions like that were good questions, questions that are worth trying to answer.” When asked how he would compare his work to traditional mediums, he replies, “All I’m doing in trying to make a visual work is trying to put colours and shapes in a certain composition. And that’s true whether it’s a work made of balloons or oil on canvas. So I think that whatI do is no different from traditional painting or sculpture.”

This summer, Creed’s “Work no.329, half the air in a given space” was the highlight of the Tate St Ives show, eliciting joy, humour and bewildered claustrophobia into viewers who waded through a room half-filled with white balloons. “Works are only alive if people make them alive, by looking at them or thinking about them,” he begins, when I ask what this piece was trying to achieve. “So the balloons were a way of making a work that was directly affected by the people. The shape of the work was defined by the shape of the people as they move around. I was trying to make something using air too,” he recalls, since the piece was first made in 1998. He candidly claims that it was also an experiment on the positioning of an artwork. “I didn’t know the reason for hanging something higher or lower, so I thought I could make a work that takes away that problem, that just fills the whole room.”

Another of his works involved athletes running through Tate Britain, and he reveals that this was where his fascination with movement began. “Everything involves me moving my body. That’s the first thing I’ve got to do to be able to do anything. So if you take away the paint and the canvas and the materials, the most basic kind of work would be movements of the body.”

He then emphasises his musical streak by mentioning that his single, “Where You Go”, is due out this September, to be followed by a new album in January. He’s scheduled various gigs with his band this autumn, too. “To me, dance, music and visual work cross over into each other. I don’t really like working in one area because I get scared I’m going to get stuck doing one thing. I like dodging and weaving.”

With such a dynamic career and a string of experimental art installations, many call his work conceptual, but he instantly rejects the label. “I don’t believe in conceptual art,” he admits. “The basis for visual art is something you can see in front of you, and you can’t see an idea. I think that ideas go into works and they might well come out of them, but the actual work itself is a physical thing. The ideas and feelings surrounding the work are in the people, not the work, because the work is just dumb materials. So that’s why I don’t understand how there can be a conceptual art, because there needs to be something to look at.”

When discussing what triggers his ideas, he philosophises cordially, “I don’t necessarily know at the time, but I would say feelings trigger working. I think that working is indistinguishable from living in general. You have to work to live, and I want to live, and the reason I work is because I want to feel better. It’s a mixture of feelings and excitement and wanting to feel better.”

Because surely, as indefinable as it is, this is what all art aims to do? To inject that bit of feeling, of excitement, of feeling better into the world? Martin Creed, expert juggler of all things artistic, leaves me feeling just as his work does: as though I now understand a fraction more about this world we are all trying so hard to live in, and all due to the truthful ease of someone who seems to still be working it out for himself.