Martin Creed & Giovanni Anselmo

I feel that it is always good to talk about your art heroes and remind yourself why you fell in love with them in the first place. This is a continuation from my first blog entry in which I discuss the work of Art & Language, Piero Manzoni and Damien Hirst.

Martin Creed, like Hirst, is a poster-boy for the stereotypically visually barren contemporary artworks, made by unoriginally original art school bohemian bums – the type of works which grab the attention of the tabloid press and thus readers furiously demand an explanation for, instead of asking themselves why it might be in a gallery… a Catch-22, almost, the publics confusion propels the work into art history. Creed bared witness to this phenomenon most remarkably when he won the Turner prize in 2001 for ‘Work No. 227: The lights going on and off’ which does exactly what it says on the tin. Lights in a room go on and off. I feel that I could comfortably defend this piece and its turner-prize worthiness, but admittedly, it doesn’t excite me like ‘Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space’ (1998).

Here, Creed successfully interlaces two important attributes of any artwork for me. Exhibition experience/output: is it worth getting out of bed for? And concept/input. Is the idea strong? Is it going to make me think about something that I wouldn’t have thought about today? This is one of those works which make me think: I wish I’d thought of that, or rather, how did I not think of that? It is a work that is not suited for a blog post because it does not respond well to explanation or analysis. I can only say why I love it. With the title above the work, it is totally self-explanatory and the only thing that’s left to do is to enjoy it as an idea and/or an experience.  

As clarified in the title, Creed uses the balloon as a form of measurement and a tool of spatial awareness. He takes an object of fun and uses it to convey half the air of a given space.  In this way, we think about the space differently. Creed forces the public to experience a childhood daydream, a room filled with balloons. At the same time, I imagine it generates a sense of claustrophobia and panic. It’s a great juxtaposing dynamic of fun and fear, but in the end, it’s just a representation. A space translated into objects. I spoke about representations and symbols with Manzoni, who takes a complex hypothesis and uses the simplest form of execution. Damien Hirst does this too, particularly in his work ‘The Fragility of Love’ and so did John Lennon, who’s therapist (Dr Arthur Janov), said that “John could take very profound philosophical concepts and make it simple”, a feat which is particularly perceptible in his song ‘God’. This is what any artist strives for, a complex idea translated into a digestible, thought-provoking message.

Another work which takes great philosophical concepts and makes them simple is ‘Untitled (Sculpture That Eats)’ by Giovanni Anselmo in 1968. A more unknown work than that of Manzoni, Hirst or Creed, yet nevertheless one of my all-time favourites since my first year at uni. It involves the crushing of lettuce between a large standing block of granite and a smaller stone, secured by a wire. When the lettuce eventually dries out, the wire will lose its grip and the stone will fall.

This work, like most of my favourites, relies heavily on metaphors. I personally like to see the two bits of concrete representing the concrete jungle of canary wharf and the lettuce, the bit which is alive and breathing, as representing the workers which oil the cogs of the capitalist machine. Like the lettuce, they are replaceable. There are unlimited potential readings, like a blank storyboard, it is a work which encourages viewer participation. I explained this in the first blog entry in regard to Manzoni’s can of shit. A great artist gives us a variety of objects and places them in a way that incites the imagination and allows for narrative to be implemented.

An extended reading would explore how the museum, the collector, or whoever owns the work has to change the lettuce at least twice a week to keep the concrete blocks together, in this way, the work itself is a money machine. It is the consumer. The sculpture is literally eating the salad and owner’s money, because it needs it to survive as a work of art.

Talking of money, it is worth mentioning that Anselmo was a key figure in the Arte Povera movement, a radical Italian effort from the late 1960s whose artists explored the use of non-traditional ‘everyday’ materials. Arte povera means literally ‘poor art’. Materials used by the artists included soil, rags and twigs. In using such throwaway materials, they aimed to challenge and disrupt the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system, so perhaps the view of Anselmo’s work as a money machine is most fitting.

Both Creed and Anselmo use the maximum input, minimum output approach which I am such a fan of. Big idea, minimal work. As Bill Gates said, “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” Although, the idea itself shouldn’t be dictatorial or narrow, and this potentially hazardously authoritarian prescription is somewhat prevented by the minimal aesthetic which keeps the work open and free to be enjoyed in whatever context.