When you see the Martin Creed retrospective "Feelings" at Bard's Center for Curatorial Studies, it is through a room full of blue balloons. "Half the Air in the Room" is exactly that, and for something as simple and ubiquitous as air, it manages to set in motion a rather vivid string of associations: Those ball pits that haven't been sufficiently deep since I was three -- what happened to that girl who had those birthday parties? We had the same shoes -- I never really liked Care Bears -- my mother hated that place -- an inland lake -- slimy on the bottom -- I tuck my legs and curl my toes -- slime turns to plants -- fish -- snapping turtles -- puking drunk off a dock -- house boats -- suburban parking lots ....
I go swimming along in a state of giggle-inducing disorientation until I finally find the entrance to the next gallery, where I immediately notice a loud banging noise coming from somewhere and then notice all of the other people noticing the banging noise. It is a supremely unfamiliar way of entering the white box. Unlike the anxious, if momentary, confusion one might normally experience at the threshold of such a formal space -- containing as it does such revered and mystified objects -- it is not generated by a distant parental warning not to break anything or a fear of speaking too loudly. Nor does it produce the more carefully disguised anxiety about your adequacy as interpreter. No, this disorientation is pleasant, that banging makes me curious, those words on the wall make me want to get a dictionary, that person is wondering about the noise as well but we can't yet tell where it is coming from, so it will have to wait. My hair has become a science experiment; I want to go back to the static squeaking of taut rubber but I need to know what is making that noise ....
Martin Creed's artwork, says the New York Times, "veers between shock therapy and something quite a bit more tender/" It is also "like swimming with dolphins" apparently -- an experience that I don't share with the times reviewer and therefore can't evaluate. In fact most of what seems to be written about Creed's work bears a trace of the desperate confusion revealed by statements similar to these. Somewhere between shock therapy and anything save for unanaesthasized electrocution? Well, yes, it is like something I suppose, but dolphins?
The alternative to this hyperbole is comparison, but in the case of Creed even statements of influence or attempts to place him within a movement have a tendency to expand and extend into the realm of exaggeration. In a single paragraph, the New York Times declares that Martin Creed is "minimalist," "conceptualist" and has the "rarefied art in the street tendency of situationism." He is also an artist in the tradition of "Dada" with "formalist savvy." Martin Creed, in short, is everything and anything that might have happened during the 20th century.
But then I can't blame them much, because I find myself at a similar loss for words and lacking an arsenal of contemporary art historical jargon, I am unable to avoid one rather unsophisticated conclusion. Martin Creed's work is funny. This is, anyway, the quality that I value most. Not, as might think, because it is entertaining but for a sense of intimacy and secrecy produced by the coded exchange. I don't find myself laughing so much as smirking -- allowing knowing half smiles to escape when no one else is looking. I have this deep conviction that I appreciate these objects in the same way that I appreciate the minute particular gesture of a close friend; that I have gotten the joke; that there is a mutual understanding conveyed by a lot of winking and head nodding.
But this really makes very little sense, for as absurd as the New York Times' placement somewhere between ECT and anything else happens to be on the level of description, it is in some ways an accurate evaluation of Creed's oeuvre and sounds rather similar to the statement "somewhere between a wadded up ball of paper, a neon sign and a pneumatic piano." So then how do we understand these objects if our language is so incapable of placing them into rational, understandable relationships?
I suppose the answer is contained in the question, we understand them as objects with little or no affect on anything outside of our relationship to them, and individual experience can only hope to be approximated in universally apprehended terms. Be it sensual, auditory or visual the objects meaning is dependent on your position vis a vis it. And here, in the expression of a singular relationship between object and subject, art historical discourse fails miserably. But in its complete failure it has made room for something else. It has necessitated by its utter impotence a different form of language, one that tends towards the literary, the poetic, the personal narrative ... (Everything!)
"Martin Creed: Feelings" continues through Sept. 16 at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., (845) 758-7598.