On Martin Creed's Lights Going On and Off
Max Podstolski


When accepting the 2001 Turner Prize, Martin Creed was quoted as saying: "I think people can make of it what they like. I don't think it is for me to explain it."

I'd like to take him up on that.

I've been thinking about his winning work entitled The Lights Going On and Off, consisting, not surprisingly, of a pair of lights going on and off in an empty gallery space. My view of it has evolved over the last few months, from initial irritation that the world of high art persists in scraping a seriously empty barrel, to the dawning albeit slightly sceptical awareness that there might be something more profound in this work than first apparent. I'm shamelessly uninterested in what else Creed has produced or the theoretical spin that art insiders may try to put on his work. What interests me is my own reaction, the fact that Lights holds up a metaphorical mirror for me to peer into. In the process of peering in, perhaps I can gain some new insight into life, art, or myself.

Let me follow Creed's example and try to put things simply. I am a person in the world who happens to be an artist, and so is Creed. The way I make art is totally different from his approach, but on the other hand there are similarities in the ways we think about it. As far as I'm concerned, too, other people are free to make what they want out of my art. Sure, I do write about it from time to time, but that's just my own take on it (which I'm entitled to), and I'm always happy to see different points of view. Granted, there is a superficial difference with Creed in that I haven't won the Turner Prize and never will ­ not only because I'm on the periphery of the art world, but also because entering art competitions is totally against my principles ­ but that mainly means that he gets a whole lot more attention than I do (not to forget the prize money).

Aside from the superficial differences, though, when it comes to confronting our existence and grappling with the process of making artistic statements, each of us is still just as existentially alone as the other.

You have to make suitable contemporary art, and smack suitably of controversy, to stand a chance of winning the Turner Prize; and actually winning it bestows both fame and a heroic aspect. In one sense the winner can be seen to represent all struggling and misunderstood artists whose work may be a darn sight less controversial in international art world terms, but which can be just as misunderstood, if not more so, in one's own local context. Making art and the way it's perceived is all relative to the time and place you happen to be in. Fame also means that a lot more people will misunderstand and denigrate your work than before, so it's a mixed blessing.

One needs to remember that Creed's minimalism stands at the opposite extreme from artists whose work is meant to be pleasantly picturesque and entirely inoffensive, to fit in with just about anyone's décor. There is nothing remotely decorative about The Lights Going On and Off as far as I can see ­ but neither is there anything guaranteed to inflame to the extent of, say, Mapplethorpe or Serrano. Creed's work as it exists as a physical object is simply boring ­ just as Duchamp's Fountain is; whether or not it is intended to be boring is neither here nor there, because Creed has no interest in explaining it.

Yet the idea of Lights is potentially interesting, and it is only the idea of the work that the majority of people have encountered or are likely to encounter. There is no need to see the physical installation because the internal visualisation of it is entirely sufficient; and besides which, everyone sees lights going on and off every day. Whether this is 'brilliant' art in addition to being boring is not something I'm about to pronounce on. What interests me is the light going on and off in my own head, the one which Creed signifies with the work as some sort of universal metaphor.

So here's how I see it: going on and going off, ad infinitum, gets to the heart of our existence. Each individual living thing goes on for its lifetime, then goes off again: exits life. At every moment babies are being born ­ "going on" ­ just as people are dying ­ "going off". Going on and off is so much a part of everything that we forget to see it, until someone like Creed makes someone like me see it anew.

Does everyone else who thinks about The Lights Going On and Off see life and death in it? The few articles I've read avoid such messy subjective responses and stick to the true business of art writing, in this case Martin Creed's career path and apparently vacuous (no doubt deceptively so) statements. So can I infer, then, that I'm the only one in the world to read mortality into Creed's work? No, that would be going much too far; but perhaps it says something, however insignificant in the scheme of things, about me?

What's going on here? Am I reading something into Lights that isn't there, that I want to read into it because of my own predispositions? In the process am I re-creating it in my own mind to suit myself? As Creed himself professes, I have no answer to this sort of question, except to leave judgement in a state of suspension.

Creed, it is said, is asking the eternal question: "What can I do or achieve?" In asking that question myself, I arrive of course at different answers, for I am not him and he is not me. We can each do different things, and we each choose to do some of those things but not others. We each choose to make art, but whereas his comes out looking like lights going on and off (and other things such as crumpled pieces of paper), mine comes out looking like certain kinds of paintings. It is entirely irrelevant to both of us, I suspect, that some people are drawn to one sort of art rather than another, or to both or neither.

When Creed answers questions from interviewers, he also seems to be investigating the question: "what can I do?" For example, in answer to the interviewer's question: "What is your idea of ultimate happiness?", he is quoted as saying: "erm I suppose to make to make work that I feel happy with that I feel I can live with that I like and to be with people who I like and who I can live with and who I feel happy with "

The content of his response, expressed in however a vague, roundabout and hesitant way, is what you would expect most people generally to feel, including artists: whether or not they would verbalise it in the same way (which is unlikely), he is expressing a fairly universal human desire for creative satisfaction in work and emotional contentedness in relationships. There is nothing at all unique, original, or remarkable about that, and there is no reason why there should be.

In writing this piece in response to The Lights Going On and Off, I am also attempting to answer that "what can I do?" question that Creed likes to ask. In this particular instance, what can I do to make sense of Lights for myself? If the work is taken to represent simply a formalist concern with the physical thing in itself, or to refer only to an art theoretical or art historical context, then it could have no meaning for me personally, and I would not have bothered to write about it. If there is some symbolic meaning, such as the allusion to mortality that turns it into a universal metaphor, then is that because I have attributed it myself, as one of the things "I can do"?

In thinking about writing this article, I considered whether there was any point in writing it from the point of view of anyone else. The fact that I can do it doesn't mean that anyone will be interested in reading it. Similarly, the fact that one can make an artwork in a particular way doesn't mean that anyone will want to own it or write about it or even take notice of it. The Lights Going On and Off won the Turner Prize, and that shows that some influential people in the art world have taken notice and officially validated it; but remaining embedded in the work is its essential fragility and vulnerability as an art object, its precarious equilibrium poised between 'somethingness' and 'nothingness'.

It would have to be no less fragile and contestable as an art object for not having been awarded the prestigious Turner, and just as fragile and contestable despite having won it. Which begs the question: how many people would have given it the time of day as an also-ran? It was the prize, incontestably, which captured people's attention, mine no less so than anyone else's.

However I would like to believe that Creed (like myself in writing this article) made Lights for it's own sake, not just because it was something he could do but because he believed it was worth doing ­ it was an idea that he did not simply dismiss out of hand as being valueless, as could so easily have happened with such an obvious hence invisible idea (for most people, if not for Creed).

My first reaction in learning that this particular work had won the Turner Prize was to question the validity of both the award and the work itself. Yet after thinking about it I remembered that I sometimes doubt the validity of my own work, and that some form of doubt is what we see in the mirror of all art that makes us think. Art arises in the ephemeral moment of life's triumph over death, of light over dark. But the extinction of light and life is always waiting in the wings to claim us, and remains the eternal backdrop of our worldly existence. Martin Creed, as I see it, has reminded us of this essential truth ­ something we are always doing our best to forget, despite the overwhelming evidence of events both far and near.

This article originally appeared on *spark-online, issue 33.0, June 2002, at: