She’s sitting beneath a video of forensic psychiatrist Esta Welldon, who is eating with her mouth open. Cut to black, and follow the singer’s warm and bright soprano notes as they rise to the ceiling’s flickering lights. In walk two men wearing purple disposable safety gloves, who set about hanging two works on the wall where the video was projected. What’s going on? This dumb show has the ring of a slapstick comedy sketch, but it’s a performative contradiction: what appears slipshod is in fact scheduled, highly organised, routine. So, your second thought on these three performers is: do they do this when no-one’s in the gallery? Then – what's their wage structure? Do they… like it here?
TREES FLOWERS SEAS PLEASE
Your first thought when you see a woman ponchoed in layers of beige and grey singing in Hauser and Wirth is that she's mentally ill. It’s not the most P.C. reaction, but then she is singing ‘Having a drink with difficult thoughts’ over and over in the dark. I catch the eye of the gallery attendant whose gaze flicks back to her book.
This dumb show has the ring of a slapstick comedy sketch, but it’s a performative contradiction: what appears slipshod is in fact scheduled, highly organised, routine.
Throughout Martin Creed’s ‘Toast’, the exhibition mismatches the urgent with the domestic. Creed’s chihuahua, Jimmy, is up on a high shelf wondering how he’ll get down. A beige sock is wiggling on a string like a worm on a hook. Have a nibble/get dressed, are its implied instructions; either will do, as far as the gesture is concerned. Concrete blocks are alternately shoes or stocks (though both uses are ineffective: try walking in concrete, or imprisoning someone with Velcro). And then there’s the exhibition’s eponymous ‘toast’, cast in patinated bronze with peanut butter lathered atop in gold, revolving at the speed of a turntable. Take a bite and break a tooth. With the soprano singer now pacing the exhibition floor, ‘If it’s not one thing then it's the other’ could be a tired catchphrase from a recurring marital spat or a sitcom. Or it could be the internal refrain of a beige-sock-wearing person tired with worrisome, everyday tasks.
Likewise, the words etched into the coloured pencil works on the walls are both personal and desperate, performative and playful. Appeals like ‘please’ and ‘help’ are embedded in wild and colourful etchings that bespeak the immediacy of their creation: a tree is distilled into a few brown lines for the trunk, opening out diagonally for the branches and topped off with a continuous, whirligig green scrawl for its leaves. Coloured pencils are an instantaneous and accessible medium, things handed to children at restaurants to keep them busy before their meal. Perhaps because of their strong association in today’s culture with childhood, we’re primed for a sense of wonder: crayon pictures like these are tacked to the fridge or framed by proud parents who can’t help thinking of the prospective future artist lying dormant in their four-year-old. Creed’s pencil crayon works have a light-hearted and inquisitive quality, so that even reading a word like ‘lonely’ in block lettering — meant, I think, without irony — sees a dissonant grin spread across my face as the woman performer lies on her back to recite: ‘That’s the way it goes.’
There's a daring simplicity to Creed’s work, a longing for life to be simple. The acrylic painting now hanging courtesy of the two men in our dumbshow reads: TREES FLOWERS SEAS PLEASE, which seems as much a demand for trees, flowers, and seas, as for a natural landscape painting to have suggested itself by the time of the work’s completion. The hammy ‘ee’/’ea’ rhyme is like one long, strained note, recalling Creed’s Singing Lift. In this earlier work, installed in Ikon gallery, Birmingham (among other places), an Ooooooh rises or descends in pitch with each successive floor, depending on whether you’re going up or down. It’s joyous and welcoming, yet somehow intrusive at the same time; if there’s a childlike quality to Creed’s work, it’s not always creative but destructive, petulant. Here, ‘Broccoli on fire on water with gun and wind and sun’, is an acrylic/ink work that does what it says on the tin. It conjures an an authority figure somewhere saying ‘Eat your greens’ (or ‘Don’t eat with your mouth open, Esta’) by answering with a wilful disobedience.
It’s joyous and welcoming, yet somehow intrusive at the same time; if there’s a childlike quality to Creed’s work, it’s not always creative but destructive, petulant.
The exhibition feels miscellaneous, but that’s part of its gesture. The works, with their yearning for simplicity, warn of over-reading – the conscientious/disobedient child in me, then, looks for clues. Maybe a word missed in one of the drawings. Maybe a lyric in one of the songs. ’Toast’ as guiding principle. ‘Peanut Butter On Toast’ looks to me less like an everyday object dolled up to vulgarity than a value-flattening, rethinking what might be the subject for a sculpture. We’re welcomed into a white cube, only to find the artist skirting around the edges; a tragicomic outsider. A self-portrait by Creed sees blue eyes staring out through detailed graphite shading, mouth open with concern and curly hair framed by a circle-halo: a hairnet.
Although the individual works can be admired or read discretely, the exhibition is experienced as a whole. The framed works retain the immediacy of their creation as much as the live performances: even the show schedule is off-the-cuff, with ‘timetable’ having been crossed out (and left that way) in favour of ‘timings’ on the wall. Each work, an encounter; each encounter, its own mixture of alarm and surprise – like a baby watching Jack spring from the box again and again as though for the very first time. There’s something universal in that.
By Sammi Gale.