Sunday, 17 August 2008
State of the Art
I recently had the pleasure of an unintended viewing of Martin Creed’s new Work No. 850. Unintended in that I wrongly assumed the work was showing in the Tate Modern, which meant I was quite surprised when a runner whizzed past me in the Great Hall at Tate Britain. My mistaken assumption is revealing: Creed’s work is contemporary and conceptual; one expects it to be housed in the Modern, which only emphasises the work’s significance. Generally, I find little to admire about installation art, but Creed’s No. 850 says so much, not only about modern art, but about the actual experience of viewing art in modern times, that I was absolutely delighted.
The Britain's enormous hall spans the length of the nineteenth-century neoclassical building and Creed has recruited an army of runners to sprint from one end of the hall to the other every 30 seconds. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle called the work “gloriously pointless,” which, excuse the phrase, misses the point entirely. In these increasingly paternalistic, health and safety obsessed times, I expected the Museum would contain Creed’s runners in a cordoned off space. But because they haven’t sectioned off the hall, visitors and runners must interact, the latter dodging the former. This statement of (perhaps unintentional) defiance, not only to our patronising society, but also to the hush-hush reverence now fostered in museums, is refreshing. I kept expecting a guard to appear and shout, “no running allowed!” And though it is not presented as such, in a city always telling you what to and not to do this is a superb show of artistic anarchy in one of Britain’s most revered cultural spaces.
Another provocative point made by Creed’s runners addresses the nature of museums; in particular, the adjustments required to accommodate modern consumerist culture, in tandem with government spending cuts in the arts. While we are at least lucky that most of our museums are free, unlike Paris or New York where the price of admission is discouraging to say the least, the pressure to be cost-effective and self maintaining is increasingly altering the way museums “do business.” At £10 a pop, exhibitions provide a significant source of revenue (in 2006/07 the National Gallery took in £1.1 million from exhibitions), but perhaps unsurprisingly the consumerist side to art is where the big money is made. Last year, the National Gallery’s shops took in just over £6 million pounds, which is quite an impressive feat considering about five million people visit the gallery each year.
This is why Creed’s No. 850 is not only seditious and compelling, but also timely and relevant. It confronts the strain of throw-away consumerism that has infected major museums. The pressured feelings which accompany trips to vast museums (e.g. the Louvre) result in compulsions to speed through so as to take in everything on display in a manageable time frame. The more cynical would point to those who nearly do run through museums, ignoring a wealth of art, in order to have a look at the "star" of a museum's collection. One could even go so far as to say that we may as well just run through museums anyway, as even if we languidly amble, we're so distracted by taking photographs, noisy children, or inquisitive friends that we hardly have the time or the attention to properly take in the art.
So go, see, linger, and enjoy Creed’s Work No. 850. It’s at the Tate Britain until 16 November, which leaves plenty of time. And let me know what you think.