Spheres of influence

Whether through playfulness or confrontation, Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed wants to communicate – and now he’s getting a chance in his home county Yorkshire

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Born in Yorkshire in 1968, and raised in Glasgow, Martin Creed came to prominence in 2001 when he won the Turner Prize with Work 227: The Lights Going On and Off, exhibiting an empty room in which the lights switch, er, on and off at five-second intervals. Some critics praised it for its exploration of commonplace phenomena. Another called it his most notorious work. One wonders whether that critic had yet seen Work No 837.

That’s going to be one of Creed’s works on display in the former spa rooms of Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery, marking the first time he’s exhibited in North Yorkshire. It certainly depicts a commonplace phenomenon, but with its four video screens looping someone walking into a white space and vomiting, it surely edges out lights going on and off for the accolade of most notorious.

Mercer curator Karen Southworth believes visitors will readily understand the metaphor behind the shock. “Four people chucking up. It’s sort of a disturbing thing to watch, this very intimate, awful experience,” she says.

“But Creed has talked about that work making clear what it feels like when you have something you need to create, something that needs to come out of you, and it’s painful while it’s coming out. You don’t know what’s coming out but you feel better once it’s out.”

Creed’s creations have come from Artist Rooms, a collection of modern and contemporary art from the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Established in 2008, the collection includes major bodies of work by more than 40 international artists, including Diane Arbus, Gilbert and George, Jenny Holzer and Bruce Nauman. The guiding principle is to show the work of each artist in dedicated solo exhibitions and it has brought in nearly 50 million people to its 180 exhibitions across the country.

The Mercer’s “long, narrow, elegant” rooms meant the Tate curators could send out work they’re not often able to show, including Work No 370 Balls – 900 of them to be precise, which will fill the entire main gallery. Previously only shown in Edinburgh and London, it’s a less confrontational invitation to consider the commonplace than vomit.

“It’s only by having a group of things that you see the differences between them,” says Southworth. “If you see one thing it represents a ball. If you see 900 completely different balls, from marbles to footballs and pom-poms, beach balls – every single one is unique and that makes you see them as individual things and consider them as significant individual items.

“Creed is such a difficult artist to pin down. Any description you might try to box him into, he scoots off in the opposite direction. The only common thread is that his work is about communicating. He wants to put things out there for people to respond to, whether it’s a physical reaction or giving you something to think about in a way you’ve never considered it before. Ordinary, small things, everyday encounters – he gives you that sort of side glance at them, to think about them afresh.”

Showing behind the mains space is another famous Creed work, Don’t Worry – a neon piece that goes round a corner. “It’s ambiguous,” says Southworth. “It looks quite cheerful until you ask what should I be worried about?”

There’s also Work No 1340, a series of paintings in which, as Southworth says, “each stripe diminishes in width as it goes up to form a sort of pyramid shape”. As with his titles, Creed likes to be organised in his processes.

“He has this thing where he doesn’t like to make too many decisions. He tries to set a formula or rules so the decisions are taken out of his hands. So it’s quite random but it’s quite ordered.

“These paintings are all made with the kind of pack of paintbrushes you get when you’re doing a job at home: a big one, a middle sized one. That defines the dimensions of the stripes and how many stripes there are. There’s flexibility but within the formula he’s set himself for that experiment.”

Artist Rooms Martin Creed is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 2 July

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