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Martin Creed: ‘When you don’t give a shit, you’re at your best’

Martin Creed. Photo: Hugo Glendinning Martin Creed. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Since training at art school, Martin Creed has won a Turner prize for his piece featuring a light being turned on and off in an empty room and choreographed a ballet for Sadler’s Wells. Now he talks to Nick Clark about his latest challenge – a month-long run of his live show Words and Music at the Edinburgh International Festival.

As a Turner prize-winning artist, why take a stage show to Edinburgh as part of the international festival?

I’ve felt, in live shows, there’s a chance to mix things up, which feels more true to me and true to life. In a live show, there’s a chance to mix up words, pictures and music. What I do is not art and it’s not performance art.

How would you describe Words and Music?

It’s probably a mixture of theatre, cabaret, music gig, all sorts of things. I would think of it like inviting a load of people around to your house to show them what you’ve been thinking about.

You say no two shows are the same. Is that daunting, trying to constantly evolve the work live?

Aye, it’s really scary. But you can respond to fear in different ways. When I think it hasn’t gone well, it’s because I feel I haven’t been willing to fail. When you don’t give a shit you’re probably at your best.

You’ve never done a month in Edinburgh, why now?

It’s a chance to work. I’ve been working more and more on mixing words and music. Partly through films. Doing this is a way of working on ideas that may end up in other works.

How did you construct this show?

I didn’t really need anything. There’s a big screen and I could have done it without it. And I could have done it without amplification.

Were there themes you wanted to tackle?

The main point was to think out loud and work without prejudice and do it freshly. I work a lot on the day, writing ideas. The main themes are to try to talk about communicating. The other theme is borders: country borders, what’s going on in the world, refugees. But also the personal borders between you and everyone else. It’s all about being there in the room.

Around the first major survey of your work at the Hayward Gallery in 2014, you talked of being influenced by Samuel Beckett. In what way?

I got into Beckett at art school. I loved it. He always goes back to basics… It’s about the difficulty of living and trying to get along. Life is hard. Beckett inspired me to look at things in a different way. His work is very involved in the process of living and working.

Is that reflected in your work?

If my work is about anything it’s about trying and showing the trying. The reason I do live work is because when I did sculpture or painting at art school, I thought the finished product was just the tip of the iceberg. The bit on the wall was the leftovers, the sediment at the bottom of the glass. I prefer the process of drinking the wine.

Did you do performance while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art?

I don’t like the word ‘performance’ to describe it, though that’s the word they used. It’s live action with people. Maybe that’s not a good way to talk about it either. Everything is live action. A painting is live action because the people who see it are alive. Seeing it is a live theatrical experience as much as anything else.

So is it all art?

I wouldn’t call any of it art just because it’s too difficult a word.

What is your relationship with theatre?

In dramatic plays for the first five minutes it’s often weird because they speak in an odd way, then people suspend their disbelief and they’re in it. I can’t do that. To me it’s about trying to keep it real. There’s always great danger in that, not believing in it enough, the fantasy.

So do you not go to the theatre?

I do go, depending what’s on. Shakespeare’s about the best. I get bored with a lot of theatre but I don’t tend to with Shakespeare. When I was growing up in a suburb of Glasgow, I used to go to the Citizens Theatre and it was free to get in, or at least very cheap. I used to see a lot of George Bernard Shaw as well. I felt I saw a lot of theatre growing up, as well as weird art stuff. It must have had an effect.

What about the Edinburgh festivals?

I never came to the Edinburgh festivals growing up. The first time I enjoyed Edinburgh was when I came here to do the ballet at the Traverse Theatre in 2010. We did nine performances. I loved doing multiple performances and going to see things. Nothing is ever finished, it’s working towards something else.

Do you get asked to do set design, like fellow Turner prize-winner Anish Kapoor did last year for English National Opera?

I have been asked. I was asked by Sadler’s Wells to do something like that but it led to the work in which I choreographed the ballet. It began by them contacting me as a visual artist. I wanted to work with the dancers.

Your Work No 227, the light turning on and off in an empty room, which won the Turner Prize, feels theatrical. Is it?

Aye. I’ve always thought all that is, is a really stupid experiment with a theatrical device. The lights going on and off, wherever you look in the room you see the work. It’s also like music as it’s all around you. It was an experiment. After I did it, I just liked it.

Part of the Edinburgh International Festival, Words and Music is at the Studio until August 27