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Martin Creed, ‘Work No. 725’, 2007

Compared to early conceptualism’s vehement political rhetoric against the material art object, I might have once said that Martin Creed’s approach to making things was that of the sensitive, self-aware, emotionally literate new man, achingly cautious not to bring too many new things into an already cluttered world. Like the art version of wearing a condom.

Up until now that is. There’s a big cock—but no condom—in Martin Creed’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Coppermill, an enormous video projection, ‘Work No. 730’, is a close porno shot in monochrome of a (possibly) black man’s dick entering (maybe) a white woman from behind, buttocks quivering with the crescendo thrusting. This is hot action in a show which otherwise satisfies itself with the cooler register of Creedian minimalia, but the contrast charts the oddly emerging bipolarity in Creed’s recent work; between the cerebral ruminations on what minimum terms can describe a creative event—classic Creed, as it were—and the anti-conceptual base materiality of Creed’s recent filmic excursions into shitting, pissing and vomiting —‘scat’ Creed, perhaps. That in this scission much of Creed’s impish humour has been lost to a fatigued, almost meditative abdication to procedural form—creativity on automatic—is not a positive turn.

Classic Creedian approaches interconnect most of the works in the show; a self-dismantling/constructing of perceptual and semantic difference or coherence, the slight shift from ‘just things’ to ‘just art’, Wittgensteinian riffs on what identifies something as something and not something else. So as the fucking slowly increases in tempo on screen, a gallery assistant is busy with ‘Work No. 736’, playing every key on an upright piano, from lowest to highest. After a pause, each key is plinked all the way down again. Two sculptures, ‘Work No. 725’, a vaguely phallic three-metre stack of two sizes of plywood sheet, the smaller size supporting the larger, and ‘Work No. 700’, three hefty steel I-beams of equal length stacked in order of the size of their section, both rehearse Creed’s something-from-nothing shtick, but in museum-sized chunks. A wall has been painted up with ‘Work No. 470’, fat diagonal black stripes, so that the surface is equally black or white; then there’s ‘Work No. 701’, a line of nails nailed into the wall, in descending order of length and gauge, echoed by ‘Work No. 679’, a white canvas painted with a range of black paint strokes, of declining width and length.

These are habitually slight interventions but they lack the audacious wit of earlier work, feeling like tired duplications of what Creed is supposed to be about. The obsession with polar or procedural alibis is relieved by the on/off neon ‘Work No. 671, FRIENDS’, and, peculiarly, ‘Work No. 657’, a framed drawing of a smiling young woman, in mixed media on livid green paper—both lighter, more open, less predictable. But one wonders if Creed’s weird turn to pre-linguistic forms—piss, shit, vomit and fuck—aren’t an extreme revolt away from conceptual niceties, while he remains stuck with the anxiety of creative (symbolic) production. As if the disquiet of investing in the creative act—always the pathos and humour of Creed’s work—has been reduced to the most obvious acts of bodily production.

JJ Charlesworth is a writer based in London