Art doesn’t always need its own production team. After a month of inflated spectacles at November’s Performa, an affair full of high-gloss art, dance, and theater collaborations, it’s refreshing to see a near-barebones production. In a time when big-name art so often means aesthetic-puffery, anything “minimal” seems like an artifact.
In that “antiquated” corner, we see Martin Creed’s “Work No. 1020,” an hour-and-a-half-long performance that didn’t try too hard. On Thursday night’s performance at the Kitchen, Creed played guitar and piano with his band: It was a rock show, pure and simple. And oh, there’s five ballerinas, among a handful of other elements: videos (of a butt, a penis, a nipple, and poop) sometimes played in the background, and for a few seconds, a smoke machine came out on stage. The main draw to the performance wasn’t an artsy one, it’s the music: Creed’s a Turner Prize winner, but lo, he’s also a fucking talented musician. (That is, if you like your music to sound like a fuzzy, twee Harry Nilsson or Syd Barrett; with Creed’s overwhelmingly strong Scottish accent, it was hard not to be reminded of the Proclaimers.)
I want to call “Work No. 1020” a rock-ballet, but that’s not quite right. Before the night began, we’d heard there’d be ballerinas, who Creed had choreographed to dance along to his band in each of the five basic ballet positions. As we walked up to our seats at the Kitchen, we could see Creed chatting with the five casually-outfitted dancers as they sat, stretching out before the night. All wore socks without shoes; one sported knee-length Adidas running shorts, another, a Run D.M.C. T-shirt. There were no point shoes or tutus in sight.
The night, simply put, was like this: Creed came out, and he played a song. And then, we’d get more songs, and sometimes the dancers would just run around on stage, hop, or crawl around. There really wasn’t much dancing. Stomping, jumping, running: In “Work No. 1020” these are all variations on ballet. Or at least that’s just one way to look at it.
Throughout the night, we’d catch glimpses of Martin Creed, gussied up as a showman. He’d stop the music from time-to-time to introduce his dancers, and simply, to explain what the hell he’s doing (somebody in the audience must’ve be thinking it). In his plaid pants and a harmonica worn round his neck, Creed joyfully explained he didn’t really know:
A lot of the dancers here tonight use the basic, five different positions in classical ballet. And to try to write music that goes along with that! I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know what notes to use, I don’t know what notes are better than other notes … because I don’t know how to do things just by the feel of it. Because I don’t know what my feelings are.
No, there’s no feelings in Creed’s experiment; just bodies moving mechanically, and instruments, too. The dancers seemed like they were part of the band; big, wide hand movements seemed to match up exactly with various notes. People were like instruments; when notes rose, the dancers would, too. (That was reiterated in the most teenagery joke of the night, with a video projection of a soft penis rising, going hard to Creed’s rising guitar solo.)
And although Creed’s working through an experiment of sorts, that doesn’t mean the results look or sound off-the-cuff. Since 2009, he’s been performing “Work No. 1020” in cities like Edinburgh, Chicago, London, and Brussels, rotating the dancers throughout. It seems the work has been made meticulous through practice, through repetition.
The rock-ballet is not a life-altering experiment, but it gets to what Creed’s art is all about: finding similarities and harmony between unrelated things. You can see that at his current show up at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (the Kitchen performance caps off the third in a series of concurrent New York art events). Two pyramids, one of toilet paper and one of cinder blocks have been installed in the gallery, as if to show (however flimsy the relation) that anything and everything can be transformed into a powerful, ancient symbol. Sometimes Creed’s connections work, and sometimes they don’t. On Thursday night they did, but I doubt that’s how Creed would measure success; rather than perfection, he seeks repetition.