John O'Reilly

How big is small? In Flann O’Brian’s exotic world of The Third Policeman the character Sergeant McCruiskeen is an artist, a sculptor. He spent years making minute boxes like chinese dolls, each opening into another. Number twelve took three years to make. It was so small it took him another year to convince himself that he had made it. From number 30 onwards the boxes had become invisible.

Martin Creed is one such artist. His small is enormous. In comparison the minimalism of John Cage is baroque, flamboyant and gaudy. Tom Waits once sang “the big print giveth, the small print taketh away”. Martin Creed works in the small print.

The immense rigour with which he avoids making aesthetic decisions in creating his pieces is reminiscent of the American artist Sol LeWitt who wrote “when an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art… [the art] is purposeless.” What, in the words of Sol LeWitt, is Martin Creed’s idea?


How do you communicate nothing? How many different ways can you communicate nothing? For someone working with such limited data, he has tapped a rich vein of nothing. Work No. 81 for the Starkmann Building in London—nothing as interior design. Work No. 88 for a London Imprint series—nothing posted and sent through the mail. The titles themselves give nothing away.

He has a handy formula of disappearance:

the whole world + the work = the whole world

In this equation the work is both something and nothing. It adds and subtracts. Art degree zero. Consider the artist’s instructions for Work No. 105.

“Audio cassette: recorded piece for Piano
The ascending and descending chromatic scales played over the whole piano keyboard, each note being played for one second and being followed by a one second rest. Side A of the cassette contains the ascending scale, and Side B the descending.”

One admiring critic judged Martin Creed’s work to be transcendentally pointless. In our accelerated culture of the more (the more real, the more true) the extra, the hyper, of information, this is Art in the pursuit of lessness. An ascetic art which yields a desert of meaning.

Perhaps it is what french philosopher Paul Virilio calls the art of disappearance. Like Howard Hughes, a technological monk who laboured exhaustively in order to disappear, Martin Creed’s seductive subtraction opens a window of opportunity, a vehicle of disappearance into another world the audience of Work No. 117 are fortunate. It is likely by the time he gets to Work No. 150 the work itself will have completely disappeared.

John O'Reilly, 1995