Martin Creed: new definitions for ‘gift’

Regular readers may recall from a recent editorial that when ‘we’ bought Yinka Shonibare’s Trafalgar Square bottle to stand outside the National Maritime Museum ten times more was paid for it than had ever been paid for a work by this artist at auction.

That story of casual profligacy is now repeated in respect of inarticulate chancer Martin Creed, whose entire career is the creation of State Art. Without the life support machine of public patronage the likes of Creed would be stacking shelves.

In September 2013 the Tate bought Creed’s work no. 227, the lights going on and off, for £122,000, to add to the twelve other works it already owns by him. In passing, one of these is an editioned sheet of paper with ‘fuck off’ typed on it, a masterpiece considered so significant the British Council also owns it; indeed, four of the five Creed works in the British Council’s collection are duplicated in at least one other of the Tate’s, the Government’s or the Arts Council’s holdings. The Art Fund contributed £40,000 of their charitable donors’ money to the acquisition of no. 227. The fact that the Fund had already contributed to seven other Creed ‘gifts’ to the Tate via the Artist Rooms Endowment and to another work for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art indicates the now symbiotic relationship existing between The Art Fund and State Art – the Fund’s head is, of course, a former director of Tate Britain. To call this network an incestuous racket is to compliment it.

Ownership of work no. 227 is in the form of a certificate bearing a terse description of the piece, which comes officially in an edition of two plus one artist’s proof. The idea of an ‘artist’s proof’ existing for a sheet of typed paper is, of course, ridiculous, a misuse of an otherwise important distinction. Sadly, this is the sort of mercenary scam we have come to expect from fashionable contemporary art. Work no. 227 is actually in an edition of 3. One of the other two pages was bought in 2005 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of seven Creeds in their collection. MoMA won’t say how much they paid for no. 227 as they don’t “share information about the acquisition of objects”.

£122,000 is a sum significantly greater than has ever been paid for any other work by Creed. It should have cost much less. A more financially savvy Tate could have bought at auction a similar work in July for a quarter of this sum.

In 2001 Creed won the £20,000 Turner Prize. He was nominated for a touring retrospective – he

was the grand old age of 32. His Turner exhibition party piece was, famously, work no. 227, which was ‘made’, typed presumably, the year before. It caused the kind of concerted debate which instantly projects a merely notorious work to the status of modern classic. Creed became famous overnight. Before the Turner parade, the Tate could have bought no. 227 for well under £10,000.

When tracking sales of such works the process is confused because there are at least two durations of lights, of five seconds (work no. 227) and thirty seconds (work no. 127), which are sold as different pieces. Then there are other works in which lamps go on and off and buildings in which all the lights are turned on and off at the same time. It is symptomatic of State Art that once a line of merchandise becomes established in the canon, its secure infamy can be milked for profit: perhaps the best example of this is that there are now no fewer than nine pickled sharks.

In 2010 Creed gave an interview to The Independent in which he stated that he had given the lights going on and off (in its Turner Prize manifestation of five seconds duration), worth, he claimed, £110,000, to the Tate. This was among seven other works, also ‘gifts’, which he claimed were worth £162,000. At this time he refers to the lights being in an edition of three with the other two being in “private collections”. ‘Private collection’ is a curious way – is it not? – of describing MoMA New York.

In fact, this was all my eye and Peggy Martin, the on-off light was not included in any ‘gift’ otherwise the Tate wouldn’t have had to pay over the odds for it in 2013. And of the seven other works in the Tate’s collection which are said to have been gifts, all are stated on the Gallery’s website as having been contributed to by the Artists’ Rooms Endowment, the Henry Moore Foundation and Tate Patrons. When this group were exhibited at Tate Liverpool in 2012 they were described in publicity material as ‘gifts’. Demonstrably this is nonsense. I have been unable to ascertain – not least because none of the parties will tell me – what proportion of this group acquisition was a genuine gift. We should all be interested to know, if only because the value of these works stated by Creed – £162,000 – is a colossal misrepresentation of their real market potential. Of the seven works ‘gifted’ four are watercolours – crude ziggurats painted in diminishing horizontal blocks of different colours – from a series which until recently fetched between £350 and £1,700 each at auction. For some reason these scraps are very popular with State Art; the British Council and the Government Art Collection also have one each. The other three works ‘gifted’ might have fetched fifty grand on a good day. £162,000 for this stuff is daylight robbery.

On July 1st in Christie’s evening sale – i.e. a sale usually reserved for blue chip material – Creed’s no. 127 was offered. It was No. 2 in an edition of 2 (also actually 3!). This work had sold first in 1995, then in 1996 for £3,000, and in 2006 at a Kentucky auction for £22,000. The estimate this time (based no doubt on the common knowledge of what the Tate had forked out for their five-second version) was pitched at £50,000 to £70,000, doubtless in the hope that with some fancy footwork an auctioneer might edge the hammer price towards the magical six figures. Christie’s pulled out all the stops, praising its “minimal elegance and formal drama”. They went on: “By redefining the parameters of the viewer’s experience and rupturing perceptual norms, Creed forces us to engage with our surroundings in new and provocative ways.” Naturally, they didn’t bother explaining how our ‘perceptual norm’, whatever that is, had been ‘ruptured’ and what exactly ‘provocative’ might mean in the context of a light being switched on and off. Even had it sold for its high estimate, no. 127 would have been the cheapest work in the auction by four times. On the big night bidding never got beyond £32,000 and it didn’t sell. Not even the artist’s dealer, Hauser and Wirth, was prepared to 301 Moved Permanently underwrite the low estimate price, which is unusual in an evening sale where a conspicuous failure can fatally wound a reputation. This showed a distinct lack of faith all round in Creed’s market viability. Christie’s won’t answer questions on this fiasco and mention of it was left out of post-sale results. And as far as the auctioneer’s website is concerned no. 127 has ceased to exist. Rest assured we won’t be seeing a work by Creed feature in a flagship auction any time soon.

At Christie’s the day after no. 127 failed, another

301 Moved Permanently

Creed, a watercolour ziggurat from the same series as four of the seven works ‘gifted’ to the Tate said to be worth £162,000, sold for £2,500 – the lowest sum achieved in the auction. The day before at Sotheby’s a large neon work, also akin to one in the £162,000 ‘gift’ sold for £10,000, which was 25% below its low estimate.

In the context of this embarrassing rejection, the Tate’s acquisition of no. 227 for £122,000 looks like a reckless waste not only of their own money but of The Art Fund’s and the work’s other donor, a dodgy Ukrainian oligarch. They were all taken for a ride.

If they must buy fashionable trash like no. 227, the Tate should be instructed to do so at auction instead of buying expensively elsewhere. We should also be told what is their working definition of a ‘gift’. And I’ve mentioned many times before the wastefulness of State Art’s main collections buying the same stuff.

David Lee