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The Nasher Balloonman
by Jerome Weeks 28 Mar 2011

Martin Creed is the Glasgow minimalist-conceptual artist who probably had the most notorious, controversial Turner Prize-winning work, ever — which is saying something. And now he’s taken over a gallery, the stairs and even the elevator at the Nasher Sculpture Center.



The view from inside “No. 1190” — about two yards in, looking out. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Martin Creed is the Glasgow minimalist-conceptual artist who probably had the most notorious, controversial Turner Prize-winning work, ever — which is saying something, considering the London art award has incited “Anti-Turner Prize” parodies and outraged protests, including dung and eggs being thrown. In 2001, Creed created Work No. 227, the lights going on and off — which was an empty gallery, where …  the lights went on and off. Every five seconds, if you must know.

You can’t say Creed’s titles aren’t a case of truth in advertising. Still, the drily amused Daily Telegraph dubbed the award “The Prize for the Emperor’s New Clothes,” and in the grand tradition of the Turner,  painter Jacqueline Crofton threw eggs at the walls of the empty room in protest, declaring that Creed’s works aren’t real art and that “painting is in danger of becoming an extinct skill in this country.”

That said, the fact is that there are Creed conceptual artworks and then there are other Creed conceptual artworks. Some are simply more engaging. Frankly, No. 227 sounds depressing, a reductio ad absurdum, a statement of inarticulateness.

Instead, take No. 1190, half the air in a given space at the Nasher Sculpture Center, which officially opened a show by Creed on Friday, one of the center’s small-scale “Sightings” series.

As you may have heard, No. 1190 is a gallery full of balloons. That’s it, that’s all.

And if conceptually, that doesn’t sound like a knockout, in practice, the work, as you push through it, makes you feel like you’ve stepped into Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 sci-fi film (left) about a teeny-tiny sub with teeny-tiny people injected into a full-sized patient’s bloodstream, with his corpuscles bubbling past their submarine’s windshield.

Which, frankly, I always wanted to do. And it certainly is an odd feeling, having the space around you partly solidified into a light, opaque, rubbery mass — a squeaky, static-electricity-generating, claustrophobia-inducing mass that reduces visibility to the length of your arm and slows your movements down to a drunken grope-and-shuffle.

Despite all the evident fun in that, Creed — an affable chap in person — swears he was not inspired by the typical kiddie playroom ball pit. He was abstractly considering how he might control the placement of an artwork in a gallery. That is, what could he do to a sculpture that would guarantee its particular location in a room? And he hit on the idea of filling all the space around the sculpture.

OK, so there’s some turn-your-mind-around thinking behind No. 1190. Or maybe it’s just a lot of hot air. But  it’s hard to beat Winnie the Pooh’s observation that “no one can be uncheered with a balloon.” Which explains why Creed’s ‘balloonrooms’ are his most popular works.

No. 1190 is not a solo piece at the Nasher; the Creed installation includes other, smaller works that shape your experience in different ways. If you take the elevator down to the lower level gallery, you’ll hear musical tones. If you walk down the stairs, you’ll set off a descending scale of notes — like Tom Hanks playing the big floor keyboard in Big (above), but with, you know, a more vertical, dancing stairstep orientation. It’s not a grand insight or anything, but in both instances — just as Creed made air visible —  he makes your passage through space audible.

Frankly, none of the other works is as striking or playful or eureka-inducing, not the tall stack of three-quarter-inch plywood or the row of cacti of ascending sizes. Shrug. But the musical stairs, combined with the balloons, definitely take a bit of the chill off the typical somber art museum experience. When I did a little hopping etude on the stair steps (the lower level hadn’t been opened yet, workers were still testing the equipment), several visitors looked down from above. Waving and smiling, they encouraging me to keep going, make some music.

To answer your other questions about No. 1190:

1. How many balloons were needed to fill the Nasher gallery?

Nearly 9,000.

2. Who inflated them all?

Don’t ask a children’s party-clown to try it with his balloon animals. A professional firm (the kind that does weddings and conventions) handled the work. Professionals, Creed says, do a better job of tying off balloons — which means fewer of them deflate during the show’s run. To fill the gallery, they proceeded from the far wall, put up a barricade to hold back the inflated balloons, then moved it slowly towards the front of the room as they added more balloons. Ultimately, they pulled the barricade through the gallery door and popped the last balloons in from outside.

3. If the balloons fill “half the air in a given space,” why does it look as though they take up more like three-fourths of it?

That’s because there’s a fair amount of air between the balloons that you’re not taking into account.

4. With visitors wandering around inside, don’t some of the balloons burst? And won’t that cause the level to sink?

Yes, balloons do burst — and they’re replaced.

5. What about ‘leakage’? All those balloons dribbling out through the open door when people enter and exit?

Security personnel are there to prevent people from becoming disoriented and getting completely lost inside or bursting a lot of the balloons and, yes, to slip the occasional loose balloon back into the gallery.

6. How many of these ‘balloon rooms’ has Creed done?

This is his 10th — since 1998, when the first one was numbered 200.