Rewind: Lights Off and Talk Back

Martin Creed: The Lights Off, installation view, ACCA, 2005. Courtesy ACCA Archive

By Juliana Engberg

Martin Creed’s Lights Off Work No. 270, occupying ACCA’s 3 salon galleries, generated much debate, commentary and not a little consternation in the mainstream media.  What! No lights?!  Nothing to see!!  Well of course there was.  The situational and subtle lights, pooling from green exit signs, the tinsel, metallic light from the entrance point, the cracks of light from under doors, the red and yellow blinks emanating from fire detectors and movement sensors where all there.  The space was alive with lights and colour – and sounds and movement, but one had to be prepared to quieten the eye, mind and spirit to find the beauty in the gloom.

It’s so easy for the media to assume the worst of contemporary art.  It’s manna from heaven for the talk-backs and shock jocks. They fear they are being made fools of, that the artist is having a lend of them.  None of this was the case with Martin Creed’s Lights Off. The work’s monumental darkness had a purity and purpose that for many became a kind of transcendence, in keeping with a tendency within minimalist practice to evoke the ecclesiastical through simplicity.

‘How much did it cost?!’ barked one journalist. ‘Nothing’ I said.  ‘The lights are off, it is a most ecological project, low energy and low emissions’. ‘What does it mean?!’ …’everything and nothing, being and nothingness, negative theology’…whoa there!! It was all too much for the mainstream media brain.

Jon Faine had me on his morning ABC Radio program and started the interview glaring at me in silence – silence! a huge no no in radio-land – but as I told him, he got it!  He was evoking John Cage’s 4.33 minutes of silence – probably as a joke…but in fact he had hit upon one of the central premises of Martin’s filled up emptiness.  Well done Jon, I said!  Nevertheless you could feel the hostility.

Driving along a couple of weeks later, I was listening in to the ABC Conversation Hour, and still Martin’s project was top of the chatter list.  A listener from Ascot Vale called in…I braced myself…here we go, I thought…’Yes, Good Morning Jon’ the caller said…’I went to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art to see the Martin Creed Lights Off with my daughter’…’yes yes’, Jon excitedly encouraged … ‘yes, and it was one of the most profound and beautiful experiences I have ever had…’  she went on to describe that her daughter had some emotional issues to deal with and that they found the contemplative solitude of the project wonderful and helpful.  Nice.

Martin does not seek to prescribe the reaction to his work.  He puts it out there to allow it to be in the world and have the world find its way with it.  But he adheres to certain rules.  Keep it honest, keep it simple, and work with humility and an economy of material.  Lights Off was an epic version of his space and light works and lives on as an important experience for those who allowed themselves to go the phenomenological journey.

In addition to Lights Off Martin performed with his band a set of songs at the The Toff in Town – memorably his ‘numbers’ song – and gave a fabulous public talk at Federation Hall at the VCA.  Lights Off was presented opposite Callum Morton’s major project Babylonia at ACCA, and both of these projects were part of my Melbourne Festival Program for 2005.  Charlotte Day worked as coordinating curator on both projects.

Martin Creed: The Lights Off, installation view, ACCA, 2005. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Martin Creed: The Lights Off
8 October – 4 December 2005

Juliana Engberg is Artistic Director of ACCA.