Trans-Atlantic Friction: Visiting Martin Creed’s “The Back Door”


The Park Avenue Armory is a deeply American space. At least, that’s what ran through my head on a recent visit there to see Martin Creed’s The Back Door. (It will run through August 8th.) Most of the interior looks divorced from the modern era, as though a visitor could round a corner and witness archaic soldiers in preparation for a war below a flag with a reduced number of stars. A video monitor near the entrance displayed a slideshow of the building’s history, including a visit from Dwight Eisenhower. So: a strain of history looms large here.

As I walked into the Armory, I caught sight of a curtain moving back and forth, seemingly of its own volition. This in turn made me think of a haunted house, and established the fact that a sense of play would prevail here. This impulse wouldn’t be wrong – some of the video work shown featured people cheekily displaying half-chewed food, smashing flowers, and (less endearingly) shitting on the ground. A sense of play, a sense of irreverence, a sense of the absurd – that all seemed fair.


As I stood watching one of the videos play, however, I heard music wafting down from the far end of the drill hall. I saw a small group of musicians marching down the length of the space, playing a jaunty tune that I assumed was a bit of folk music written centuries earlier. (I was wrong on that count: the composer, it turns out, was Creed.) But to my (American, admittedly) ears, the tune sounded both English and timeless – the sort of music one might employ in a theatrical production to signify “this is set in England, and in the past.”

In some of the rooms located closest to the Park Avenue-facing side of the building, I found a transfixing clash between the heady conceptual aspects of Creed’s art and the historic decor of the space where they were located. In this context, 1996’s The lights going on and off (which is exactly what its title suggests) seemed memorably dislocated from place and time: a modern poltergeist crossing space and time to unsettle passers-by in the early 20th century. Creed’s work alone is frequently compelling, both the works that tap into a viewer’s intellectual/conceptual side, or those that tap more into a puckish sense of play. And while the space housing them lends an additional layer to the proceedings, it’s a largely welcome one, which creates still more dimensions in which these works can exist.

Photos by James Ewing; photos courtesy Park Avenue Armory.

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