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Oh, the things we do for art. Work No. 850, a conceptual piece by the British visual artist Martin Creed, consists of a fleet of runners, moving one at a time, at top speed, through an exhibition space. On the opening night of Creed’s first significant show in Canada, I’m one of 10 volunteers doing the running. We’re at the museum owned by condo marketer and acclaimed collector Bob Rennie, just down from the gates to Chinatown—the building crowned by Creed’s Work No. 851, the 75-foot neon sign that reads “Everything Is Going to Be Alright.”
Twenty-three seconds. It’s not much time to run the course, which starts at one end of a longish corridor. A nice straightaway to pick up speed, then two large rooms you cross in a looping figure-8, wall to kitty-corner wall, the turns tight enough that you feel them in your ankles, the route littered with impediments both fixed and moving, forcing you to skip to get past, or shuffle-run, or do some deking and jiving, shoulders down, anything to keep your speed up before you tear down a second corridor so narrow you have to tuck your elbows as you round the entrance for fear of the exposed-brick walls. A hard left sends you back along the initial straightaway, flying now, fighting to save microseconds, breathing hard, knees pistoning across the line. Twenty-three seconds. Then twenty-three of stillness before the next runner sets off.
The main rooms are packed with artists, collectors, politicians (I nearly trample former mayor Sam Sullivan on one of my rounds), media types (Creed’s favourite Canadian reporter, Nardwuar the Human Serviette, holds court in dangerous proximity to the finish line—look out!), directors of boards, debutantes (a few drift back into our training area and gobble up our sandwiches), developers, restaurateurs, drug users, teetotalers, experts on happiness and divorce law, and octogenarians. Plus, the 10 of us, in sponsorship Lululemon gear, massed around the start line, each awaiting our signal to run as fast as we can, 23 seconds around the space and through the crowd and back again.
The exhibition—Rennie’s impressive collection of Creed sculptures, videos, installations, commissioned prints, and pieces hard to quantify—has been open to public tours twice weekly since May and runs until October 22, so that’s 88 sessions, and at every one, Work No. 850—which means a lot of running. (You can volunteer at Renniecollection.org—I recommend it.) But we’re the first of the sprinters, tonight—the first in the world, in fact, since Creed debuted the piece at the Tate Museum in London in 2008, we disparate group of physiotherapy students and gym rats and hard-core marathoners and semi-pro lacrosse players. Not a big gallery-going bunch; in fact, for many of them, this is their first visit to the space; hell, it’s been a long time since any of them have attended an art show—not that we’re attending tonight. We are the art.
Which is one of Creed’s points. Art is everywhere. Art is no big deal (witness Work No. 232: “the whole world + the work = the whole world”). In another room, he’s talking about such notions with his gentle, stubborn demeanour, ready with a laugh and that dark self-deprecation the Scottish do so well (he grew up in Glasgow, lives now in London), but wait, it’s time to run—
Corridor, rooms, crowds, brick corner, second corridor, straight-away, 23 seconds—
Creed’s most famous piece, Work No. 227 (not represented), is a room with the lights off. Then on. Then off. It won him the £25,000 Turner Prize, Britain’s most famous (and controversy-provoking) fine-art award. Madonna gave it to him; days later, a 52-year-old painter threw eggs at the work. Work No. 329 is a room half-filled with pink balloons (you can see them from Pender, massed against the windows), a conceit to make invisible air visible but also a commentary on sculpture as a practice—it’s so hard to decide when a piece is done, where to install it; why not leave the sculpture to drift, for viewers to complete the work through their movement and the eddies of air that follow them? Also in this show, a piano that collapses and reassembles, metronomes that swing left, then right…
Work No. 850 is also a refutation of the finished moment, Creed wanting to let motion and physical form speak for themselves. His central preoccupations of anxiety (he worries that people don’t like him) and play resonate deeply as we barrel along, both afraid to knock partygoers over and ecstatic over near-misses.
The running becomes a drug, as running always does. We “inadvertently” steal each other’s turn. The timekeeper changes into gear and joins in. The guests in suits and skirts are missing every inch of fun, the dumb slobs. The party’s here, running through the middle of the party.
My turn. The crowd is louder, sloppier. I’m worried I’m falling off my time. I’m worried I’m going to flatten someone. Another runner, a personal trainer, critiques my form. Pump your arms more, he says, that will lift your knees. Thrust your chest forward. Ready…Set—fists balled, heart held high—Go!
The after-party is at District 319, music by the Martin Creed band. The artist plays guitar and sings. He sees no distinction between this and sculpture; Work No. 850 could be understood as music. He strums (a lot of basic D and A chords), and caterwauls into the mike. His voice is not good. His songs are repetitive, like a door that opens and closes, and simple, like a room of pink balloons. I bolt, his lyrics in my brain: “Fuck. Off. Fuck. Off. Fuck. Off.”