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What's the point of it?

Nigel Halliday

Martin Creed
Hayward Gallery, until April 27

Perhaps unwisely I combined this show with tickets to Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at the nearby Young Vic. By the end of the day I was quite queasy and depressed. Creed and Beckett seem to share a conviction that we have no hope of making sense of existence, and what understanding and control we think we gain is laughable. But where Beckett uses savage satire, Creed adopts the knowing irony that characterises postmodern nihilism.

Creed likes systems. He invents rules by which a work is ordered. Wooden beams are arranged in a pyramid, reducing in size and number as they ascend. Squares of masking tape are added to one another until they make a cube. A distressing number of near-identical paintings comprise rectangles, each smaller than the one beneath, each apparently painted with a different sized brush from a shop-bought pack. These are entitled ziggurats, as if that gave them significance. But, although some form of control has been exercised, it has no meaning. The rules are arbitrary.

Moreover, the criteria by which order is imposed have no necessary connection with the identity of the objects. Four chairs in different styles are stacked according to size. Cactuses, all intriguingly different in kind, are arranged by order of height. Dozens of prints, each made with a piece of broccoli dipped in a different colour of paint, fill an entire wall. Their neat grid has an air of completion but its achievement is illusory. What, as the exhibition title says, is the point of it?

Creed's roots are in Minimalism, which wanted to make the viewer conscious of their physical presence with the art object, akin to the current enthusiasm for mindfulness. Visitors have to edge past a sofa, and consider whether it is a work of art, and whether they can sit in it (I decided I could, and was not set upon by attendants). Mundane trivia such as a blob of Blu-Tack or a screwed-up ball of paper, sheets covered in highlighter, or the lights going on and off can make you stop and reflect on where you are in the moment. But equally this can be the evacuation of meaningful categories or the ability to attribute value: the Blu-Tack is as important as the picture it serves; the highlighter as important as the words it might highlight.

Two works, however, differ from the rest. A giant rotating neon sign with the word 'Mothers' is arresting, although hard to analyse. At the other end of the show is a room filled with large balloons. A system is in play here: apparently the balloons contain half the air in the room. But it's an interesting experience to walk through the balloons, which are piled above head height: entirely peaceful when you stop, suddenly noisy as you move, potentially alarming if one goes off in your ear, and either pleasantly surprising or frightening at the thought of strangers you might meet in there. You don't see them coming.

But there is a sting in the tail of this exhibition, a touch of viciousness that echoes Beckett. First of all, on entering the exhibition, just on your left, at an easy reading height, an innocuous piece of paper displays the inscription, 'Something on your left, just as you come in, not too high or low'. In other rooms there are similar pieces of paper with self-referential instructions. Then comes a sheet which, as you lean in to read it, tells you simply to 'Fuck off.' A classic bit of attraction and repulsion characteristic of Creed's generation.

Then, in contrast to most of the works, which are overwhelming cerebral, there are moments of scabrous physicality. On one of the terraces is a large-scale video of a male organ rising and falling, as if sex is another disconnected process. In the last room as you leave, there are three short videos - figures set against a clear white background, projected large on the wall and with crystal-sharp sound so you can't avoid it - of a woman defecating, followed by two people vomiting. Presumably, this is about lack of control: these images have an effect on your viscera which cannot be prevented. Nor can it be evaded, because this is your only way out (via the gift shop). Block your ears and don't look left.

For all the whimsical humour, this is serious stuff, reductivist, nihilistic, the grinning mask of the culture of death.