Keep On Running At Tate Britain In Martin Creed's Work No. 850

By Harry Semple and Marian Cleary | 10 July 2008
A photograph of a man running through an old museum building

Martin Creed's sprinter redefines Tate Britain's Duveen Gallery. © Harry Semple/Culture 24

Exhibition review: Harry Semple, Culture24's year 10 intern, sees if he can keep up with Martin Creed's Work No. 850 at Tate Britain.

For the two of us who had headed to Tate Britain specifically to see Martin Creed’s Work no. 850, there was a sense of anticipation as the allotted time for its recommencement approached.

Children were being told by the custodians not to run and a big crowd of tourists were bemusedly shuffled around so that they did not block the main thoroughfare. And then, once they had repositioned themselves, they were moved again for fear of blocking the entrance/exit of the space.

Then the runner ran and those people who had not loitered in expectation were taken aback as the first sprinter of the afternoon sped down the 86 metre long Duveen Gallery and out the other end.

It was curious to see their backward glances as if to say, the only reason that someone can be running is that they were being chased. However, with the 30-second interval between sprints, there was no one on their tail.

They were just doing what Martin Creed had conceived – that the runners should run as if their lives depended on it. So, no, they had not stolen a pencil from the Tate shop around the corner.

A photograph of a man running past visitors to a museum

Crowds give Creed's work an added dimension. © Harry Semple/Culture 24

Each runner arrives calmly and then bursts into an immense run fulfilling Creed’s wishes then disappears. The 'team TB' members then go round the back of the gallery and re-emerge some time later – there are about 5 runners on each shift.

While you can read much into the experience, the sight and sound alone is fascinating. The running is so smooth, silent and controlled and the interval forces you to think about the space they have just whipped through at such a rate.

While the running is intended by Creed to demonstrate the beauty of human movement, there is also stillness when they are gone.

And then there is the incongruity – the thumping classical architecture can find no better contrast to the lightness and bursting energy of the sprinters. While the gaps between the sprints show stillness of the building, the runners seem to be saying, “to hell with that”.

And this is euphoric. As Creed outlines in his own take on the piece, if death is stillness then movement is the biggest sense of life so running must be the exact opposite to death. While the logic may be a bit shaky, the big old classical pillars holding up the Duveen Gallery's roof seem all the more lifeless for Creed’s intervention.

A blurred photograph of a man running past a silhouette of a stationery person

Parallel worlds at Tate Britain. © Harry Semple/Culture 24

That said, there is also something ghostly about the experience. A stark figure running through a gallery, although populated with crowds, has an eerie feeling to it. They seem to be in a different parallel world to us and there are no obstacles in their way.

Ultimately, what though does it mean? For us, the visitors, both those aware of what was happening and those who had encountered the piece after a calm visit to the Blake rooms, gave the meaning to Creed’s work.

This is because it is about encountering the incongruous but also about how we all navigate spaces. It became all the more obvious, as we watched the runners pass and the crowds shift, the way that even lumbering school children take on a different pace of movement in the space of Tate Britain.

People are moving calmly - the works aren’t going anywhere after all. And then this is disrupted by a burst of energy and power - and that is surely what a visit to an art gallery is about – having your complacency and expectations challenged.

The thirty-second wait between each burst and release of energy makes you realise the shifting nature of crowds and they themselves seem to become part of the work. One run might be through a practically empty space with mere swishing as the runner passes.

Thirty seconds later and a huge spread of people has populated the gallery, and the runner takes life in hand and either darts round those looking as if stuck in headlights as they realise what is bearing down on them or, alternatively, people scatter out of the way to let the powerful athlete through.

And having watched the crowds and watched the runners and watched the space, it seems like you are looking at your daily world. People come and go. Obstacles are put in your way – do you move or can they? Will you get through? Will you work out which way to swerve?

This is good fun. It’s people watching with a purpose because no two runs are the same and no two populations the runner encounters are the same.

And best of all, the lady who revealed utter disgust with the fact that her world had been invaded by such outrageous behaviour – well, her face was a picture.

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