From a corridor I see a glass window at the centre of a door burst with light. Seconds later it is dark again. I walk to the door and stand directly in front of the black square, waiting for the light. When it comes I push. On the other side is a large, clean room with white walls and high ceilings. It is painfully bright, with the severe, hypodermic quality of hospital light. I can see no one and nothing in the space. The lights go off. I stand still. I can still see no one and nothing, albeit for different reasons. I wait, blankly. The lights go on. I inspect the space. Eyes upwards, I see, suspended from the ceiling, an aluminium truss to which floodlights are attached. I begin to count them. The lights go off. I’ve oriented myself to my environment a little so that now, despite the darkness, I can move with some confidence to my left, towards a corner of the rectangular room. I stop. I can pick out the floor. My eyes are adjusting, the pupils widening.
The lights go on. My overexposed retinas are flooded, a white shock which has something of the surprise of pain and snaps my head back. I see that the opposite end of the room is open to another. The neighbouring room has a red wall, on which hangs a painting of a man on a horse. A woman is looking at the painting. I look at her looking at the painting. I remember that I was supposed to be counting the lights and look up again. The lights go off. I close my eyes. I am leaning against the wall. I am in an art gallery, and would not normally lean against a wall. This fact preoccupies me. The lights go on. I sit down in the corner. I take my notebook from my bag and find a free page. I peer into my bag for a pen. The lights go off. I scrabble blindly for a pen. I find it, but I have lost my page in the notebook. I wait. The lights go on. A couple scurry hand in hand into the room from the door on my right. They are happy and young. They perform a kind of straight-legged quickstep across the space. The lights go off. They freeze. There is a game like this, I remember, called “Murder in the Dark.” I played it as a child. They haven’t seen me in the corner. The lights go on. The pair resume their skittish journey across the space, laughing. The lights go off. The stutter of their steps stops. I reflect upon the avuncular affection I have developed for them in the preceding ten seconds and the absence from my own life of a kooky, high-spirited Annie Hall-type girl with whom I might skip hilariously through art galleries. The lights go on. They skip through the exit, dizzy with themselves. The lights go off. Avuncular affection is displaced by brooding envy.
The lights go on. A man in his thirties stands at the threshold. He is wearing some kind of oversize necklace slung around his neck that might be a metal bike lock. He says, “it’s just lights going on and off.” The lights go off. I hear a woman say, “there’s someone in the corner.” Her tone is quizzical. She is referring to me! I am thrilled. The lights go on. She is nowhere to be seen. Two men walk into the room and begin to read an explanatory text on the wall to my right, which I hadn’t before noticed. The lights go off. This pleases me. I consider the very specific noise that the electric lights make each time they turn on and off, thumping into the silence that otherwise prevails. I decide that I will attempt to accurately transcribe the sound into my notebook immediately after each switch. The lights go on. THGHUH! This does not satisfy me. The lights go off. FTHU! The second hands of clocks, I am suddenly aware, do not actually emit sounds corresponding in any objective sense to “tick” and “tock.” The difference is a construction of the mind, which likes to differentiate in order to… The lights go on. I have lost my train of thought. I recall that the previous evening my friend Alice and I had visited our local cinema. On entering we walked though the small antechamber that locks noise out of the theatre by forcing entrants to walk through two doors. In this tiny space a light bulb flitted on and off madly. “Like the apocalypse,” she said. The lights go off. I think about death.
The lights go on. Into my mind jumps a scene from a David Lynch film, an extended tracking shot in which the camera moves through the rooms of a luridly decorated, red-carpeted flat where someone might be hiding. The camera stops to linger on the open door of one room, which I remember as having green wallpaper, and from which a flickering light emerges. It was almost unbearably frightening. The lights go off. Am I ruining the experience of this artwork for people by sitting in its corner? The lights go on. There is a handprint on the far wall. Someone must have been reading a newspaper before coming in, presumably the free one they hand out on the tube, with its cheap ink. The lights go off. I am unusually conscious of my own body. I put my hand to my chest and am alarmed by the violence of my heart beat against my chest. The lights go on. At the open end of the room I can see people walking past, only glancing in, or standing very briefly at the threshold. The lights go off. The few people who do come in have, I think, tended to walk a straight line between the entrances/exits at opposite ends of the room. No one walks around it, there is no aimlessness. The lights go on. A fat woman dressed in an animal-print coat, dragging a child, enters. “Oh that’s it isn’t it,” she says. The lights go off. I hear someone say “bad for me.”
The lights go on. A dapper man in a blue blazer, red sleeveless cardigan and precisely pressed trousers approaches me to ask whether I am “part of the work.” The lights go out. I ask him whether he would like me to be. He says, “Without you there I don’t think”—the lights go out—“that there’s any point. You make it quite interesting.” I ask him why there has to be a point. He tells me, by way of an answer, that he likes to balance spoons on the edges of cups. “My record is five, then they auto-destruct.” The lights go off. I ask him whether he considers his spoon-balancing to be art. “I do, but nobody else seems to, because I am not a real artist.” I say that he should let others be the judge of that. The lights go on. I have blurred spots in the centre of my vision. I feel a bit sick, but very calm. The lights go off. I have been trying to continue writing in my notebook in the intervals of darkness, but my script veers hysterically off the line. I remember that an ex-girlfriend once took drawing classes in which she had to sketch a portrait without looking at the paper, using a continuous line. They were like wireframes. The lights go on. I look at my watch. I am surprised at how long I have been in the room. I put my pen and my notebook in my bag and push my right hand down against the floor to raise my body up. The lights go off. I remain standing up, not quite knowing what to do with myself. The lights go on. I walk towards the far exit. I emerge from Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, a work of art by Martin Creed, into an adjoining gallery at Tate Britain, the self-styled “home of British art,” where hangs a picture of a man on a horse in a gilt frame.
Ben Eastham is the co-founder and editor of The White Review, and the co-author with Katya Tylevich of My Life as a Work of Art, a book on contemporary art, forthcoming with Laurence King in 2015.
"Work No. 227, The Lights Going On And Off" © 2014 Martin Creed. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, New York City
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