Martin Creed, Scotsman Steps (Work 1059)

Martin Creed’s Work 1059 was commissioned by The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh as part of Creed’s solo exhibition Down Over Upwhich was presented there in the summer of 2010. It was one of the most popular exhibitions in the Gallery’s history. The show brought together works united by the idea of stacking and progression in size, height and tone. There were graded lines of nails and cacti; stacks of chairs, tables, Lego, planks and boxes; a recorded choir singing up and down the scale as the gallery lift rose and fell; and the central staircase was transformed into a synthesiser, each tread sounding a different musical note.

This last piece made manifest the extent to which the rest of the work in the exhibition was about going up and down steps. Creed talked about the exhibition as a whole in terms of a picture of growth; showing process, progress and things in movement. Throughout its preparation, he was planning Work No. 1059, a permanent work of public sculpture on Edinburgh’s historic Scotsman Steps.

The Scotsman Steps are an important part of Edinburgh’s cityscape: they link the Old and New Towns and have historically been considered as a road. Before restoration by Edinburgh World Heritage and Edinburgh City Council, they were extremely dilapidated, and vulnerable to misuse. The Fruitmarket Gallery suggested commissioning a public artwork for the Steps as part of the renovation, to help change public perception of them, and to fulfil the Gallery’s mission to make contemporary art freely accessible, bringing it out of the gallery to engage people where they are.

Martin Creed, with his smart response to public space, his ability to engage with materials and their surroundings and his understanding of the creative possibilities embedded in the act of going up and down steps, seemed an obvious choice for the commission. From the beginning, he considered the Steps as a thoroughfare, proposing to resurface them with different and contrasting types of marble from all over the world, each step and landing a different colour. The idea turns around a familiar material (though not one normally associated with Edinburgh) used in a familiar way. It acts as a sampler, introducing 104 different types of marble, putting the material as well as the visitor through its paces. Creed himself has described the work as a microcosm of the whole world – stepping on the different marble steps is like walking through the world.

Work 1059, like so much of Creed’s work, is an exercise in adding and subtracting by degrees. To make it, Creed started from nothing, and added something. The process of addition, though immensely complicated, involving architects, planners, engineers, stone cutters, builders etc, results in an intervention whose deceptive simplicity seems almost to take the addition away (though extravagantly marble and chromatically beautiful, the steps are still only steps, after all).

Creed is a musician as much as an artist, and talks about his process in terms more of music than of art. He sees himself as the composer of his work, writing a score to which others – curators, technicians, viewers – bring their own interpretations. Music is an art form that makes itself as you listen to it, and this is important for Creed – there is often the sense that his work is making itself in front of you rather than letting you in on the tail end of a process mostly achieved in the studio.Work 1059, though architecturally a complex piece of stone work and engineering that took two years to plan and achieve, is an artwork that is made and remade every time a viewer walks up or down it.

Main image (photo: The Fruitmarket Gallery)

Aurora Corio