James Newton


Is it possible to photograph the lights going on and off? 07.15

Is it possible to photograph Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The lights going on and off? As well as this being a purely practical question that one might have to ask in order to gain permission to photograph within the galleries of Tate Britain, it is also a philosophical question about the nature of the work and whether it is possible to show it in photographs – existential angst!

The work consists of an empty room which is filled with light for five seconds and then plunged into darkness for five seconds. This pattern is repeated ad infinitum. In exploiting the existing light fittings of the gallery space, Creed creates a new and unexpected effect. An empty room with lighting that seems to be misbehaving itself confounds the viewer’s normal expectations. This work challenges the traditional conventions of museum or gallery display and, consequently, the visiting experience. Creed plays with the viewer’s sense of space and time and in so doing he implicates and empowers the viewer, forcing an awareness of, and interaction with, the physical actuality of the space.

The work has been purchased by the Tate Gallery (2013) and is part of their collection, it can be displayed in any gallery at any time, or it can also go out on loan and be shown elsewhere. The work is listed on the Tate website but the listing for the work shows no image.

When shown at MoMA New York they explained that “the content of this work is almost nothing” and that today the work is “not on view”.

So is it possible to photograph the work? Or is it purely an experience?  By changing your perception of the ‘gallery experience’ it awakes you to a new way of seeing your surroundings and brings you into the present moment. Creed controls the fundamental conditions of visibility within the gallery and redirects our attention to the walls that normally act as support and background for art objects. He treats the gallery as a medium to be moulded, manipulating the existing lighting to create a new effect.

Whilst the photographs show the changing effect of light on the surfaces of the gallery, and the change in colour temperature and the change in light level, ultimately all they show is a room. But, as Martin Creed explains, “the work includes the people in the room” i.e. the viewer’s experience is a fundamental part of the work.

So it is like trying to photograph architecture, I can ‘show it’ and you can ‘see it’ but is that all there is to it? And if not, what are we missing – it might just be the point……