When Words Spell Irony

By Nur’ Ain Farizan

Entering the room where Martin Creed’s art installation “Don’t Worry” is exhibited at the Singapore Biennale 2011, the audience is greeted by large, bright neon yellow words plastered on the white walls that scream DON’T WORRY. The minimalist way of presentation, which is a trademark of Creed’s style, makes the “message” of this artwork come across rather self-explanatory at first glance. Ah, Creed is encouraging the audience to quit worrying: A feel-good piece.

Usually, us mere mortals feel somewhat comforted when confronted with encouraging words that are aimed at making us feel better about our situation. After all, it is only human nature to seek some form of acceptance or understanding from others. Words of encouragement give us a glimpse of hope when the way forward looks bleak. They are like the sun peeking out from behind the clouds after a storm, showering warm rays of hope while illuminating our paths; very much like how Creed’s yellow neon “Don’t Worry” sign illuminates and casts a bright yellow sheen onto the room and its audiences.

My initial response to Creed’s “Don’t Worry” was sheer delight. Being the ardent optimist, I was pleasantly surprised at the (seemingly) apparent lack of cynicism in this artwork. Furthermore, as a student guilty of procrastination, I found myself happily looking up at the “Don’t Worry” sign, imagining an omnipresent Martin Creed whispering sweet words of encouragement into my ear. These brightly lit words by a stranger had the power to arouse a sense of confidence within me. It was as if a bond had been forged between the artiste and this particular audience member. Martin Creed and I are now acquainted!

When something makes us feel good, we tend to spend more time around it. True enough, I spent almost twenty minutes lingering around the room containing Creed’s “Don’t Worry.” This is a rather substantial amount of time considering the simplicity of this artwork. This simplicity factor also proved to be a point of deliberation that kept me in the room for much longer than expected. It brought about an issue to ponder over, which eventually leads to the age-old question: Is this art?

Nevertheless, the act of lingering around a confined area for a prolonged period of time forces one to pay closer attention to the space itself. The fact that Creed’s “Don’t Worry” is the only artwork exhibited in the room only serves to magnify the impulse to pay closer attention to the space, as there are no distractions around to divert our attention to. Furthermore, the minimalist style of the artwork itself invites the audience to explore their surroundings. Perhaps paying closer attention to the space where the artwork is exhibited could provide clues to better understand it? Surely, there must be more to this work of art than just a simple feel-good message!

One of the standout features of the room is its apparent “boxiness.” This “boxiness” is perpetuated by the square dimensions of the room and accentuated by its small size. The fact that there are no windows in the room only serves to emphasize this notion. It felt as if the audience is packed into a box along with an art installation that urges them to not worry. This comes across very ironic because the phrase “Don’t Worry” brings about a sense of freedom and flight, whereas the situation of being packed inside a box certainly does not share this sentiment. On the contrary, it gives off a sense of isolation and confinement.

Incidentally, the fact that there are no windows also give rise to another pertinent issue that inhabitants of the room will quickly come to recognize: ventilation, or the lack thereof. No form of ventilation system was employed in the room to improve its thermal comfort, despite the fact that there are no windows to provide natural ventilation. As a matter of fact, the room is actually equipped with an air-conditioning system that is not being utilized. Therefore, one can conclude that the stuffy atmosphere in the room is probably intentional. Being enveloped in a small, contained space without any form of proper ventilation only works to magnify a hundred folds the sweltering heat that is the humid tropical climate of Singapore. My initial impression of feeling comforted by the words was being gradually and ceremoniously replaced with an obvious dis-comfort.

Other than ventilation problems, the absence of windows also means that natural lighting would not be able to seep into the room. As such, artificial lighting will have to be used to improve visibility within the room. However, the only source of lighting in the room emits from the yellow neon “Don’t Worry” sign. The yellow sheen it casts onto the room, which was compared to the warm rays of the sun earlier on, no longer seem so inviting all of a sudden. On the contrary, the absence of other light sources only serve to heighten its artificiality, giving the room a dingy, eerie quality.

The still air, stuffy environment, dingy setting, confined space and the fact that I was alone lends an isolated and lifeless ambience to the room, causing the atmosphere to turn claustrophobic. Needless to say, I wanted out. Assuming that the two doors positioned right next to the artwork was the way out, I made my way towards it.

However, upon closer inspection, I realized that of the two doors, one had a “No Entry” sign, whereas the other one was locked. This heightened my anxiety and claustrophobia, I felt trapped! Suddenly, Martin Creed’s omnipresent voice of a Saint whispering “sweet words of encouragement” is given a whole new evil twist. With the stifling heat making its presence felt by the minute, it was as if Satan has finally bared his true colors, seducing one into the depths of Hell with his sultry words.

Evidently, I managed to leave the room unscathed (by going out from where I came in). Nonetheless, I went through a range of emotions in that room: from the initial sense of calm and liberation, gradually shifting into claustrophobic calamity. This makes the experience exhilarating and special. Just about anybody can enter the room, sneer at the artwork, question its artistic value, proclaim “Even I can do this” and leave in a matter of minutes. The issue that Creed’s “Don’t Worry” subtly highlights is the importance of interaction between an artwork and its audience, in order for any concrete understanding to come about. Rather than being too quick to judge, why not take time to explore the artwork and see if you can make any resonant meaning out of it? Only when a connection is forged can appreciation or the ability to critique an artwork occur, and sometimes it takes awhile for this connection to take place.

As for me, these are the thoughts that I took away from the experience: Words are empty vessels, context is important and action is character.

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Filed under Martin Creed, Old Kallang Airport, Open House Notebook

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