When Martin Creed's lightbulbs won the Turner Prize in 2001, critical opinion split like a faultline. Work No. 227: the lights went on, the lights went off. Was it brilliance or banality? Was it both at the same time?
That question has followed Creed ever since – or has Creed followed it? Either way, it certainly applies to this shambling solo show for the Edinburgh International Festival. Words and Music is a ragbag collection of little speeches and songs; the stage equivalent of an artist's sketchbook.
Creed, whose broccoli floret of grey hair gives him a mad scientist's demeanour, stands in a circle of computers, microphones and musical instruments – a little clearing of communication technology. He shuffles between them, talking, playing and doodling. Oh, and he's made his own trousers.
All of it muses, in a vague, roundabout way, on language. Creed's increasingly sceptical of words. He might find music more truthful. If words represent thoughts, music works with feeling. Language has its limits, and we don't always say what we mean. Creed says all this with an artful inarticulacy. He fumbles and fudges, ums and ahs. He recites a half-thought here – how toilets are like art galleries, white walls and full of dicks; sings a snippet of song there. It's like he's shaking out the contents of his head: pin-sharp insights and the fluff that's fallen down the back of his brain.
It's a mix of the inane and the ingenious. Words and Music treads that tightrope precisely until, like his lightbulbs, you can't tell one from the other. Ingeniously inane or inanely ingenious? One masquerading behind the other – but which way round? It's like the duck-rabbit illusion: both things at once. Creed's always self-aware, never entirely in control. Or is he?
Behind him, two words – YES and NO – are projected on a screen. They flash up alternately. Sometimes, Creed explains, he says ‘yes,' but means ‘no.' In agreeing to this show, for example, he said yes, but felt no. What if there was a word that said both? Nosey, he suggests.
Those words, YES and NO, aren't just words any more – not in Brexit Britain. They're a choice. They're our tribes. They've split this country in two. That, Creed implies, isn't our fault, but the fault of language and a world governed with words. The problem with words, he says later on, is that they come one at a time. What would it be like to speak several simultaneously? Without that, words can't contain their own contradictions. Beneath the scatty surface, then, this is a sharply political show.
Those trousers are key. They're not cut like ordinary trousers. He just sort of folded material around himself and pinned it in shape. They're a bit odd, but they do the job – and they solve some of the problems trousers usually have. They've got give in the crotch, for instance, and a pleat to cover the fly. He had to make a top to hold them up, another wrap, but hey, it all holds together as an item of clothing. Unusual, yes, but not ineffective. It's an outfit that says ‘Another way is possible.'
Words and Music runs at the Edinburgh International Festival, The Studio until 27 August at 10.30pm.