Martin Creed is a born multi-tasker. ‘I often think that if I’m trying to do a drawing or a painting or any kind of work, it’s like trying to narrow the world down to this one thing,’ says the British artist at a press preview for his exhibition at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. ‘It seems to me very artificial, because life is not like that. Life is all mixed up and all over the place.’ The same can be said of the sprawling survey—in the best possible way.

On view through 7 August, 'The Back Door' takes its name from Creed’s characteristically singular intervention in the Armory’s cavernous drill hall, the site of gargantuan installations past. ‘Martin and I stood there in the absolute dark, and we noticed the back door of the drill hall,’ said Tom Eccles, who curated the exhibition with Hans-Ulrich Obrist. ‘We opened and closed it, opened and closed it, and had this extraordinary experience of opening the Park Avenue Armory to one of the most democratic streets on the Upper East Side—the Lexington Avenue side.’

Creed has seized upon the building’s eastern aperture as a visual palette cleanser. The raising and lowering of the door’s metal shutters – and the dynamic snippet of city life they momentarily reveal – bracket a series of six video portraits, none longer than three minutes, in which the camera (slowed to one-eighth speed) zooms in on the unsmiling face of a woman (including model-turned-actress/entrepreneur Lily Cole), who ultimately parts her lips to reveal a mouthful of goo. The central space is empty save for the projection screen, a few spindly wooden benches, and the sporadic appearance of a troupe of roving musicians led by a megaphoned singer of Creed’s infectious melodies.

Elsewhere, Creed works both old and new, each titled tidily with a number, infiltrate the Armory, which is still in the throes of a $210-million room-by-room renovation masterminded by Herzog & de Meuron. A trio of metronomes marks times in one of the historic period rooms, while another is stuffed with the large white balloons of Work No. 360: Half the air in a given space (2015). In the parlour, the lights turn on and off, at one-second intervals, while one corridor is framed by velvet curtains that continually part and then come back together.

In a nod to the chaos of reality, Creed’s works mix and mingle with the Armory’s historic artefacts: here a grandfather clock pushed into the hall and set askew, there a wall-mounted elk head eying a shelf of newly arrived cactuses (Work No. 2376) with suspicion. Crumpled-paper balls and precisely stacked cardboard boxes are joined in glass cases by trophies awarded to outstanding cadets in the ‘Knickerbocker Greys’ youth corps or commemorating the victors of ‘indoor baseball’ competitions. Not surprisingly, Creed bristles at the ‘goals and rules’ that define sports. ‘What people call art, I don’t think it has a really clearly defined goal,’ he says, and then picks up to his guitar to elaborate with a song.