An art viewer would make an ideal Dante because, when experiencing modern art, you have to thread your way through some terribly intimidating terrain. When the going gets really tough, you may even imagine that the neon writing on the wall says, 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here'. An art critic would make an ideal Virgil for a related reason. The critic is the dried-up old duffer with the hapless task of taking bemused viewers by the hand, and acting the omniscient guide. In other words, he or she has to put a neat philosophical spin on a vast catalogue of what look like gratuitous grotesqueries.
Something Virgilian is called for in the current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, the oddly titled 'Gravity and Grace: The Changing Condition of Sculpture 1965-1975'. Since opening in 1968, the Hayward has been an 'abandon-all-hope' sort of place, and this show is to the manner born. As you pass through the main entrance, a sheaf of paper is thrust into your hand with the following storm warning: 'CAUTIONARY NOTE - KEEP CHILDREN IN HAND AT ALL TIMES - DO NOT TOUCH WORKS IN THE EXHIBITION. Works in this exhibition are made from unorthodox and fragile materials - many are precariously constructed and several are electrically wired. Please take special care when moving round the galleries and, especially, keep children in hand.'
A child in the hand may not necessarily be worth two in the exhibition, but what follows can easily be construed as a chamber of horrors. Starring roles are had by ash, dust, felt, fat, lead, neon, gravel, concrete, cacti, foam rubber, burnt skin, broken glass, lettuce, cast-off clothes, metal cages and X-rayed rib-cages. This embarrassment of sights is matched by an embarrassment of sounds. Continuous aural stimulation is provided by the hiss of gas, the sound of steam, the crackle of strobes and electricity, and the shufflings of a live macaw.
What we have here is a reunion of the class of '68. There are 19 men in the class and one woman. Eight are from Italy, six from New York, and two each from England, Belgium and Germany. Four are now dead. Having begun by producing consumer- unfriendly 'anti-art', almost all of them - from Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse in America, to Joseph Beuys and Richard Long in Europe - have become darlings of the international art world.
They share a Neo-Dadaist distrust of fine art media and methods, and a preference for the found, rather than the crafted, object. Assemblage is the characteristic form - the apparently haphazard, precarious and enigmatic yoking together of disparate elements. Their exhibitions had much in common with Happenings and experimental theatre. Not only were they frequently fly-by-night affairs, but they were also staged in unconventional arenas - warehouses, garages and factories. It may sound heretical, but this aesthetic has its roots in the romantic cult of the fragment and the ruin.
The first room is presided over by the American Richard Serra and the Italian Giovanni Anselmo. If you were disappointed by Serra's recent installation at the Tate, the three pieces at the Hayward may just change your mind. Five Plates, Two Poles blocks the way as you enter the gallery. It is a strange kind of military-industrial dinosaur. It consists of five huge steel plates propped up against each other like playing cards. Their surfaces are rusty and still peppered with the manufacturer's chalk marks. All five stand directly on the floor, their oblique configuration determined by two steel poles, also laid on the floor. The gaps between the slabs are as ominous and crucial as the crack that runs through Poe's House of Usher. As a structure, it appears to dice with death, both its own and that of the onlooker.
Anselmo's pieces deal with tension, but in a more urbane and whimsical way. In Direction (1967-8), a tiny compass has been embedded at the bottom of a large, arrow-shaped piece of granite. Maddeningly, the needle of the compass points in the opposite direction to the granite 'arrow'. It seems as stubborn as a sniffer dog straining at the leash.
The myth of Sisyphus looms large in Anselmo's imaginative universe. In the hellishly complicated Untitled (1969), a cube of granite has been fastened with copper wire to the top of an upright block of granite. The piece ought to have been called Salad Days, for what keeps the cube in place is a fluffy green lettuce sandwiched between it and the block. Unless the lettuce is changed daily it will shrivel up, thus causing the cube to fall on to a mound of sawdust that has been considerately placed at the base of the block. Anselmo's contraption is an absurd vanitas - a dandy hybrid of Heath Robinson and De Chirico.
Most of the work in 'Gravity and Grace' falls somewhere between two genres - still life and landscape. In both, humanity tends to be excluded or marginalised, referred to by inference or in reduced form. More than other genres, these entertain the possibility that man is not the master of the situation, and is incidental to the scheme of things.
A striking example of this is the three-part, untitled installation from 1967 by the Greek-born, Rome- based artist Jannis Kounellis. It is an intricate meditation on man's relationship to the natural world, and it dominates the main room at the Hayward. Eight minimalist-style steel troughs, covered in grey-green enamel, are placed on the floor. They are filled with a landscape of grit and cacti. Behind them lurk two still-life elements. Hanging on the wall is a grey-green steel panel from which a perch protrudes. This hosts a live macaw. To the left is a grey-green steel box, open at the top and at the corners. A white foam of unspun cotton spews forth.
Kounellis's elements are exotic, but they don't exactly conjure up a Gauguinian romp in the sun. Not only is the fauna finger-unfriendly, but the troughs, at just over 6ft long, are too coffin-like for comfort. The cotton, though abundant, looks overgrown and neglected. The spectacle of a solitary bird, engaged in an eternal sit-in, completes the picture of arid ennui. Overall, the ambience smacks less of Tahiti or Rimini than the dystopian wastes of a spaghetti western. This is not so far-fetched when we consider that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was made in Cinecitta the year before. Kounellis's triptych says 'Welcome to Tombstone, Rome, Europe, the World . . .'
Elsewhere in the exhibition we find forlorn piles of sacks by Barry Flanagan, desultory circles of stone by Richard Long, and morbid mounds of old clothes by Michelangelo Pistoletto. These last are part of an installation entitled Orchestra of Rags - Trio (1968). The clothes have been piled on the floor in three bagel-shaped ovals, limp tokens of dead or departed bodies. In the middle of each oval, Pistoletto has put three electric kettles, surmounted by a sheet of clear glass. When the water boils, the kettle whistles and the glass gets steamed up. Instead of a wailing wall, we have a wailing coffee-table. It bears witness to some unspoken domestic crisis.
Somehow, 'Gravity and Grace' never quite manages to be more than the sum of its parts. It ought to have been really dramatic and engaging, but it rarely catches fire or gathers momentum. This is partly due to the surfeit of works that are only innovative in terms of materials, rather than content. Mostly, however, it is due to the way that they have been installed. The blame lies squarely with the show's organiser Jon Thompson. He and his architect, Claudio Silvestrin, deserve to be sent forthwith to the Circle of False Installers, where they will sit in a white cube until the end of time.
Despite the fact that the class of '68 often exhibited in down-at-heel spaces, the work has been cutely cloistered within white walls. The Hayward's raw concrete has been covered up, when it would have made a far better backdrop. Equally inappropriate are the chic white display cabinets and the long, pastel green benches that have been installed in the two main galleries. The art is supposed to keep you on your toes - it asks to be walked round and through, peered at and into. By bringing in the designers, Thompson has tried to yuppify the past. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers that he used to teach at Goldsmith's College, and was instrumental in making it a mecca for neo-minimalism and conceptualism.
Thompson should also be sent to the Circle of Pretentious Pontificators. Here he will sit in a white cube reading his exhibition catalogue until the end of time. His own essay is a convoluted theoretical thrash that manages to talk about everything - Vietnam, Caro, Eco - save the artists in the exhibition (indeed, nowhere can you get any basic information about them - what is the Hayward up to?).
Two other turgid essays, by William Tucker and Yehuda Safran, discuss a sculpture exhibition from 1975 which included only one of the artists in Thompson's show (Serra), and argued for a return to more traditional kinds of object-based sculpture. At a conference, Thompson claimed that the inclusion of these essays was a 'joke', but I suspect that he included them because he is basically a closet traditionalist. Why else would he have dreamt up a title such as 'Gravity and Grace', which makes the whole thing sound like an exhibition of royal memorabilia?