Broken Dreams Tate Gallery, London
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The Independent Culture
The woman is clearly very unhappy. For some 18 days now, she's been crying non-stop. It's a terrible sobbing from the gut that rises in a hysterical crescendo and then drops down into gasping breaths before pattering out the short, staccato notes that make you want to shout "stop", just before the cycle begins again. She's inconsolable and there's nothing anyone can do to help. The problem is, she's just not there.

This cri de coeur is merely a recording, played interminably through a hi-tech hi-fi. Broken Memory, by Genevieve Cadieux, the Tate's third exhibit in its new Art Now room, seems to be ready-made ammunition for those who habitually castigate the gallery for its policy on contemporary "cutting- edge" art. In reality though, Cadieux's work has its roots in the classical world, in the lamentations of Achilles, Andromache and Hecuba, and in a painterly tradition which runs through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Its theme, like all Cadieux's work, is the physical manifestation of suffering. In the past, the artist has addressed her subject with huge photographs of scars and bruises on the human body. Now though, she reaches inside, to understand the nature of mental pain. Cadieux's screaming woman emanates from four loudspeakers set in the walls of a hollow glass trapezium which bears an obvious resemblance to a sarcophagus. In effect, she presents us with a cenotaph - a repository for world grief - from which the manifest pain of a billion transferred thoughts is projected back on to the thinkers.

As an experience, Cadieux's installation is both intriguing and disturbing. My fellow viewers were obviously uneasy, leaving very quickly and quietly, avoiding the difficult questions raised by this bizarre art work.

Do we, for instance, need to be shown what grief is like? Surely we all know that feeling, that sound, within ourselves. And moreover, surely grief is not valid unless it is genuine? Presumably here the artist has used the classic actor's device of thinking of the saddest possibility she can in order to make herself cry.

This, surely, is not real anguish. And does that matter? Well, yes. It's like anything that is simulated, isn't it? Just as there is something at the back of the voyeur's brain which proscribes soft porn in favour of the "real thing", so with tragedy, nothing comes close to reality. That's a very unpleasant feeling, not in itself devoid of a certain voyeurism. We have to make sure that what we are listening to is not just any woman crying - it is a specific woman with a specific agony. Otherwise, the grief is self-induced, and, in this respect at least, worthless.

But to the artist, such an open admission of mental suffering is fundamental, even when self-imposed. Cadieux admits that the piece was inspired by the writings of a 17th-century Mexican nun. In her poem "Words to be Sung", Sister Juan Ines de la Cruz calls on the reader's "anxieties" to "come out". She applauds the idea of revealing one's grief in public. And, true to the mores of her time, this concept of inducing grief is a little like self-flagellation, producing an indulgent mood of pseudo-religious ecstasy. Similarly, though, some might argue, as a reflection of sorrow, Cadieux's jeremiad is as empty as her glass box. But to do so would be to miss the importance of this work as a universal memorial for personal loss, the fallen of war, broken hearts - whatever you like. Ultimately, it seems pointless to ask who is the focus of such dreadful grief. It is surely everyone and everything. "Do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls." It could be you.

n 'Broken Memory' is at the Tate Gallery , London SW1 (0171-887 8000) to 5 Nov