Art: And another thing...

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The Independent Culture
I'VE ALWAYS felt sorry for gallery attendants. Consigned to long, solitary vigils, their presence is diminished as far as the need for security and information will allow. But by comparison with the work that the performance artist Gary Stevens has cut out for himself and nine players in the two lower gallery spaces of Oxford's Museum of Modern Art this week, their lot appears paradisiacal.

For seven hours each day, Stevens' team are locked into repeat performances of a 35-minute sequence of minutely choreographed tableaux vivants that turn the participants into a conscious installation. And - first mounted last year at the South London Gallery - looks like an exhausting way to earn a living, but makes for exhilarating viewing.

Each complete cycle loops into the next, so it's as easy to discern the beginning of the strange behaviour patterns as it is to unpick a recalcitrant roll of Sellotape. I watched several runs convinced that the starting point was a sudden burst of activity in which the six women and four men come prancing up to each other to strike exaggerated attitudes of meeting: air kisses, a handshake, an Eskimo nose rub and so on.

In fact, this phase is the seventh of nine, but knowing the running order hardly helps. And continually teases the spectator with the possibility that there is a code to crack, a hidden narrative that will make sense of the to-ings and fro-ings. But the closer you look, the more you become distracted by the detail, the "and another thing" of it all.

Within each phase, the performers are assigned a repertoire of coordinated movements, gestures and expressions that are replayed, at first with absolute precision and then with subtle variations. These might be banal reflexes - arm-folding or leg-crossing - or more suggestive of will - a man gyrating against a wall, another smacking himself. The modulations imply a playfulness bred out of boredom, but also an insane loss of self-control: arms fail to fold, the smacks become frantic. One step forward becomes two steps back.

With their faces firmly impassive, the effect can be comic, like watching an aerobics class of malfunctioning Stepford Wives. But these sweating mannequins retain enough traces of their humanity to lend them the forlorn dignity of Beckett characters. You may just find your feet refusing to leave the gallery.

Pembroke St, Oxford. To Sun (01865 722733); 11-6pm; Friday's late-night opening includes extra sketches

Dominic Cavendish