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Nice and cosy does it

If it's 1996, it must be the Year of Art. So what, asks Michael Church, are the Arts Council's taste-makers planning for us?
Visual Arts UK? Yes, it's as corporate as it sounds. Each year the Arts Council pushes the boat out for a particular art-form; 1995 was the Year of Literature (though you would have been forgiven for not noticing it). The current Year of Art, focusing on the north, should be harder to ignore. A pounds 60m building programme will see the conversion of the splendid Baltic Flour Mills in Gateshead into an arts centre, the erection of a National Glass Centre in Sunderland, a Dock Museum at Barrow-in-Furness, and a rash of new galleries from coast to coast.

Dry-stone magician Andy Goldsworthy (see also review below) will create 100 sheepfolds in Cumbria; Stefan Gec will make a sculpture from scrapped Soviet submarines. Carlisle will host an international conference of "artist- blacksmiths"; Middlesbrough will host the Drawing Biennale; Stockton will hold a riverside festival. There will be exhibitions of Russian folk art, Renaissance Spanish art, glassware from Finland, and "multiples" by Claes Oldenburg. A French artist who derives her inspiration from surreptitiously burrowing in people's handbags has been commissioned to "develop ideas for a work" in a Northumberland village. All the fun of the fair.

Things kicked off last week with a clutch of exhibitions in Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland, in which the public purchasers of contemporary art displayed what they had been buying on behalf of you and me. A tour d'horizon of approved art - before it is dispersed to galleries all over Britain - seemed too good to miss, so I hopped on the train to get the official treatment.

While we sped northwards through Darlington, sculptor David Mach extolled the virtues of Train, the 30ft-high brick locomotive he is to build on the outskirts of that city. It had already drawn accusations of wasting public money, but that was OK by him. "It will be indestructible," he said with a provocative glint. "This will be a big, fuck-off thing."

Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North, which will embellish a motorway junction outside Gateshead, is not yet built, but a 6ft maquette stands amid the Pre-Raphaelite clutter of Shipley Art Gallery. The ritual comparisons with Christs overlooking Rio and Lisbon seem inappropriate: Gormley's angel is - like the rest of his work - dour and expressionless. Unlike Mach, however, he wasn't on hand to tell us where to stick our prejudices, nor was he hovering round his travelling opus Field - 40,000 terracotta figures currently thronging a derelict engine-shed a few streets away.

It took 12 workers four days to unpack and lay out this essay in suffocation. The maestro, I was told, "turned up to have a quick look" while it was being assembled, but didn't have much to say. Clustering reverentially in the doorway, 10 visitors at a time may gaze on it. "It demands a personal response from everyone who stands at its threshold," says the blurb. The response was: film could convey the same message more powerfully, for a fraction of the cost.

The purchases by the Arts Council, the Crafts Council, the Contemporary Art Society and the Tate are so heterogeneous as to defy analysis - which is as it should be. But since their creators are a favoured minority, selected by an even smaller minority of taste-makers, it's worth examining that taste.

The favoured furniture seems to be stuck in an art-school time-warp - chairs to wonder at, rather than sit on - and the textiles are drab. The ceramics strain clumsily for attention, but the glassware is lovely. The residual impression left by the painting, sculpture, and installation- art is one of studied jokiness: there are real jokes here and there, but most of the work is carefully non-committal. Surrounded by billowing promotional prose, it feels like a curiously genteel let-down.

Is it art, or is it an air-conditioning vent? A hackneyed question, but a pertinent one, in room after clinical room. The Rileys, Whitereads, Hirsts and Longs trail their imitators, whose work is even more tired than theirs. Sometimes an artist's puff achieves a wider significance, as in the case of a strenuously obscure piece called Vacuum 1994: "I want to make the perfect art work, which is so hermetic there would be no way of looking at it. It will be so totally involved in itself that it has no need of anything outside its shell." Don't ring us, duckie.

If there is one obsession linking many of these youngish artists, it's an obsession with emptiness. Empty chairs, empty beds, empty corridors: humanity deducible only through faint traces. Odeon (Green) consists of a closed screen curtain: these fantasists hug their fantasies - if they have any - timidly to themselves. The most arresting exhibit is an ingeniously frozen explosion: a garden shed and its contents blown to smithereens. A neat little explosion, though, with no hint of the misery bombs are designed to bring. No, let's keep things nice and cosy.