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Arts: On the right wavelength?

A collaborative project in west Cornwall has brought together a number of artists to respond to the theme of 'light'. But how relevant is it to the history of the area, asks Richard Ingleby
The Penwith peninsular, the finger of land that stretches westwards into the Atlantic at the south-western edge of England, has been popular with artists for well over 100 years. And it still is with countless painters and sculptors who work in and around Newlyn and St Ives, drawn there, they say, by the quality of light. It's a familiar phrase that makes an appropriate theme for "a collaborative visual arts event" between the Tate St Ives, Newlyn Art Gallery and the International Institute of Visual Arts, whose resources have been gathered together by St Ives International, a new company formed to co-ordinate a series of summer exhibitions.

The mood of the event, however, is not quite what you'd expect from west Cornwall. A Quality of Light is neither concerned with local artists nor with the region's art-historical past, nor (confusingly) is it really anything to do with the clear and even light that makes this bit of coastline so distinctive. Instead, 14 artists have been invited from as far afield as Croatia and the Philippines to "respond to the theme of light [in its broadest sense] through painting, sculpture, installations, new technologies and the medium of light itself".

For travellers by train, the experience begins at Penzance station where Peter Freeman, one of just two local artists involved in the project, has installed Light at the End of the Tunnel - a giant neon in the shape of a blue light bulb hung high up the station wall. It's a cheerful opening but, on the evidence here, his work has little or nothing to do with where he lives.

Nor, it seems, has the locality had much effect on Mona Hatoum, one of the visitors whose work is on show a few miles down the road at Newlyn. Current Disturbance, as she calls her cage of electrical wire and flickering bulbs, was commissioned especially for A Quality of Light, but it looks exactly as it would if she'd made it for London, New York or Berlin. It's an impressive piece, disorientating and a little unsettling, by an artist with a growing international reputation, but it's hard to see anything in it that relates to this part of the world.

The opposite is true at Bottalack, 10 miles west of St Ives, where David Kemp, the other local artist, has built a museum to house his relics of a fictional "Late Iron Age Sunset Cult". He calls it "The Art of Darkness" punningly setting the mood for a kind of whimsical archaeology based on the artefacts that he makes from rubbish found among the abandoned tin mines that litter this stretch of coast. It's very funny, a bit mad and should be a huge success with holiday makers who stray unwittingly from the Cornish coast path and find themselves in the midst of Kemp's bizarre creation.

A more serious sort of local history is at the root of Glen Onwin's installation, Blood of the Pelican, a mile or so further west at Geevor Mine. These days, the mine is a museum and Onwin's pools of coloured pigment stirred by boiler-suited workers (which have to be experienced to be understood) will, for the duration of the summer, become a part of the guided tour - a symbolic and deeply resonant reminder of the place's recent past.

Onwin's is probably the most substantial work in the whole event but the most inspiring, I think, are three small installations that, at a glance, might seem the least significant. Carol Robertson, Roger Ackling and James Hugonin are all exhibiting at the Tate St Ives but, additionally, they have each placed works in sites around the town that lend themselves to the sort of quiet contemplation that each piece demands.

Robertson has made a single abstract painting for the parish church next to the harbour: two yellow rings against a pale yellow ground; a meditation, she says, on the lives of two friends who died on the same day, in unrelated circumstances, shortly before she began work on the project. It hangs, unframed and unannounced, on a damp-stained side wall. It's a wonderful painting, surprisingly so for something so modest, with an understated and very appropriate presence.

The quiet calm of the location, undoubtedly, helps to instill a special mood, as does the Fishermen's Chapel for Ackling and the tiny Island Chapel on the hill overlooking Porthmeor Beach for Hugonin. Of the three, Hugonin's delicate abstracts make the best transition into the gallery, where four of his paintings share a room with Barbara Hepworth's Pelagos. It is an effective and rather beautiful combination, meditative and almost monastic, which clarifies the subtle rhythms that are at work behind Hugonin's rows of minute coloured marks. They are hypnotic pictures, seemingly alive and yet pointedly still, which require and repay slow absorption. I have never seen his work looking so good, but just how such quiet qualities will stand up to the bustle of the gallery in high summer remains to be seen.

I have mentioned seven artists - there are seven others in the official line up (including a fine room of Bridget Riley at the Tate), not to mention all the local painters and sculptors who are opening their studios on the back of the event. It's an ambitious project, too disparate and too far from the track of its intended theme to be entirely convincing, but worth the journey west none the less. There will be something here to touch the imaginations of most of west Cornwall's summer visitors. It deserves to be a successn

The Tate Gallery St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, St Ives (01736 796543); Newlyn Art Gallery, New Rood, Newlyn (01736 331578) and various locations around the Penwith Peninsular throughout the summer. To 2 Nov