EXHIBITIONS: Dead uncertainties

Major themes, minor exhibits - a new show on life, death and the end of the millennium reflects a decline in visual art
WITH commendable ambition, the Tate Gallery has devised an exhibition of contemporary art that aims to define issues of life and death at the end of the 20th century. "Rites of Passage" is, physically, a large show. It gives more than ample space to 11 artists, and among its interests is the fashion of this amplitude: all the works are put on with great attention to their spatial effects.

The installations are important, indeed crucial, because the artists prefer panoramic or theatrical modes. The gallery floor is used as a sort of lowered stage, and darkened rooms become uncomfortable cinemas. These tactics are scarcely innovative, but they appear to be essential to the exhibition's gloomy messages. It's as if Nineties visual art were unable to be expressive without spilling beyond its old natural boundaries into other art forms.

Non-art forms too, for at the Tate there are insidious reminders of television reportage, rock-concert visuals, big-screen instant replays at sporting events, hospital theatres or the presentations that ad firms prepare for their clients. Yet the artists in "Rites of Passage" don't fully embrace top-technocratic vulgarity. I think they might be better, or at least more dramatic, if they did. Aesthetically, this is a timid show.

It seems that the Tate hierarchy and the exhibition's organisers (Stuart Morgan and Frances Morris) started by thinking big, but have been failed by the middling quality of the artists they put on their list. This is not a group show in the normal sense. The contributors are from all over the western world, on the whole don't know each other, are furthermore remarkably solipsistic and therefore have no common programme, especially since three of them are dead.

It is the curators who have forged the group: the artists merely provide the material for their notions of modern art and life. The first of these notions is that nothing relevant can be expected from today's painting or sculpture. Nicholas Serota, the Tate's director, writes in the catalogue that: "more than ever before, artists are engaging with new types of practice and claiming an ever-wider vocabulary of materials as available to art. 'Rites of Passage' is an exhibition which celebrates this variety and breadth of experience in art today . . ."

In this revealing prose, the director goes on to say that most of the works "date from the last 10 years, a decade which has brought us to the brink of the next millennium. The exception is Joseph Beuys, who died as the decade began but whose legacy continues to endure and who is represented here, appropriately and powerfully, by an apocalyptic work which symbolised, for him, the 'definitive collapse of a world which belongs to the past'."

Beuys's description of his work is simultaneously grand and meaningless. I dispute that his Earthquake in the Palazzo is "apocalyptic". In a roped-off space there's a quantity of broken glass on the floor, apparently from smashed preserving jars. A trestle is supported on four such jars. There are three other pieces of nondescript furniture, and the back walls are painted in green and gold. Anti-form art is nearly always vapid, however much trash or broken matter is introduced to gallery spaces. Beuys was simply not a good artist. He couldn't fashion things, or compose things that he'd found. But as an impresario of nothingness he had a successful career; and it seems that he has influenced curators even more than other artists.

The more effective works on display make use of enclosure, rather than Beuys' scattered distribution. Mona Hatoum has devised a cylindrical cubicle in which we see a relentless video of parts of her body. Susan Hiller's video is of violent episodes from Punch and Judy shows. Bill Viola, currently the most celebrated of video artists, has a piece called Tiny Deaths. Through the darkness, grey figures loom up, are suddenly seen clearly, then retreat, accompanied by mumbling noises. John Coplans's photographs of his own ageing body are much better than his previous works of this sort. Why, I am not sure. It may simply be that he is now a more experienced photographer, since he took up camerawork late in life.

"Rites of Passage" claims epochal significance yet contains no major art. The assumption is that today's (or yesterday's) artists deal with life and death as ever before, but now with new technology. There's one problem the catalogue does not dare to address. Visual art as a whole may be in decline. I want to think about the Tour de France so leave this question to another day. Meanwhile, I grieve with so many others for friends who have died from Aids. The late Hamad Butt's work concerns his condition. Alas, that makes his life poignant, not his art. The only amiable art in the show is the surrealist assemblage by Louise Bourgeois, who was born in Paris in 1911.

! "Rites of Passage": Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 3 Sept.