Exhibitions: Let's fly away (but only in your imagination)

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The Independent Culture
Picture the scene. In the Roman gloom of the Tate's Duveen Galleries, a skeletal machine - all wires and conduits and serrated metal uprights - hums and purrs. Along its conveyor belt and over its rollers slide a series of miniaturised industrial components: 1/16th-inch-square sticks of balsa wood, propellers, pieces of tissue-paper, dinky plastic wheels. As these progress on their two-minute journey, so the form of the thing they are making becomes progressively more choate. Just as you are on the point of recognising it, the thing - a paper glider of the kind flown by American children - is catapulted along an elongated fishing rod, launched into the air with a fragile whirr. Then it arcs up, up into the Duveen's echoing octagon and slips back, mayfly-like, to the gallery floor, just as another glider takes to the air in its place. That, at least, is the theory. It will be useful if you can practise picturing this scene because, unless things have changed dramatically since this review was written, that is what you will have to do should you visit the Tate Gallery to see it.

The machine in question - When Robots Rule: The Two-Minute Airplane Factory by the American conceptual artist, Chris Burden - is the latest in a line of site-specific pieces commissioned by the Tate for the Duveen Galleries. At the time of writing, it also does not work. This is not an aesthetic judgement. According to a faintly morose-looking Burden, the problem lies with the computer software designed to tell his machine which piece of tissue paper to glue to which balsa-wood strut and when. In its first (and rather delayed) week on show, the machine, intended to produce 18,000 two-minute aeroplanes during its 102-day sojourn in the Tate, has produced precisely nine. Even these were made by hand, the machine's nerveless catapult merely being used to launch them.

So: is Burden's work a failure? This is a trickier question than you might imagine. Were the Boeing factory to refuse to turn out 747s, the answer would be obvious: but this is art. Or is it? Burden suggests that the difference between his factory and Boeing's is simply one of scale. Boeing's aeroplanes sell for millions of pounds, Burden's - theoretically scooped up from the floor of the Duveen Galleries by a pair of biddable gallery attendants - for a fiver, but the case is the same. "There are parallels between my toy airplane factory and the world of finance, production and marketing with all the promise of success and attendant problems," wrote the artist, more prophetically than he can have guessed, in the catalogue to his show. "What at first appears to be a playful, albeit expensive, machine is in fact a real model of capitalism."

Given Burden's political views, it is tempting to see the non-functioning nature of his aeroplane factory as intentional, an allegory of the failure of the military-industrial complex or some such. Certainly, the catalogue's description of his hypothetically working installation talks about things like microcosms of the Industrial Age and the neutrality of machines. In this version of events, The Two-Minute Airplane Factory has a double agenda (apart, of course, from turning out two-minute aeroplanes). First, there is its role - suggested by the first part of the installation's title - as a kind of industrial Frankenstein's monster. If there is magnificence to be found in the Duveen Galleries, then it belongs to the machine: while, god-like, it goes about the business of creating flight, the humanity that created it in the first place is now relegated to the noisome task of feeding it with glue at one end or of picking up its detritus from the gallery floor at the other. Robotics, skilled unemployment: you get his drift. Then there is the whole business of what sociologists like to call commodification. Thanks to the machine age, says Burden, people have come to think of objects as simply existing rather than as of being made: of cling-wrapped meat patties on supermarket shelves rather than of the realities of the abattoir behind them.

The Tate's aeroplane factory allows us to see not simply the process of the making of paper gliders, but also the making of flight - perhaps the emblematic achievement of industrial man. Take this view and you might like to compare Burden's exploration of the mechanics of capitalism with Damien Hirst's of the insides of a cow, as a millennial need to expose the hidden workings of things we have come to take for granted. Then again, of course, you might not. One of the winning things about conceptual art is that every man is free to bring his own concept to it. Burden may think of his work as a corrosive satire of the state of post-industrial society, but if this strikes you as heavy-handedly simplistic then you can always choose to see it in more formal terms.

One thing that The Two-Minute Airplane Factory might be about, for example, is the romantic notion of impossibility. Like much of Burden's previous work - and like that of the Swiss performance sculptor, Jean Tinguely, from which it probably in the end derives - there is a frisson of danger in the feeling that the aeroplane factory might simply be too complex to function. (The Tate should be relieved that this merely involves the non-production of paper gliders in the factory's case. When Tinguely's self-exploding Homage to New York malfunctioned in that city's Museum of Modern Art in 1960, the resultant fire nearly burned MOMA down.) In this version, too, the failure of The Two-Minute Airplane Factory to do what it is meant to do could be construed as a perverse form of triumph.

On the other hand, you may choose to see Burden's factory as in the tradition of Kinetic art - Alexander Calder mobiles et al - in which movement rather than solid form becomes the dominant sculptural aesthetic. True, this is difficult to visualise in a machine that resolutely refuses to move, but you can see how it might work.

It should be remembered that The Two-Minute Airplane Factory is a site- specific piece, the site in question being the dour monumentalism of the Duveen Galleries. Richard Serra responded to this space by filling it with a sculpture even more dour and monumental than it. The gossamer flight of Burden's tissue-paper gliders, by contrast, is presumably intended to turn the gallery inside-out, exploring the invisible lightness of the space contained rather than the all-too-visible solidity of the container.

Whichever of these constructions you choose to put on The Two-Minute Airplane Factory, you may none the less find yourself asking that perennial Tate Gallery question: is it art? I can only say that I left the Tate less disappointed by the installation's failure to work than intrigued at the idea that it might; if it does, I shall certainly go back to see it. Whether or not Burden's factory ever gets around to producing two- minute aeroplanes, I'm willing to believe that it is.

`When Robots Rule: The Two-Minute Airplane Factory': Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000) to 27 June.