Pushing up daisies

Tim Head was serving up prime cuts long before Damien Hirst. So what's he doing now, hanging a couple of flying cows above a field of flat flowers? By Andrew Lambirth
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The Independent Culture
The city of Chatham on the river Medway in Kent was for more than 400 years the Royal Navy's main shipbuilding and repair centre, producing everything from wooden sailing ships and iron-hulled steamships to submarines. Spread over 80 acres, Chatham Historic Dockyard now encompasses a whole slew of listed buildings, its attractions including demonstrations of traditional 19th-century rope-making, the Royal National Lifeboat Collection, and an 1878 naval sloop under restoration, as well as museums and galleries.

Contemporary art has now come to the dockyard, with a temporary installation by Tim Head in Number Three Covered Slip. Originally constructed as a dock, and converted to a covered slipway in 1838, the slip was built of pitch pine and roofed in zinc. In 1930 a mezzanine floor was erected to provide storage space for launches and small yachts, and it is on this platform that Tim Head has sited his installation.

Ascending the steep stairs from ground-level, the totally unexpected vision of two rotating cows in a daisy field made me burst out laughing. Flying cows at a dockyard? The effect is deliberately anti-climactic: is this what we've come all this way to see? The various items of the installation are flat shapes cut from hardboard. The daisies are slightly raised at angles from the floor in order to be visible from afar. Resting completely level on the ground, they might, from a distance, have resembled holes in the boards; as they are, they become more three-dimensional by being tilted.

The cut-out cows, by contrast, are utterly flat: mechanically twirling silhouettes against the far end-wall, dimly lit by river-light. What at first appears to be an accompanying soundtrack is actually just a random echo from some other place - sea-noises, in fact, from the lifeboat display next door.

The Chatham project is intended to raise awareness of both the arts and the dockyard, to encourage a cross-fertilisation between general and specific audiences. It is the first in a programme of events devised by Art Project Management (under the guidance of Isabel Vasseur) and planned to culminate in "Site 2000", when the neighbouring city of Rochester upon Medway will celebrate the union of architecture, art and design, utilising historic sites such as the dockyard and Rochester's Norman castle to showcase contemporary art and design.

Tim Head's installation has already attracted lots of people and is apparently much appreciated by locals in particular. Even those who complain that their poll tax is being wasted on such a venture are mollified by the information that the mezzanine floor was cleaned out and renovated especially for the installation, and that, without it, they would never have been allowed to view the spectacular beauty of the slip's roof from such a vantage point.

Head (born London 1946) is a conceptual artist with his roots in Pop art. In this installation, he has chosen to juxtapose a computer-generated virtual landscape (a series of very flat, uninflected screen images) with the massive physical presence of the hangar-like building. The intention is apparently to contrast two very different worlds: the advances of current technology with the industrial might of a foregone era. This contrast is supposed to prompt the viewer to question technological progress and, as the artist himself puts it, to "imagine alternative perspectives".

The main problem is that there is so little late-20th-century digital technology evident in the installation. One couple, who frankly admitted their lack of appreciation of modern art, lingered in the dwindling hope that something might happen. The husband kept trying to find new angles of viewpoint on the cows, as if the mystery would thus be solved and their meaning rendered clear - perhaps written in flashing fluorescent type upon their hides. But no such luck: the installation is remarkably free of technology. Perhaps this is a deliberate irony; if so, Tim Head's point is in danger of being obscured by the subtlety of its demonstration.

The plank floor is covered with identical five-petalled white daisies with black centres, arranged in what are very nearly daisy chains. Above, the two black cows rotate at different speeds. The cow on the right moves slightly faster than its partner on the left. They rotate back-to-back like the tamed and slowed-down blooms of a kaleidoscope. They are floating idly, as if turning on a gentle millrace, or like astronauts no longer susceptible to gravity. The artist's original intention was for the daisy field to extend the entire length of the mezzanine, but safety regulations require an emergency exit and the daisies are cordoned off. The visitor can enjoy the longer view from the crash barriers at the far end, but it would have been more involving to walk among the daisies.

The actual components of the installation are deliberately deadpan - the defunct boat-building machinery round about looks infinitely more interesting. Head is famous for saying a lot with limited means, for provoking a psychological reaction in his audience, for his method of disorienting in order to re-orient. This installation is enticingly called Blue Skies, and since Head has often worked with projected light, I came in the expectation of some magical visual event that would transform the old dockyard, extending and amplifying its innate majesty.

What Head in fact achieves is to distract from the existing beauty of the building, with its arching of silvery ships' timbers. He compromises the purity of the cathedral-like vault, imposing uncertainty. The installation seems to combine the reassuring with the threatening. The barn-like effect of the building enhances the rural romance of cows in the byre. Head's ideal sanitised vision is a farmyard without the mud and dung, yet a reference to Mad Cow Disease is quickly assumed by many visitors. The virtual landscape is a form of armchair travelling, mixed with the hippy-trippy escapism of flower-power and daisy necklaces. Blue Skies might almost be the name of a travel agent or tour operator.

How sincere or serious can a cow look in post-Damien Hirst art? Especially such two-dimensional specimens as these? Mere slices of board, off-cuts. Yet Tim Head is the artist who brought us Cow Mutations in 1986, a series of distortions of the design familiar from Sainsbury's milk cartons, the cow's face taken to the limits of nastiness and disintegration, as if through genetic maladministration. Also Prime Cuts, another painting in which he depicted a huge frieze of schematised chops and steaks, interspersed with human brains.

Much of Head's work has been an exploration of the complex relationship between man and machine. By extension, he has been long fascinated by the meeting point between synthetic and organic. In his 1992 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition, he carpeted the downstairs space with Astroturf and painted the ceiling sky-blue. It was clearly meant to look artificial, yet it succeeded in lifting the spirits. Here, he makes a wooden installation in a primarily wooden building, thus maintaining a congruity of materials and drawing attention to the artificiality of the imagery. These are cardboard cut-outs, quite literally. Under grey skies, not blue, meaning is sacrificed as the whole thing veers towards absurdityn

To 27 April, 11am-4pm, Wed-Sun, Chatham Historic Dockyard, nr Rochester, Kent