The Critics: Exhibitions - Messiness is the message

Cities on the Move Hayward, London
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The Independent Culture
Readers crossing Waterloo Bridge in the last few days will have noticed a new addition to the Hayward Gallery's outline, in the form of a breeze-block hut with a pitch-pine watch-tower on top of it. According to your political persuasion, you may have tut-tutted at the idea of yet more money being thrown at the architectural brutalisation of the South Bank complex or at the shameful underfunding of the arts in Britain, forcing an institution like the Hayward to take on such an obvious case of jerry-building.

Your tuts, though, will have been misplaced. The Hayward's new growth - Alarm Tower (1998-1999) by the Chinese artist, Wang Du - is not so much architecture as art; or at least something that hovers evasively been the two. It is an outward extrusion of "Cities on the Move", the South- East Asian urban extravaganza currently occupying the Hayward.

Those of you familiar with the teachings of the Dutch architect-cum-media- prophet, Rem Koolhaas, will know his views on the nightmarishness of cities, and in particular of cities in South East Asia. With conurbations like Shenzhen doubling in size every five years on the back of economies whose rapaciousness and volatility make the California Gold Rush seem a model of Swiss prudence, the contemporary Oriental urban experience is in many ways a monstrous one. The old securities no longer hold; divisions between things like private and public life are lost. Koolhaas, who is both fascinated by this dystopia and responsible for the design of "Cities on the Move", has tried to recreate the uncertainties of life in, say, Shenzhen by subverting the certainties of gallery-going at the Hayward. Among much else, Koolhaas, in his self-appointed role as fifth horseman of the apocalypse, has discarded the idea of the gallery as a safe container for art, and allowed the ephemera of "Cities on the Move" to cluster, shanty-like, on the terraces overlooking Waterloo Bridge Road.

This is nothing, though, compared with the architect's recreation of what he calls "urban overkill inside the Hayward". The first thing that strikes you on walking into "Cities on the Move" is an overwhelming desire to walk back out again. All the things you associate with art exhibitions - quiet and order high among them - are missing. Rather than clarifying the works on show, Koolhaas's set designs treat them as disposable: feel the urge to see Aaron Tan's slide and audio installation, City on Fire (1998), and you will have to pick your way around the back of a minatory slab of black-painted two-by-four to find it; David d'Heilly's You are Here (1997-1999) - the recreation of an empty room of the kind lived in by Tokyo sweatshop workers - is hidden behind a cheap plastic curtain. Even more maddeningly, the individual artworks intrude on each other's spaces: the cacophonous soundtrack of Yutaka Sone's Night Bus (1997) - a feature-length loop of Warholian nothingness whose subject is exactly what you might imagine it to be - shouts to make itself heard over those of Karl Heinz Klopf's Environments (1998) and Fiona Tan's May You Live in Interesting Times (1997). One piece - Chen Zhen's Precipitous Parturition (1999), a 50-foot flying dragon made of bicycles, bicycle tyres and toy cars - starts off in one gallery, snakes through another and ends up in a third. Even Koolhaas's own sets are totems of a disposable culture, being made out of the leftovers of an earlier Hayward installation by Zaha Hadid: the deconstructer deconstructed, if you like.

I have to confess at this point that I find it almost impossible to remember any of the individual works mentioned above without reference to the exhibition's catalogue. If "Cities on the Move" were a show of, say, Klee drawings, this might be chalked up as an architectural black mark against Koolhaas's design; as it is, you might prefer to view it as something of a triumph.

To understand "Cities on the Move", the show should be read precisely not as a series of autonomous works of art but as what I have little doubt its designer would call a single meta-work. Put more simply, "Cities on the Move" is a mess whose point is its messiness: by playing on our expectations of order in art galleries, the Hayward's show immerses us in the idea of Asian urban disorder. Various separable themes stand out from this curatorial Babel - the poignant absence of people from bedsits and tuk-tuks seems an understandable fantasy for artists who have to work without privacy, and Americanisation is predictably rife - but the overwhelming sense is of a larger, Koolhaasian whole.

Those of you who think that celebrity chefs should stay in the kitchen may find this irritating. My own feeling is that, for all the evident cleverness of Koolhaas's design, there is a distant but patronising whiff of Eurocentricity. More to the point, on the day I visited it at least, it simply didn't work. The missing factor was people: recreating a simulacrum of overpopulation is all very well, but walking through it by yourself is faintly embarrassing, like sailing alone through a Tunnel of Love.

The Hayward Gallery does owe Koolhaas a debt of gratitude, though. Whatever the shortcomings of its engagement with the East, the show's engagement with the gallery is breathtaking. The Hayward can seldom have had such demands made on its flexibility as a showing space, and it rises to them with ease. Even its new watch-tower has a certain charm. Those who would like to tear the place down should take note.

'Cities on the Move': Hayward, SE1 (0171 928 3144) to 27 June