The Tate shows its muscle

The tabloids may wail, but `Abracadabra' is the art the people really want. By Mark Sladen

Here we go again. The Tate does contemporary art, and you can hear the tabloid press sharpening its razors. A dead horse hanging from the ceiling, a Japanese businessman crawling across the floor, a boardgame called Doley in which the characters claim social security and aspire to lie in bed all day. Let the bloodletting begin....

It's to be applauded really. The Tate doesn't often do big contemporary group shows, but it has thrown itself into Abracadabra. Catherine Grenier, a curator from the Pompidou Centre in Paris, has been asked to preside, and she has put together a group of 15 young artists, working with sculpture, installation, video and other formats. The partition walls have been lifted, the floors covered in purple carpet, and the effect is like a huge salon in which the artworks jostle together like so many parlour games.

Grenier wants to convey a new spirit in contemporary art, and the show is not simply a selection of the usual suspects. The London art scene has American bias, but this show leans towards Continental Europe. The London galleries love painting and sculpture, but this show offers more transitory media and participatory works. And London's trendier young artists tend to go for big themes and big statements, whereas this show is characterised by oblique, whimsical quality. The ideas that keep coming up in the catalogue are humour, playfulness, fantasy - and an engagement with the everyday.

Eric Duyckaerts from Belgium presents quasi-scientific drawings and models from his Two Thumbed Hand Series. This details a proposed mutation of the human hand - and the advantages of having an extra digit. Playtime by German artist Brigitte Zieger consists of a mass of gun components made from cardboard - with a video showing a young man assembling a giant rifle and taking pot-shots at pedestrians. And Momoyo Torimitsu shows her Japanese salary-man - actually a robot that she has set crawling across the financial districts of the world.

All of these works are fun, and have a darker side too, but are ultimately lightweight. To find an artist who makes this kind of whimsy powerful - infecting it with melancholia and morbidity - one has to turn to French video artist Pierrick Sorin. One of his works shows the artist engaged in a series of pratfalls that involve him being showered by falling books. It is funny but relentless. In another piece the viewer sees his own head poking out of a bubblebath, as a miniature version of the artist fannies about on the soap-rack. This impish figure is engaged in endlessly staging its own death, and the work has a tragicomic quality.

Sorin's filmic alter egos typify the representation of the artist in this show as a rather nerdy figure. The artist or his stand-in is presented as an anti-hero - eccentric, subjective, fallible, attempting to shore up his worldview through obsessive activity - and perhaps as an appropriate persona for our confused times. However, it is left to other artists in the exhibition to develop this character further, pushing obsession to the point of baroque excess.

One such is the British artist Paul Noble, who shows a group of works from his Doley series. Included are a large number of cartoons, relating the lives of a group of no-hopers attempting to survive life on social security.

The settings are shown in a hyper-realist teenage style, while the characters including Oblivious, Burnt Out, Formless, Ineffectual and Aimless - are represented by odd geometric shapes that seem to betoken their alienated status.

The accompanying boardgame simply invites viewers to step into the shoes of these characters: "Doley cannot be won, but if players follow the rules desperation may be avoided.'

Noble's dystopian world is not so far from our own, and is elaborated with an obsessive clarity, whereas the Belgian artist Patrick Van Caeckenbergh abandons all pretence of realism and instead delineates a Rabelaisian carnival - a world turned upside down. One sculpture is entitled The Potty Chair and shows the eponymous object encrusted in a mass of interlocking glass boxes, a nest of breeding and feeding chambers in which miniature photographic cut-outs of the artist compete for space with grubs and cockroaches. Van Caekenbergh's works imply not so much a critique of society as disfranchisement from it - the perennial position of the outsider artist.

Though the introverted, fantastical quality to this show may indeed represent a new strand in contemporary art - moving away from the art heroes and bad boys of the Eighties and early Nineties - the artists who come out best from Abracadabra are actually those who fit least well into its thesis. One such is Keith Edmier, an American who is represented by two sculptures of giant water-lilies. These kitsch, ominous objects loom over the entrance to the show but seem completely unrelated to it. They are mute, inviting no debate about their maker or about how the fragile subject negotiates itself through le cirque humain. These works are sexy and alien and "dumb". They are also very American.

However, the artist who comes out best is the Italian Maurizio Cattelan, whose sculptures are acerbic and political and - in contrast to most of the other work on show - seem to brook no doubts on the part of their maker.

One piece shows a boy sitting at a school desk, but with pencils that skewer his hands to the table. Another shows a life-sized squirrel in a miniature kitchen - having just shot itself.

A third shows a giant table football game, once used by the artist to stage a contest between two opposing football teams, one white and one made up from Senegalese immigrants.

The best piece by Cattelan isn't even in the room - a stuffed horse that hangs suspended inside the Tate's rotunda, its artificially long legs trailing hopelessly beneath it. Like all of Catellan's work, the piece contains an aggressive challenge to social pieties, in this case the sentimental burden we project on to animals. And like all of the artist's work, it also operates as a disturbing piece of spectacle, and one in which the viewer feels subtly implicated. If much of the show is too whimsical for British taste, this piece will get right under the skin of the animal-loving British public.

But public taste is also changing, whether the tabloids realise it or not. Thousands flock to the Turner Prize exhibition each year, and contemporary art is an area of major cultural growth with more potential in store. When Bankside opens in May 2000, London will have a huge museum dedicated solely to modern and contemporary art, and the Tate is intent on taking the public with it. Abracadabra is just one attempt to define what's happening in new art - and it's a very Gallic attempt - but expect to see many more as the Tate really begins to flex its cultural muscles.

Tate SWI (0171 887 8000); to 26 September

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