So sings Ry Cooder on the soundtrack of Richard Wentworth's video Making Do and Getting By, now playing at the Lisson Gallery. For the last 16 years, Wentworth has been trying to tell us what it means; to make sense of the nonsensical. His video consists of a series of photographs, taken between 1979 and 1985, in which the artist explores human ingenuity. "What I take photographs of is the adaptability of people," he says. By this he means the way in which people improvise. Typical photographs show a newspaper used as a rain hat; a pumpkin used as a door stop; a window kept shut with a spoon. Charting such phenomena, Wentworth has identified a universal language: "They have a currency that's completely international," he says. This "ballet of organisation", Wentworth believes , is "revealing of the different ways people behave towards each other".
It's not a hard idea to grasp - similar to the Surrealists' obsession with the absurdities of the everyday. The difference is that in Wentworth's version, absurdity / ingenuity takes place on a domestic level. There is nothing threatening about his images. They are universally witty, gentle, human - and the same is true of their end product, the sculptures. It was these that formed the core of his 1993 Serpentine show.
To Wentworth's critics such pieces are no more than the contents of an ironmonger's store. To his fans, though, they speak of the artist's ability to re-interpret his observations into magical objects that comment on the frailty of the human condition with a unique, tremulous grace. Certainly, although robbed of the real elements of chance and probability present is his photographs, Wentworth's creations have a profound, somewhat plangent presence. There are four such pieces at the Lisson: Lock, made from two bisected filing cabinets; Knot, a German book filled with slivers of steel and plastic; Wick, a clock covered with dud light bulbs; and Travelling without a Map, a steel sheet punctured with tins of food from around the world. These are classics of the Wentworth canon. But in this show they are not intended to stand alone. They are here to contextualise a new site-specific installation.
For False Ceiling 1995 Wentworth has suspended hundreds of books on steel wires from the ceiling to two of the Lisson's galleries. Visually arresting, slightly unsettling, they hang just over our heads, and that, quite literally, is the problem. Wentworth, the artist who started out as the interpreter of the unconscious "art" of the people, has in this work become aloof; distanced from the very "universal language" central to his work by the rules of his own system. The apparent intention seems simple enough. Wentworth's art often has a human-anthropomorphic dimension and the books might offer a metaphor for the infinite variety of humanity. Ultimately, though, all they offer is a false ceiling of damaged book. To use a book to make a part of a house might seem the apogee of the principle of the transformation of the found object - investing it with an un-thought-of importance. In effect, it exposes the basic flaw in that concept.
As in all Wentworth's pieces, the work itself, made from otherwise "useful" objects, is practically useless. Ergo: it must be a work of art. But, unlike a chair or a broom, a book is not a tool of limited physical usefulness. Every one of the books in Wentworth's ceiling, from Germaine Greer to Mills & Boon, once had the potential to inspire or depress, to elicit some form of emotional of intellectual response. Rendered inert, that potential becomes not re-directed but simply silenced. The sum of the parts - Wentworth's work of art - is nothing compared to its individual components.
Wentworth's work has always contained an element of the child's game of "let's pretend", and here it reaches a logical conclusion. Ignoring the true worth of the objects in favour of its bulk, he re-evaluates books, using them as mere building blocks. Why trouble to read Robin Hood, the Rupert Annual or the Bible when you can use them to build a "real" castle, house or church? That's what books are really for; as any two-year-old could tell you.
n Richard Wentworth: at the Lisson Gallery, 52-54 Bell St, London, NW1 (0171-724-2739), to 24 AprilReuse content