Visual Arts: Lots to look at, nothing to see

Has modern art lost its ability to captivate, and become nothing more than a mild diversion?

Gloomy thoughts. For instance: what was depressing about Matthew Collings' TV series This Is Modern Art was the sense that his presentational manner wasn't in fact quirky or irreverent or whatever. It was absolutely true to the subject in hand. It was a kind of "making conversation". It was the way you talk about something that is more or less a matter of indifference.

And is that how art is now? I don't think it has to be, but I can see how you might well think it was, and I'm sure Matt Collings speaks for many contemporary art-folk. After all, why should one care much, or expect others to? There's such a lot of competition for notice, in the way of films, music, television. There is such a lot of other art being produced as well - and have you seen the speed people move through galleries?

So it becomes hard to hold the line about the artwork being the most attention-demanding and rewarding artefact in the world - and tempting to try and re-brand it as just one more of the many things that don't matter too much, that have their small say and make way. Hey, it's only art.

Abracadabra at the Tate Gallery is a show in that spirit: "a particular spirit in art at this millennium's end" (quoting here from its blithely fatuous visitor-leaflet). It brings together work by 15 artists from around the world, mostly in their thirties, and mostly new names - with, incidentally, more artists from France and Belgium than you would usually find showing in an international exhibition.

And it goes on: "This spirit is one of optimism and play, of fantasy and imagination, even of magic... a stimulating, surprising and convivial environment where the visitor is invited to make discoveries and share the imaginary world of the artists." Or, as a man from the Tate put it, it's a show for "children of all ages". And it would be nice to say: oh, it's not that bad.

The space truly is a surprise. They've removed almost all the moveable walls from the Tate's special exhibition area, to make a single enormous room, and then carpeted the floor all over, dark brown. And the exhibits, which are often bright, busy and noisy, are set out, not in the usual mutually stand-offish way, but hugger-mugger and higgledy-piggledy: a pile-up of flickering screens and colourful objects and peepshows and gadgets. The feel is somewhere between a showroom and a rumpus room.

At which point my heart, at least, starts sinking. But it seems important to distinguish the show from the work that is in it, because some of that work, if it was presented differently, wouldn't seem so silly. Funny, perhaps - as with Maurizio Catelan's suicided squirrel, pegged-out in a doll's house kitchen. Or even rather instructive, as with his extra- long table-football game for 22 players. This is certainly art to be played. But the trouble is that the Tate supplies it with an unlimited number of balls, so that it just becomes a jolly, non-competitive knockabout; it's only interesting if you play a proper, one-ball, goal-scoring game which then requires both real and extended teamwork.

Momoyo Torimitsu's robot is another could-be good joke: a life-size and highly life-like model of a suited Japanese businessman, with an expression of intense determination fixed on his face, and when you switch him on, he commando-crawls along on his elbows, an image of painfully undeterrable purpose. The model is here, switched off, with videos of it struggling along city pavements, with the artist (in nurse's uniform) in attendance, helping it round corners. Fine. But in this happy-clappy world, the joke can hardly live. It becomes one more odd thing that is happening on a screen.

Likewise with Xavier Veilhan's Spinning Machines. These are large white discs, lying on the floor or raised just off it, that revolve and orbit each other by some unseen mechanism. You can see that in other, quieter conditions, this would be a graceful and mysterious piece. For the rest: "arch", "whimsical" and "pointlessly weird" cover the field, and the point of Abracadabra's layout seems to be to put all the works in a relay of reciprocal interference - each one there to distract you from the negligibility of the last.

I don't deny that there are some mildly diverting notions and gizmos here - and no disrespect to mild diversion. But, for myself, when I feel in need of being mildly diverted, I don't trek off to an art gallery, I read a paper, stare out of the window or something. And if more high- minded arguments against art being fun fail, then the practical point strikes me as pretty decisive: there is no point in people crossing town for a level of amusement that can be easily found at home.

And now it's time to say a wistful goodbye to Chris Burden's One Minute Airplane Factory, which finally ended its (extended) run in the Tate's Duveen Gallery the day before yesterday although, as you may know, it never really got started.

The idea was to set the manual against the mechanical. Taking an elementary artefact, very easy to make by hand - a balsa-wood, paper, glue and rubber- band plane - Burden tried to devise a machine that would accomplish this simple bit of handiwork automatically, assembling a plane from its parts, winding up its propeller and launching it into the gallery once a minute. It required, of course, a fantastically elaborate machine.

Which was built - and has been sitting there since February, often surrounded by technicians. It has a sign describing it as "a work in progress" that has encountered "unforeseen technical difficulties". And it has apparently made and flown one or two planes, though I've not met anyone who's seen this happen, nor (on various visits) have I ever seen the machine even trying to work.

But last Saturday I did, and it was a revelation. Admittedly, it hardly functioned at all. Things were fouling up and having to be helped along at every stage of the process, and I think that after five months one can fairly say that this is a machine that does not and is not going to work; in a real factory, a radical redesign would have been insisted on long ago.

There were glimpses, though; glimpses of small, precise and rather balletic operations which, if they'd all come together, would have made a beautiful performance; a work in praise of the hand and the machine and chaos, (the utilitarian rhythms decorated with the erratic flight and fall of the planes). And I think that those who said the piece made its point by not working, just as well as it would have done by working, didn't properly imagine what they were missing.

On the other hand, seeing the various ways in which it was still going wrong made it pretty clear that this was really a hypothetical machine. It might have performed, in theory. But there was so much precarious precision involved, so little allowance for "play", no mechanism for checking and correcting errors - every part had to get it right first shot, or not at all - that it would have needed a continuous run of implausibly good luck. Too big an if: yet even the thought of it is cheering.

Abracadabra: International Contemporary Art - Tate Gallery, Milbank; everyday until 26 Sept; admission pounds 6, concs pounds 4

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