Just going through the motions

The Hayward Gallery's Force Fields exhibition is a homage to art that moves: twitching, creeping, expanding, contracting, thrashing about, or just plain dangling. It's fascinating stuff. But is there any more to it than its gee whizz appeal?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It went (quack) when it went, and (cluck) when it stopped and (whirrr) when it stood still... as a song (with noises) by Val Doonican once put it. He might well have had in mind some piece of contemporary kinetic art. After all, the early Sixties was the heyday for that sort of creation.

It went (quack) when it went, and (cluck) when it stopped and (whirrr) when it stood still... as a song (with noises) by Val Doonican once put it. He might well have had in mind some piece of contemporary kinetic art. After all, the early Sixties was the heyday for that sort of creation.

The Hayward Gallery is now full of these things - art works that drift, jump, stretch, tremble, spin, twinkle, vibrate, flow, hover in the air, go boing and extrude large quantities of soap foam. The exhibition is called Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic. That's a sober title for a show that is, among other things, very enjoyable.

But it's a problem-show for the critic. For a start, this kind of work is very hard to describe. It would be hard with the use of hands (to make the motions) and mouth (to do the sound effects). It would be hard with the aid of pencil and paper. With the printed word alone, it's going to be like one of those articulacy exercises where you have to explain to a Venusian exactly how to boil an egg.

What's more, though Force Fields comes on like an exhibition of kinetic art, that isn't really what it is. Simply, there are many works in it that don't move at all, and there are some films also. Yet everything seems somehow connected. You have inklings of some larger and more elusive vision, and puzzling this out is another way the show is enjoyable. I'm not sure I can quite say what that vision is, though.

But to begin with literal kinetics. Fountains and clocks and weather vanes are, presumably, the first works of kinetic art, if you can call them art - but maybe you wouldn't, precisely because they involve motion. High western taste rates stasis. Things that move are mere spectacles, tricks and toys, not the true aesthetic business. Or so it's been felt, and possibly continues to be felt. But one of the many artistic upheavals of the early 20th century was a challenge to this state of affairs.

Force Fields begins with some of the first kinetic art proper. Alexander Calder's mobiles are here, of course, a couple of small and very early ones from 1933, now (oh dear) too venerable actually to move. The word "mobile" was coined by Marcel Duchamp, his only verbal invention to take off. And there are some Duchamp kinetics here too, including the roto-reliefs, discs with off-centre concentric circle patterns, to be played as visual gramophone records; plus a film of them doing their mesmerising rounds, titled with Duchamp's best anagram, "Anémic Cinema".

But, as I say, the heyday of the movement came later, the Fifties and Sixties, and most works in the exhibition are from that period. The biggest name is Jean Tinguely, and there are a couple of his small ones on display - chaotically mobilised contructs of metal trash, doing their repetitive jerks and thwarted spasms, like an animal with a crushed spine. But Tinguely's spirit of mechanised madness and violence is the exception. The dominant mood is more affirmative - sometimes funny, sometimes joyful, sometimes serene. And this goes for the moving and the non-moving things.

There's a beautiful abstract animation by James Whitney, for example, showing milling, evolving formations of coloured particles, suggestive of atoms or cells or galaxies and of mystical mandalas too (these films took about five years to hand draw, and it shows). There are the "hairy" pictures of Pol Bury, worlds of strands that gently creep and twitch and play - it's the weirdest, most fascinating thing to look at. There are loops of bouncing steel going boing against a wooden ball by Len Lye. There's a chamber of "elastic space", by Gianni Colombo - a darkened room filled with a 3D grid of luminous strings which expands and contracts in unpredictable ways. There are Henri Michaux's infinitely detailed wibbly-wobbly drawings made under the influence of mescaline. There's a bunch of work by Hans Haacke, including a strip of cloth in an air-stream flowing like a river along the floor, and a spreading root-like configuration of transparent piping through which water is pumped so as - no, forget it, I can't describe this piece, but it's very delightful too.

Delightful, yes. But, as you may suspect, some of the work is rather less than that. There are several pieces that don't amount to more than amuse-gueules and executive toys. Georges Vantongerloo's spiralling perspex objects might well be novelty soap dishes. And I was glad to find a longstanding prejudice against artists who operate under a single name so amply born out in the work of Gego and Takis.

Gego makes prettily fragile, slightly "molecular" structures of dangling wire. Takis uses powerful magnets to hold other pieces of metal in the air, tantalisingly straining on wires. (The temptation to find out just how powerful these magnets really are, by twitching those wires, is very strong, and I would have twitched one, but the Takis room is constantly patrolled by a gallery guard.) But even these bits of fun, the lab as entertainment, hold their place in the exhibition's larger purposes.

For I think it's clear at least that what all this work is after, one way or another, is an intersection of art and science and spirit. It's all vaguely about the cosmos, and dimensionality, and energy, time and space (and I haven't mentioned the works which use projected and reflected light).

It employs an imagery of waves and particles, and of the microscopic and telescopic, of universes seeking evolution. Often it implies a kind of transcedental edge to these matters too. It's basically optimistic in spirit.

I cannot put it much more precisely. But then I don't know if it can be put much more precisely. We got another glimpse of this sort of sensibility last year at the Hayward Gallery's Lucio Fontana show. It had some very exciting art, but it was sustained by a thought-world which nowadays seems naive. Here was an artist genuinely thrilled by the prospects of outer space, and who liked pondering the cosmos.

Today you don't have to be very sophisticated to be blasé about rockets or cosmic meditations - I mean, the end of 2001, it's a bit silly, we can all see that. And like Fontana's work, the work in Force Fields (which includes some Fontanas too) feels in this respect very distant - and for that reason, very well worth bringing back to light.

Whizz for Atoms! That's the phrase, isn't it? It's the title of one of the Nigel Molesworth books - also a product of late Fifties culture - conveying the post-war school-boy's zeal for the age of Sputnik (for the bomb, too, I'm afraid). Whizz for Atoms! That's what they should have called this show. It's another world.

Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic. Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London SE1. Daily, until 17 Sep; £6, concs £4