Whirring, waving and wobbling: it's an art movement

Force Fields | <i>Hayward Gallery, London</i>
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The Independent Online

As artistic bêtises go, Alexander Calder's was up there with the stars. Visiting Mondrian's Paris studio in 1930, the young American cheerily offered to pep up the Dutchman's monochromes by putting them on motors and making them spin. Mondrian, not noted for his levity in matters of artistic theory, was appalled. "It is not necessary," he answered, through clenched de Stijl teeth. "My painting is already very fast."

As artistic bêtises go, Alexander Calder's was up there with the stars. Visiting Mondrian's Paris studio in 1930, the young American cheerily offered to pep up the Dutchman's monochromes by putting them on motors and making them spin. Mondrian, not noted for his levity in matters of artistic theory, was appalled. "It is not necessary," he answered, through clenched de Stijl teeth. "My painting is already very fast."

His put-down was not as facetious as it sounds. One way of reading the history of Western art is as a continuing play-off between movement and stasis. Look at a Greek sculpture like Polyclitus's Doryphorus and you will see an obsession with contrapposto: that asymmetric pose that distils the entire potential for motion into a single static moment. Michelangelo was still at it 2,000 later, using the stillness of his David to express a movement more evocative than movement itself. Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time, in the Wallace Collection, shows how the absence of actual motion can create a Platonic template for all motion. And Mondrian's rectangles were a 20th-century version of the same thing: the distillation of a new sense of urban speed into that abstracted stillness which the painter liked to call "dynamic equilibrium". When he said that his pictures were fast enough without motors, he wasn't joking.

All of which might lead you to think of Calder and what is widely (if not entirely correctly) seen as his brainchild - Kinetic art, the subject of a new show at the Hayward Gallery - as at least frivolous and very possibly dangerous. The point of art had always been mimesis, the representation of things as they were through things they were not. Calder's mobiles - his first motorised sculptures were produced in 1931 and christened by Marcel Duchamp the next year - cheated by using actual movement instead of the suggestion of it. That Calder had cut his sculptural teeth making toys for the Gould Manufacturing Company may not improve his case.

And many of the works in "Force Fields" do look like toys, if not fairground exhibits. Take Gianni Colombo's 1967 piece, Spazio Elastico [Elastic Space], a darkened roomful of creaking strings through which visitors are invited to walk like some Cartesian House of Horrors. Or David Medalla's Cloud Gates, out on a terrace, which wreaks an unholy Kineticist's revenge on Mondrian by turning his familiar blue-and-red rectangles into a Perspex sculpture that oozes soapy foam like an episode of I Love Lucy. Or - Medalla again - Mud Machine, whose spidery limbs link a pair of slowly revolving constellations to pads which smear skid-marks onto a white surface: a bathetic linking of stars and shit.

But these are games with a purpose. Walk back to where Kineticism began - say, Calder's Untitled (1933) - and you'll be struck by the high seriousness of it all. Heavily indebted to Constructivism, the piece pares down physics to a couple of bent coat-hangers, a black ball and a red dot. It's easy enough to see Untitled as a piece of cod-science, a 50-cent oscillograph. But it's more than that. Calder's work doesn't just move: it is about movement, turning motion, the space motion occupies and defines, into a sculptural element. Like one of the wackier moments in Lewis Carroll, what's there (wire, plywood, junk) is less important than what isn't; the visible exists only to define the invisible.

Without oversimplifying things, it is possible to see two strands at work in "Force Fields": one that takes its cue from the high-minded side of Kineticism and plays around with the aesthetics of motion; and another that picks up on its ludic elements and uses movement to have fun. Moholy-Nagy's Licht-Raum Modulator is an example of the former, a jingling assembly of stainless steel drill-bits, planes, balls and mirrors that is both a piece of science and a terrifying (and beautiful) portrait of it. Likewise, Takis' magnetic pieces use movement to make explicit the implicit laws of physics; Len Lye's Blade - the most exciting work in the show - does the same thing for wave dynamics. On the other side are things like Jean Tinguely's La Folie [Madness], which lives up to its name by shaking itself into creaking life every five minutes, and Medalla's various confections in mud and soap.

All this would have been enough to produce a show that raised important questions about how we read modern art history. There is a useful case to be made for seeing Jesús Rafael Soto's Penetrable (2000) as following in a discrete line from Calder, and another for examining the huge cross-fertilisation that has taken place over the past 70 years between art that moves and art that doesn't. But you need to be careful here. It's allowable to see Georges Vantongerloo's immobile tracings in space as kinetically based because they are about the mathematics of movement. But when you include Lucio Fontana (presumably because his paintings are called "Spatial Concepts") and Yves Klein's fire paintings in the Kinetic satrap, you begin to lose the plot. Why not Bridget Riley or even Jackson Pollock? Less is more.

'Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic': Hayward Gallery, SE1 (020 7960 4242), to 17 September

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