Visual Arts: Just wind 'em up and watch 'em go Toys for the mechanicall y minded

An exhibition of automata is by its very nature something of an oddity. There is more than a whiff of seaside arcade and end-of-the-pier pointlessness to a group of fantasy machines with an apparent life of their own. What are they for? Do they operate as social comment or as satire? They can do, but surely their primary task is to demonstrate man's ingenuity. In other words, to remind us that we are makers: that to construct a mad machine is a definition of our precious human individuality. The idea of Devious Devices, now at the Croydon Clocktower, is at once to entertain and to inspire us to have a go ourselves.

Audience participation is the order of the day; you have to press switches or pump handles or trigger sensors to get a response from these devious devices. Some are funny, some instruct - all are theatrical. The film- maker (and former Python) Terry Gilliam chose 18 objects that were somehow symbolic of the 20th century: a car, a psychiatrist's couch, a television, an electric guitar and so on. Eighteen artists were then asked to make an object in response to one of those symbols. Jim Bond, for instance, has made a creepy jukebox coffin-shrine to Jimi Hendrix, enhaloed between two wing-flapping angels. Sokari Douglas Camp has fashioned from sheet metal a Freud ("looks like Lytton Strachey," said someone in the crowd) revolving on a spit in synchrony with the naked torso of a white woman on an adjacent couch. Elsewhere is a gyrating cine camera with all-too- human characteristics. In a booth hang spare tails for Mickey Mouse. A rocket capsule opens to reveal someone doing the ironing.

One question immediately poses itself: will these objects wear themselves out? Prolonged frenetic activity takes its toll. The problem with such machines is that they invariably go wrong: the sensor is not sensitive enough or the billiard balls get jammed in the helter-skelter. (This is probably a philosophical position arising from the automaton-maker's desire to render utterly complex something usually very simple.) And these things can be dangerous, though for most that only adds spice. The Geneticist by Jon Mills, all clashing scissors and cut-out hands on a surgical trolley, would happily go for the jugular if you got too close. Some, like this one, are ultra-modern; others, like Keith Newstead's motorcycle, invoke classic Victoriana. Mock-pearl raindrops descend upon the rider, but thankfully he has a collapsible hood - the Total Protection Raincover - to enclose him.

At the heart of the exhibition is the largest automaton here, The Newsteadmanaton Universe, standing more than nine feet tall. A brilliant collaboration between Keith Newstead and Ralph Steadman, it conjures up a terrifying millennial world of yarping animals and flatulent swamp, all flying creatures and erectile proboscises, arms and eyes and planets, veritable flowers of evil.

Ron Fuller's Tooth Fairy comes closest to state-of-the-art Heath Robinson. It would do well as a cautionary tale in a dentist's waiting-room: the sugar bug circles a gaping mouth, knocking down teeth like ninepins; then along comes the tooth fairy to stand them all up again. Would it were ever thus.

On the way out, pause at Tim Lewis's untitled piece. It is a remarkable magical object. A circle of tiny figures are made to march when the lights come on, and you actually see them move, though logically you know they are solid and still static. How is it done? (It's actually rather a grim subject, reminiscent of Dore and Van Gogh's convicts tramping the prison yard.)

Throughout this exhibition the range of approach is wide, its products diverting. The only thing that seems a trifle arbitrary is the choice of artists. Where, for instance, is the work of the Glasgow-based Russian Eduard Bersudsky, master organ-grinder and kinemat-maker extraordinary. This strange lapse aside, the levels of craftsmanship, invention and eccentricity are refreshingly high. They're to be relished. Not for the impatient or for those who cannot dream.

-Andrew Lambirth

To 4 June, Croydon Clocktower, Katharine Street, CR9 (0181-253 1030), then touring

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