Why so hard to swallow?: It's seven tons of rice. Here it is, at the Tate. It's up for the Turner Prize. Don't you just love it? Or wot? Gordon Burn investigates

Two words, 'Wot for?', splashed in fresh blue paint on the invitingly white side of House, Rachel Whiteread's hard-won cast of the living quarters of a Victorian terrace house in Grove Road, London E3. The raggedness of the letters and the gouts of hard gloss spreading out from them suggest the urgency and vehemence with which they have been applied. A woman with a wallpaper scraper has been given the thankless task of removing the daubings of the day before, which you can nevertheless still make out ('Council houses for all - black and white').

This is art that fulfils the American Claes Oldenburg's prescription of doing something other than sitting on its arse in a museum. It stands on a main artery in Bow, insolently pristine, accusingly beautiful, provocatively blank, and makes people angry. Here they go, turning it on for the print media and for the television cameras; and then they are angry for each other in the dark, when they vandalise the house and graffiti it and kick in the floodlights that have been installed amid the builders' rubble at considerable expense (which, of course, is a lot of the point).

When they're asked, they cite the cost (around pounds 50,000), although House has been privately funded. They cite its dumbness and intrusion; its thereness, this new blot on their landscape. Nobody, as far as I'm aware, has cited Marcel Duchamp, but they could if they wanted to: he's a copper-bottomed giver of permission in this area; an unimpeachable source.

The guru and presiding genius of Post-Modern, 'post-object' art, Duchamp didn't say a lot. But one of the things he did say was that the artist was a 'mediumistic being' who performed only one part of the creative act; it was the spectator who completed the process, by interpreting what the artist had done and either accepting or rejecting it. Carl Andre, the maker of Equivalent VIII (the Tate's 'bricks', which still have the power to set people's blood boiling), put it this way: 'Experiencing a work of art is as hard a job as to make a work of art.'

The bricks are unemphatic. In the Rachel Whiteread piece there are at least the signs of hard labour, some kind of human intervention. Andre's bricks just lie there, neat, low down on the scale of moral effort. Elegantly lit, they currently flank the entrance to the galleries at the Tate where the work of the four artists shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize is showing - a signal that, after the dainty Degas sculptures and haunchy Rodin bronzes, the visitor should steel himself for a shift in temperature.

The Turner Prize 1993 Exhibition opened to the public last Wednesday morning. Just over an hour later, it closed again temporarily. Galvanised perhaps by the familiar 'call-this-art?', debunking tone of one of the morning's front-page stories ('This seven-ton pile of rice could make a meal for 100,000 people. But is it art?'), or the reservations of Brian Sewell in the London Evening Standard the night before ('I thought the prize, according to the rules, was for a British artist'), 'somebody' had thrown 'something' (the gallery was being noncommittal) on to the combed, white acreage of Neon Rice Field, the installation by Vong Phaophanit.

Vong's background - born in Laos in 1961, but sent to school in France and separated from his family for 20 years - together with his choice of materials - he has used bamboo, family snapshots and Laotian script, as well as rice - invite a narrative reading of the work, which he nevertheless resists. 'Let me say that what I am doing is not primarily to be understood,' he has said. 'Silence is the only word I have found to describe it silence is to do with the eyes, the look; the look can stop words.' He has withheld the meaning of the Laotian words that are elements in his recent installations - a move bound to be interpreted as a provocation by those who prefer the polite and the undemanding ('the hard work of tradition with armature, plaster and bronze cast') to the difficult and the new ('old boilers, outworn tyres what Walter Pater might have described as 'a quaint conceit of Tupperware' ' - Sewell again).

The Tate's definition of installation art in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition is compendious: 'art works which may occupy all or any parts of a space, in or out of doors, and be made of any materials, natural or manufactured, that fit the artist's purpose.' A consequence of the vogue for installation art has been an increased blurring of the divisions between art and non-art inaugurated by Duchamp. Human blood, maggots, rotted meat, fried eggs, sump oil, animal intestines, colostomy bags and kebabs are just a few of the heterodox, 'transgressive' materials that British artists have used in their work in the last two or three years. You would have thought that rice, even seven tons of it, sculpted into deep furrows and laid with 20-yard strips of orange neon, might have seemed uncontentious in comparison; the result is a space that is meditative, aromatic, Zen still (and would, if it was awarded on the basis of this show rather than 'an outstanding exhibition' in the previous 12 months, surely win Vong Phaophanit the prize). But you would have been wrong.

This is work that makes many more than the Evening Standard's critic feel wrong-footed, embattled. Why? It was a question I put to Richard Wentworth, one of the most influential of the middle-generation of British sculptors who, throughout his career, has worked with 'poor' materials (tin cans, Formica furniture, zinc buckets and baths), and who, with his latest London show at the Serpentine Gallery, has probably just booked his place on the shortlist for next year's Turner Prize.

Wentworth said he thought the hostility was partly a sympton of what makes being modern in Britain so hopelessly difficult. 'Everything in England is a matter of adjustment. We don't make a road, we widen one, or we straighten it; or we add on to the house, or we change the telephone boxes. But we're not in the start-from-scratch business.' He also believes there is suspicion of any individual action in what is an increasingly passive, collaborative culture. People will watch hours of television, really unquestioningly. The same with films and newspapers. Any collaborative mediation tends to be seen as OK. Then somebody does something which can be identified as being the act of an individual, and it's absolutely horrifying. It's actually seen as a gross impertinence.

'I think people are threatened when commonplace things are used in art because they are very bad at acknowledging the spiritual value they invest in commonplace things, and their own funny little fetishes and behaviours. They talk about their favourite garden trowel but, you know, a trowel is a trowel is a trowel. It's as if people can't bear to acknowledge that they're irrational. I think a lot of artists, all they do is manifest, or slightly enhance, the experience of investing everyday objects with those festishistic qualities.' Hence the loathing for the kind of work that is currently flooding the galleries, and which has dominated the Turner Prize shortlist in recent years.

Wentworth quotes Oldenburg: 'I am for an art that is smoked, like a cigarette, smells, like a pair of shoes. I am for an art that flaps like a flag, or helps blow noses, like a handkerchief. I am for an art that is put on and taken off, like pants, which develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie, or abandoned with great contempt, like a piece of shit.'

'People are very bad at accommodating the fact that meaning is migrating in everything all the time,' Wentworth says. 'Nothing means what we think it means for longer than a couple of minutes. It's the milk bottle that becomes the Molotov cocktail. It's all on the move. And although everybody's party to that, there's a strange intellectual closure where you hear people saying: 'Well it's just a sardine tin. It's only a heap of rice.' '

Artists v Critics in the Turner Prize, debate tonight 6.30pm, Tate Gallery. Tickets pounds 7.50. 071-887 8761. 'Private View', a discussion about the four shortlisted artists, Channel 4 tonight, 11.45pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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