Culture vultures: gallery visitors pick up the pieces at exhibition of rubbish

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The artist called it a delicate exploration of order and chaos. Critics likened it to a "very pretentious shop window installation". But for the children rummaging on the art gallery floor, it was clearly an unreconstructed case of all their Christmases coming at once.

The artist called it a delicate exploration of order and chaos. Critics likened it to a "very pretentious shop window installation". But for the children rummaging on the art gallery floor, it was clearly an unreconstructed case of all their Christmases coming at once.

The Japanese artist Tomoko Takahashi marked the closure of her exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in west London yesterday by inviting visitors to take pieces of it home with them.

The gallery has been awash with a sea of detritus after the artist studiously filled it with 7,600 discarded objects found in an assortment of skips, car boot sales and dustbins.

From vintage sewing machines, creaking hoovers and pots of paint to wooden tennis rackets, toy cars and tatty board games, the eclectic piles reflected a snapshot of the hidden world of abandoned objects.

The sight of an elderly gentleman strolling out of the gallery clutching a broken kettle and a wonky stool with a self-congratulatory expression on his face was the first indication that this was no ordinary exhibition.

A queue snaked outside the gallery long before it opened its doors, demonstrating how items that had once been little more than "piles of rubbish" had been transformed into objects of desire.

Once inside, the event appeared to comprise little more than a massive jumble sale held in the pristine environs of a stark white gallery. A team of gallery workers in white boiler suits merely added to the air of the surreal as they patiently handed out selected items from tangled piles of modern-day detritus to visitors.

And to the relief of the organisers, there was not an Ikea-style scrum in sight as people tentatively picked up items and politely stepped back for others in keeping with the atmosphere of a sedate art gallery.

Emma Swain, 41, a television commissioner at the BBC, described how a planned trip to the Tate Modern was abandoned in favour of a toy-filled browse at the Serpentine.

Clutching roller blades, toy trucks and a brightly coloured tent for her children, aged six and three, she said: "It was a controlled atmosphere when we got here; it was nothing like a jumble sale.

"I did explain to the children that it was art and they were quite excited by the idea. They found this much more fun than going to the Tate Modern."

For Andrea Casalotti, 44, from Marylebone, west London, who runs a bicycle company, it was an opportunity to treat his two-year-old son Miles.

Watching his son squeal with delight as he ploughed through piles of objects on his pushbike, Mr Casalotti said: "I brought him here before and he found it frustrating because he wasn't allowed to touch anything and as he is only two, he finds that difficult to understand. Now that he can touch things and interact with the objects here it is much more enjoyable for him."

Miles was not alone in his youthful pleasure at helping himself to what was once the preserve of an untouchable art exhibition. Alida Lowe, eight, and her two brothers Danny, 10, and Eliot, 13, amassed a pile of goodies outside the gallery, ranging from a purple baseball goal post to ancient badminton rackets. "My only rule was that they had to be able to carry whatever they picked up back to the car themselves," said their mother, Katherine Lowe, 44, an architect from west London.

For Takahashi, it was an emotional finale to a lengthy project that involved moving into the gallery for a month before its opening, sleeping on a small air bed.

Surveying the crowds dismantling her artwork, the Turner-nominated artist said: "It's amazing. The broken hula hoop used to be one of my favourite objects. I can't believe that someone else would want it but they've just taken it away."

Takahashi, 39, added: "It was difficult putting this all together. I collected so many things I could not categorise them and sorting it all out took weeks.

"It's up to them what they do with these objects but if it makes people look at things differently, then that's great."

While the exhibition, which opened in February, had received mixed reviews, it was clear that yesterday's jumble sale-style closing was a crowd-pulling formula.

Amid the throng of visitors helping themselves to objects stood Julia Peyton-Jones, the director of the Serpentine, who appeared pleasantly surprised at the absence of scrums.

"Tomoko collected these items from every conceivable source, car boot sales, tips and skips," she said. "Now she is reintroducing them into the world from which they came.

"If they had seen these objects in a different context, they would not have given them a second glance. But this makes them think about them in a different light.

"To give them back to people is a benign, generous act."

Cynics may have interpreted the event as little more than a cost-effective means of emptying a gallery of thousands of items of rubbish. Others may have pondered on the inability of society to say no to free material objects, regardless of their worth.

But amid the theorising and the rummaging, one thing remained indisputable: children like nothing better than helping themselves to piles of free toys.