The art of travel

Simon Calder discovers the aesthetics of tourism at a new exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery

To see the world, make your way to Waterloo Bridge in London. The primary double-decker of the bus network in the capital - Route 1 - will take you there. Through the big picture windows on the top deck, the journey unfolds frame by frame. The north side of the bridge emerges from the architectural splendour of Somerset House (which, incidentally, hosts the modest but marvellous Courtauld Gallery). It is the finest river crossing in the capital, and ranks with the Brooklyn Bridge in New York as the optimum viewpoint for a world city; to the east, the hemispheric glory of St Paul's amid the corrugated horizon of the City, to the west the institutions of power in Westminster.

Once you've reached the South Bank, these aesthetic splendours degenerate into a muddle of concrete. But for the next two months, a new exhibition will transport you away from the clutter more rapidly than the No 1 bus. And two of the leading exhibits are free and outdoors.

Were you on that bus last night, you might have made a double take about which city you were in. Emblazoned upon the usually blank exterior of the National Theatre is a series of images of New York City. Taken in their entirety, they redefine tedium; but in moderation they thrill. Every frame from Andy Warhol's plotless, characterless empire is projected upon this ungainly screen, a transfer of Manhattan.

The film was created using a single camera with a fixed subject: New York's Empire State Building. The only variable is time. The full movie runs for eight pointless hours. But a minute's glimpse of Warhol's take on Manhattan will enthral the bus passenger for each of October's four remaining Friday evenings.

In the future, everywhere may be famous for 15 minutes. For the next two months, though, celebrated locations from Clacton to Las Vegas are laid out for your examination inside the Hayward Gallery - which also wears one work of art on the outside. Look to the western shoulder of the bridge. A vast ink-jet poster has been slapped on the side of the Hayward Gallery. It shows a figure standing in a small motorboat, afloat on crystalline water. This is not, though, a snapshot from a perfect holiday; the focus is an uncomfortable-looking donkey. Such is the suffering that must be endured for the benefit of art, and the artist (Paola Pivi). Now it's your turn. The image diverts you from the more familiar touristic icons such as the London Eye and Big Ben. And that is the point of Universal Experience: Art, Life and the Tourist's Eye - to deflect you from the rest of the world.

''People can see Florence and Venice in books, without the queues,'' says the man keen to enhance your experience and reduce your travel: Francesco Bonami. "Instead of going there they should come to see this show.''

Bonami is curator of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, where this exhibition was conceived. He was born half a century ago in Florence, and has spent the past 20 years living in the US. Where he worries about the world: both the people and what they see in it.

"When you go and see the Mona Lisa,'' asks Bonami, "are you going to see a painting or a tourist attraction?'' He points out that when Leonardo's masterpiece was stolen, people queued to see the blank patch of wall in the Louvre from where it went missing. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but tourists apparently adore a void, which is perhaps why we find the sight of the World Trade Center so magnetic. "People go to Ground Zero to see nothing," he says.

To help us tourists focus on something, Bonami has curated an exhibition that is simultaneously familiar and foreign, rather like the destinations that many of us seek. As you walk into the Hayward Gallery, a carpet in easyJet orange draws your eye skyward. This untitled work by Rudolf Stingel sets the tone for a journey through the bewildering world of travel.

Fifty artists have given their interpretations of tourism. Many exhibits confirm the need for the tourist not merely to visit a place, but to have photographic proof of having done so - epitomised by German Indian: Chief, by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher. Alongside the stills of iconic locations are some startling moving images, including Olivo Barbieri's helicopter film of Rome where parts of the picture have been de-focused to give an impression of the camera skimming across a scale model rather than the real thing. And up on the wall there's the Pope, or at a least a souvenir picture of the Holy Father - simultaneously the ultimate incarnation of the tourist, and a tourist attraction himself.

At the other end of the travel spectrum are the images of poor Americans taken by the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt, who sold his own blood to finance a trip across the US. The images of destitution and despair are given new resonance by the floods in Louisiana. And when New Orleans comes back to life, no doubt the city will have acquired an added allure. Tourists crave history as a framework with which to interpret what they are seeing - and hearing.

Sound, including a work by Tacita Dean, intrudes as you wander through the gallery. "It would be unrealistic to have an exhibition about tourism in silence,'' says Bonami, "because silence doesn't exist any more in tourism.'' But you may be glad to learn that the smells of travel are not included. "I think people can bring their own.''

For some fresh air, nip out to the sculpture garden, and visit Zhan Wang's Urban Landscape: a model of central London made from stainless-steel kitchen utensils and draped in a fog of dry ice.

The most substantial installation is also the most disturbing. The Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn created Chalet Lost History as a response to the pillaging of Baghdad in the wake of the Iraq war. The work includes hard-core pornography, not an element of the average tourist's experience. Its inclusion, says the curator, is to make the visitor reflect on the darker side of tourism, such as the prevalence of sex tourism to countries like Cuba and Thailand. "It's part of our contemporary society that we tend to forget.'' Universal Experience is as flighty as its subject matter. The exhibition began in Chicago in the spring, visits London this autumn and will seek invigoration in the Italian Tirol early next year.

The perfect coalescence of art and tourism can be found, I reckon, between piers E and F at the world's most artistic airport: Amsterdam Schiphol. Here, the transience of travel, experience and art is manifest. Not only can you view the complex choreography of aviation, there is also a handy annexe of the Rijksmuseum in the transit lounge. Why bother exploring Amsterdam itself, when you can taste some morsels of fine art between flights - and buy the postcards to prove it?

"The point of the exhibition is that we are all tourists,'' says Bonami. "We can't experience the world with no prior knowledge.'' The solution, says the curator of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, is "contemporary art, the last place where you can be an explorer. You are in new territory that will stimulate your mind.'' Either that or you can take bus No 1, which in its scarlet, double-decked glory is itself something of a work of art, and a touristic icon.

Universal Experience: Art, Life and the Tourist's Eye is at the Hayward Gallery (020-7921 0813; www.hayward.org.uk) until 11 December 2005; 10am-6pm Sat-Mon, until 8pm Tues & Wed, until 9pm Fri; admission £9

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