Bizarre encounters

Visual art - Richard Cork is surprised by a show that transforms and elevates the everyday

Reclining on a stack of battered wooden crates, Thomas Schutte's glazed ceramic dog raises both legs in prayer. But there is nothing cute or sentimental about this creature. For one thing, the praying paws have shaped themselves into a vagina, and the dog's plump back is covered by a soldier's helmet. Its sinister gleam warns anyone tempted to treat the animal as a harmless, cuddly pet.

Completed just in time to be displayed in Tacita Dean's new exhibition, Schutte's tantalising and ominous dog prepares us for the surprises to come. Dean was invited to select work by other artists for a touring show, in which she catches us off-balance by setting up unexpected connections between wholly disparate images.

One of the earliest exhibits, Paul Nash's Event on the Downs, painted in 1934, typifies her fascination with bizarre encounters. The landscape is, for the most part, a gentle celebration of south-coast grass, chalk and clouds. But rearing in the foreground is an unlikely pair of objects: a withered tree stump and an oversized tennis ball. Nash never explained why he juxtaposed these two forms. But Dean has included a selection of his tiny silver-print photographs, focused on dead roots, unidentified "personages" in deserted fields and an old anchor chain encrusted with barnacles and shells. The latter looks like a snaky monster with a bird's predatory beak in Nash's photo-collage, called Swanage as a tribute to the stretch of Dorset coast where he met Eileen Agar.

Their ten-year affair was rooted in a surrealist passion for beachcombing, and Dean has also chosen a number of photographs taken by Agar in Brittany, where pink granite rocks have been weathered into fantastical shapes. Agar thought of them as primordial apparitions, but she also saw their quirky, erotic humour, nicknaming one the Bumb-Thumb Rock.

Such mischievous wit is found elsewhere in the show, most winningly in Lothar Baumgarten's Mosquitoes, which turn out to be made from bread and feathers. Although these materials have not been altered, we feel that the mosquitoes could fly off at any moment, and when one is placed on top of another, they really do appear to be copulating.

Baumgarten's other exhibit, a slide projector piece called There I like it better than in Westphalia, informed Dean's overall approach to the show. The images, taken during an exploration of the Rhine, concentrate on a marshy and highly polluted region. But Baumgarten finds wonders among the amphibious life, and he also makes his own spontaneous sculpture in the heart of the dank swamp. A glowing pyramid of sensuous red pigment rears like a temple from the vegetation, while elsewhere Baumgarten places a pale, Nash-like ball at the centre of a flamboyant green leaf.

Dean is clearly fascinated by the notion of investigating mysterious locales and finding unloved objects that ignite the imagination. In the same room as Nash's work, she devotes a wall to a sequence of large-scale watercolours executed with almost photographic clarity by Yvan Salomone. Some are based on the docks at Saint Malo, the artist's birthplace, and focus on industrial cast-offs in bleak settings. They remind me of similar abandoned structures explored in Dean's own films, and she is fascinated by the inspiration Salomone derived from watching Werner Herzog's film Fata Morgana. The Sahara Desert provided Herzog with mesmerising locations, and Salomone finds similar stimulus in an unsupervised Algerian military camp. Abandoned machinery and oil drums provide him with the trigger for haunting images of dereliction, though the beleaguered objects seem determined to linger on.

The most outstanding exhibit is Rodney Graham's film Rheinmetall/Victoria 8. Shooting the pristine beauty of a 1930s German typewriter that he discovered in a Vancouver shop, Graham seduces us with its allure. But then we watch sieved flour drop on to the typewriter. It gathers in neat, white cones on the keys, which end up resembling an elaborate roofscape of pinnacles under snow. Then the downpour becomes more relentless, threatening to dislodge all this delicate order in an uncontrollable blizzard. Chunks of whiteness shift, revealing fragments of black metal still shining beneath. In the end, it becomes overwhelming. The typewriter is transformed into a melancholy ruin. With the simplest means, Graham has brought about the kind of sea change that turns this exhibition, at its best, into a source of everyday miracles.

"An Aside: selected by Tacita Dean" is at the Camden Arts Centre, London NW3 (020 7472 5500) until 1 May, then touring

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