Most British art since 1990 has been spectacular, shocking and aimed at a niche market of filthy-rich private collectors, right? Wrong, but the caricature dies hard. The rule that art, to be newsworthy, must convert into a quick burst of titillating copy tends either to sideline subtle, multi-layered projects or compress them into the standard formulas. Tomoko Takahashi, whose work is bringing the Serpentine Gallery in London's Kensington Gardens to exuberant life, was shoved through the tabloid mangle in 1997 when she won East International's £5,000 prize. "Taxpayers' cash squandered on trash!" bleated the Mail et al - a deep injustice to an important UK artist whose practice is refreshingly at odds with the values of Britart.
Takahashi, who has been producing art since the mid-1990s, builds installations from awe-inspiring quantities of found, borrowed and recycled objects. Living on site for weeks and working like a demon, she sorts, scatters, balances and - her preferred metaphor - "gardens" those objects into kaleidoscopic, teetering arrangements hinting at landscapes, maps, board games, printed circuitry or digital environments.
Her work my play-station at serpentine 2005 all but saturates the gallery with stuff, including live electrical goods. The theme here is play, and many of the objects relate to games and sports: from badminton rackets to Buckaroo; from snooker balls to Frustration, Mid-Life Crisis and Hangman. Access is via a series of serpentine (ouch) paths leading from room to room. The piece is huge, but it is scale, not spectacle, that interests Takahashi. The work is formed from sections and subsections, each with its own logic. At the microcosmic level, the juxtaposed objects don't just form appealing patterns - they suggest puns, similes and mini-narratives.
The gallery's main space houses what Takahashi labels the "kitchen". Here the visual humour is distinctly sharp-edged. Cards printed with tongue twisters slide between the blades of a meat slicer. A strategically wedged hammer forces a noisy adding machine into incessant activity. A knife with a seeming life of its own has stabbed a giant polystyrene die (more ouch). Maybe Takahashi (who has a toddler) is pondering the irony of the term "family kitchen", given the battery of hazardous objects found in the average kitchen - but hang on! Slow down! It's happening already: the more you focus on the details, the more associations they breed.
Unlike with a computer game, the longer you explore the piece, the less surely you grasp its totality. Tiny elements swim before your eyes: 200 fish-shaped soy-sauce dispensers; 300 yellow ping-pong balls; a 101 Dalmatians jigsaw. Visitors are kitted out with toy spyglasses. These offer yet more fragmentary views and recast the viewers as part of the exhibit - giants looming over a Lilliputian landscape. The eye cannot be an object in its own visual field (thank you, Wittgenstein). Likewise, if you are part of the piece, there is really no way of "seeing the whole thing". That's the point.
Takahashi's project is not about crafting intransigent material products: the social networks it creates are central. As a reminder, graffiti in the artist's hand name-checks helpers: Dallas, Lawrence, Peter and others. The gallery's manager, Michael Gaughan, notes that Takahashi's junk-hunt has been uniquely engaging for all involved. Staff at the Victoria and Albert Museum came up trumps with bits of old display cases; the gardeners at Hyde Park let Takahashi raid their dumping ground. Workaid, the recycling charity that refurbishes tools for East Africa, proved an Aladdin's cave. In Takahashi, it seems, Workaid's team found a kindred spirit. It is easy to imagine their enjoyment of the uses she has found for tools that proved beyond redemption.
Events programmed during the show reinforce the point. On 18 March, the electro-acoustic composer Leafcutter John and a team of musicians will improvise a musical piece by "playing" the installation (including visitors). On 2 April, Takahashi and her fellow artist Simon Faithfull will recreate it (2001) - a "madly beautiful" nocturnal game of tag played under ultra-violet floodlights by participants in white headgear. On 10 April, the artist will dismantle the installation and donate whichever objects do not already have owners to anyone with a use for them, turning the disappearance of the piece into another phase of the work.
A truly representative account of the past decade of British art would need to give proper space to the many collectives and artists who, like Takahashi and Faithfull, don't rest content with the idea of "the audience" as a generalised entity, but risk more specific or experimental forms of address. Collaborators Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, whose Bata-ville project (2004) ushered former employees of British Bata factories to ZlIn in the Czech Republic (the Urszene of the Bata experiment) in a splendidly liveried coach, would be in the frame. Ditto Adam Chodzko, who has worked with groups as diverse as asylum-seekers in Whitstable and individuals chosen for their resemblance to actors in a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Ditto Ella Gibbs, whose Spare Time Job Centre (2004) both highlighted and proposed solutions to British workaholism, and Anna Best, the instigator of Vauxhall Pleasure (2004), in which a group of professional singers raised their voices against the din of London's traffic.
That is just a tiny sample. In no way are these artists a "new movement" or an ideologically homogeneous group. If they have something in common, it's that they all share (in Simon Faithfull's words) "restless interests" best served by exploiting the gaps that 20th-century art experiments and the conditions of contemporary life have helped open up. Compared with the rewards and pleasures of pursuing such work, not being given a tabloid make-over seems a small price to pay.
"Tomoko Takahashi" is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020 7402 6075) until 10 April
Rachel Withers, a contemporary art critic, teaches at Goldsmiths College and the Wimbledon School of Art