Variety show

Art - Ned Denny finds much to admire in a diverse exhibition of contemporary work

The ponderous, notoriously overbearing architecture of Tate Britain's North Duveen Sculpture Gallery has seldom looked so good. And if the soaring walls, tomblike doorways and huge Ionic columns that David Sylvester once castigated for their "bullying pomposity" have taken on an almost transcendent lightness, it's all down to Jim Lambie. Part of his ongoing Zobop project, the geometric floor (built up with strips of coloured tape) is like the bastard offspring of a raked Zen garden and a television test card from the late 1970s. It possesses the space utterly, pressing into every corner like a psychedelic slick and rebounding towards the centre of the room in shockwaves that hurt the eyes. But more impressive still is what this Pop Art ocean does to the stones around which it flows. Being hyperreal and yet resolutely flat, Lambie's installation confers a curious virtuality on all dimensions other than its own. And so the gallery's walls and columns, normally weighty, seem to rise austerely upwards like a pale yellow hologram. Effectively, Lambie turns the architecture into a ghost of itself.

"Days Like These", the second Tate triennial of contemporary British art, is laced with such surprises. Wandering through it, I was reminded of the Australian poet Les Murray's assertion that he was "only interested in everything". What better motto could there be for a scene that encompasses glossy abstract paintings and films about public lavatories, a documentation of the Lockerbie trial and photos taken through the sitting-room windows of total strangers?

This diversity can be a sign of indirection as well as a strength. On the one hand, you could applaud the young artists' freedom from modernist dogmas, yet there are times when the work seems more eccentric than substantial. A case in point is the short film by Mike Marshall from which the show takes its name. As the soundtrack alternates between tranquillity and Jaws-like ominousness, we see a sunlit garden spattered by a water-sprinkler. If the intention is to pay homage to ordinary miracles, it doesn't really work because the lighting and atmosphere are so sweetly artificial. This glibness may be deliberate, but it's hard to care one way or another.

The same can't be said for Sarah Morris's Miami (2002), an eerie sublimation of the modern metropolis. Her camera pursues every facet of the city with the same rapt attention, from policemen doing covert exercises to the strange-eyed dolphins in Miami Aquarium to the relentless mechanics of a Diet Coke factory. We linger in the chrome and glass of hotel lobbies, we glide through shadowy railway stations and we join the speed-worshipping trash at the Grand Prix circuit. But what raises it from documentary to something approaching eulogy is the silence of the film and the pulse of the techno soundtrack, which comes to seem an articulation of the hidden force that everything obeys. More than a portrait, Miami is life itself.

Tim Head's computer-generated projection Treacherous Light (2002) gives a similar insight into the surge of unseen powers, in this case the countless pixels of which computerised images are composed. With a single screen blown up to the size of a barn, you can see them quiver and twitch like bees in a digital hive. Then there's Ian Davenport's vast and loom-like Untitled Poured Lines (Tate Britain, 2003), hardly less animated despite being just stripes of coloured paint on a white wall. Stand up close and look to the side and the wall seems to ripple like fabric.

For a sense of the variety that prevails even among those who paint, compare Davenport with George Shaw. Whereas Davenport constructs his seductively empty abstracts with Dolly Mixture shades of household emulsion, Shaw uses Airfix modelling enamels (the colours of camouflage and war) for his desolate scenes from a sink-estate childhood. Neutral, laboured and meticulous, these are the kind of paintings that satisfy a widespread notion of what "proper" art should be. And yet the irony is that their bleak- ness is almost intoxicating, the sullen woods and broken-down garages shining with the fatal radiance of November dusks. Shaw's paintings are paeans to the death of the imagination.

But the image from "Days Like These" that remains clearest in my mind is from Shizuka Yokomizo's photographic series Strangers (1999). The series stems from letters that the artist wrote to random people in various cities, asking them to stand at their windows at an appointed date and time and let themselves be photographed. The one I recall is the Japanese woman who, barefoot and in a flimsy dress, stares out into the night with a mixture of seriousness and fear. Nothing is harder, the picture seems to say, than surrender to the unknown.

"Days Like These" is at Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8000) to 26 May

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, What now?