Art: From the rag-and-bone shop to the heart

    Titian used crushed beetles; Tomoko Takahashi uses other people’s junk. Are artists really just alchemists at work, asks Waldemar Januszczak

    There are artists who work with junk, and there is Takahashi. She is to junk-collecting what Beethoven is to a Radio 1 jingle. She’s the Wagner of refuse, the Tchaikovsky of tat, an artist who takes junk-collecting to new symphonic highs. Nobody turns junk into art as mightily as Tomoko Takahashi.

    In 2000, she was nominated for the Turner prize, but didn’t win. Her new Serpentine show is like all her shows, except bigger. She has been given the whole gallery to fill, and packs every vista with junk, and more junk, then some rubbish as well. This sea of the second-hand has had a rough sorting system imposed on it, which results in the junk in one room being rusty and outdoor-looking, so it evokes garages and farmyards, while in another room it’s electronic and flashing and feels like a gadget dump. In the lofty central gallery, the refuse comes chiefly from children’s games (unwanted sets of snakes and ladders, jigsaw-puzzle pieces missing in their millions), and because it has crept up the walls and involves lots of playing cards, it seems to have turned the space into a huge 3-D board game for careering down-and-outs (Find the Bottle in the Dump?). In a junky, rubbishy, car-boot-sale sort of way, it’s spectacular.

    If you think about it, artists have always turned junk into art. It’s basically what art does. Oil colours are only bits of crushed rock and clay to which has been added the liquid from pressed linseed. Burnt sienna, if Rembrandt isn’t applying it to a self-portrait, is just Italian mud. In the end, making art always involves turning the base into the precious. Art is an alchemy that works.

    So, the worth of an artwork depends not on what it is made from — Titian’s beloved carmine red was produced from crushed beetles — but on the success of the transformation that has been wrought. Takahashi’s show confronts us with the sheer volume of what we throw away. Every discarded Monopoly pound and broken fruit-machine cog was worth something once. Takahashi gathers them all up, sorts them all out, re-loves them all and gives them back some preciousness. This entire Serpentine junk extravaganza strikes me as a huge memento mori, a great billowing reminder of the transience of values. It also demands to be read as a giant lament on wastage and the depletion of global resources. Takahashi didn’t make this junk: we did. And, of course, it’s fun identifying all the bits.

    I like Simon Patterson’s work, too. Patterson is exactly the same age as Takahashi (almost 40) and was also once nominated for the Turner prize (in 1996), before being discarded. This cruel award does that to most of its contestants. Patterson’s show in Edinburgh is a brief retrospective that begins with his best-known work, his celebrated map of the London Underground, in which the names of the stations have been replaced with the names of the famous. Gina Lollobrigida is Leicester Square, Robert Maxwell is Marble Arch, that kind of thing. It’s funny and diverting, a wall chart that charts nothing of any use, as is Patterson’s wont.

    All his best work shares the wall chart’s determination to mock the systems we put carefully into place to disguise our underlying chaos. I had a good laugh at a Last Supper that consists of the names of the 12 apostles arranged like a football team that has adopted the sweeper system, with Jesus in goal, as the saviour. There’s also a hilarious safety video, of the kind played at takeoff, in which the cabin crew perform a series of Harry Houdini escape tricks, ending on the one in which he appears to catch a speeding bullet between his teeth. The bullet is shaped and silvered like a Boeing 747. I think the piece is seeking to point out the similarities between flying and Russian roulette.

    I was less keen on the most ambitious work on show, General Assembly, which occupies the entire top floor of the gallery and consists of a ring of seats screwed to the walls, an attempt to turn the space into some sort of sports court or stadium. The seats are painted in the colours of the United Nations, sky blue, and have letters on them. Depending on how clever you are, you either realise quickly that they are arranged like a classic typewriter keyboard, or it takes a while. I was there for ages before I twigged that we were in an arena made of typewriter keys, sporting the colours of the UN and with the names of pertinent worthies arranged around us in a surreal seating plan. O is for Kurt Waldheim. The space bar is Boutros Boutros-Ghali (where else would the great man have fitted?) Patterson was inspired to make General Assembly by reports of a bizarre football game between UN forces and the players of Sarajevo City during the ceasefire of 1994. Sport is seen here as a substitute for war, and the UN becomes a theatre of spectators in the round, with lots of seats and no action. However, the unfortunate emergence of the main gallery staircase in the centre of the room, exactly where the imaginary midfields should be clashing, robs the piece of most of its Kafkaesqueness.

    I was interested to read Patterson’s explanation for his habitual obliqueness: “I wanted to control the meanings and associations so that it would be completely clear what my intention was,” he writes of his early work, “but somewhere along the way I forgot what that was, and I realised that non sequiturs are a way in for people.” He speaks not only for himself, but for the majority of the lesser Brit Artists of his generation. They hint, they provoke, they imply, but how rarely they come out with it.

    Tacita Dean, who is also fortyish, and who never says it either — she was nominated for, but failed to win, the Turner prize, in 1998 — pops up at the Camden Arts Centre, not as an exhibitor but as a selector. Her show is called An Aside, and its creator admits merrily to not having a specific purpose in mind, but being guided by “objective chance”, an ornate way of describing whatever took her fancy at the time. I’m sorry, but it’s not enough. You walk into rooms with so little in them. There are 17 artists, mostly German, who succeed in feeling like half that number. Drawing, painting or working in film, they invariably favour itsy-bitsy, feather-light conceptual intrusions that add up to something solid only if you do most of the work. Lothar Baumgarten shows us strange things he comes across in a Westphalian forest, such as a red pyramid in the undergrowth. Rodney Graham dusts a typewriter with flour. The show bulks up a few pounds when the non sequiturs grow into mild surrealism — there are Paul Nash paintings, and those can never be negligible — but visiting An Aside is like watching a play in which only the prompts are audible, not the soliloquies.

    While I was in Edinburgh, I went to the Andy Warhol self-portrait show, which was repetitive and dull, but there was one amusing television piece of Andy telling jokes. Why do mice have such little balls? Because so few mice can dance. Coming from a bloke in a pub, that’s feeble. Coming from Warhol, it has something. That’s alchemy for you.