It isn’t so long ago that, had I told you I had spent the afternoon playing ping pong, shooting a few frames of pool, chucking around a Frisbee and finishing off my exertions with a few gentle stretching exercises on the floor, under a sun lamp, you would automatically have assumed that I had been to the gym, or perhaps a leisure centre. But, these days, you are far too savvy and au courant to make an old-fashioned faux pas like that. You know straight away, don’t you, that I must have been to Tate Modern, experiencing contemporary art? And, of course, I have.
I also listened to the radio, took in a few tomes, sang into a microphone and can honestly say I was pretty much up for anything these damned artists were trying to throw at me. These days, contemporary art makes eager participants of us all. And nowhere on the planet, I suggest, certainly nowhere I have been to, is as acutely aware of this tidal revolution in gallery behaviour, which has surged across our hemisphere of the museum divide, as Tate Modern. I am confident in proclaiming it the most obviously participatory modern art museum in the world. The question remains: is this a good thing? A noisy show at Tate Modern, called Common Wealth, takes audience participation to new degrees of fun ridiculousness. Five international artists have been brought together, and each of them is hellbent on mixing their visitors into their actions. The ping pong I was playing is actually called Ping Pond, and is meant to be attempted by four people simultaneously, on four tables arranged around a water-lily pond. My missed forehand smashes smacked into the drink with a pleasing splash; my missed backhands hit little children on the back of the head.
Ping-Pond Table is the handiwork of the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, who also dreamt up an oval billiards table with a red ball that’s suspended from the ceiling and no pockets. They say billiards is a thinking man’s game. But Wittgenstein and Karl Popper playing doubles, with Martin Heidegger keeping the score, would have had difficulty thinking their way through the dense interspatial conundrums posed by Orozco’s intensely purposeless game of suspended billiards.
So, what’s it all about? Taking you beyond what you are used to would be my first answer. It isn’t simply table tennis, it isn’t simply snooker: it’s a new experience beyond the both of them. Art has always done this — taken you beyond the quotidian. It is one of art’s most traditional and valuable roles. Art fights banality as St George fought the dragon, which is to say as a saviour, for all our sakes. And the huge numbers milling about Tate Modern when I popped in on a midweek mid-afternoon prove not only that fewer people seem to have normal jobs these days, keeping normal job hours, but also how popular the contest between art and banality has become. I was there to write a review. What was everyone else doing? Anyhow, Orozco, the most interesting of the five Common Wealth artists, has a delightful instinct for contemporary poesy. He finds this poesy in unpromising urban situations, as botanists sometimes discover orchids growing on rubbish tips. This instinct allows him to pick out a yellow Schwalbe scooter from all the scooters in the world and to realise that if he parks this charming scooter next to other yellow Schwalbe scooters on the streets of Paris or Berlin, he can achieve curious sensations of togetherness and lovey-doveyness. Something cute about the yellow scooters makes them splendid stand-ins for every couple that has ever strolled around Paris hand in hand, and in love. What excellent anthropomorphism this is.
The other Common Wealth artists are less successful in their transformations. All are established presences on the international biennale circuit, making their British debuts. Carsten Höller, from Belgium, has you throwing Frisbees at a tent with holes in it — I love throwing Frisbees, but this lacked a convincing reward. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (she from Philadelphia, he from Havana) have supplied Höller’s tent with a chequered global floor that I found useful for estimating Frisbee distances, but nothing else; they have also co-operatively assembled a mega radio aerial, shaped like a sputnik, which is aimed at a communications satellite that apparently passes over Tate Modern every hour. All it plucked out of the ether for me was Bulgarian static. The show’s dullest work, by the Swiss-born artist Thomas Hirschhorn, involves taking volumes of contemporary philosophy off the shelves of a paper-strewn den and reading them. I went for Popper, and got a little way down the first paragraph before the sandman mugged me.
Had I nodded off for the entire afternoon, I would have been doing nothing untoward. Indeed, my behaviour would have been tame compared with the things going on in Tate Modern’s turbine hall, where some of the most proactive audience participation I have witnessed in a gallery is currently being encouraged by Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project. Eliasson is known for bringing indoors a range of climatic conditions usually encountered outdoors. In this instance, he has mirrored the ceiling of the turbine hall, effectively doubling its already momentous size, and hung a giant red sun at its end, thereby placing an upside-down sunset over a lake where the gallery roof should be.
Unprompted, the Tate audience has decided that the best way to experience Eliasson’s inspired intervention is to lie down on the floor of the turbine hall and gaze up at the distant mirrored eternity, searching for oneself in the reflected crowd, as kids used to search for Wally. I’m a Wally, too, of course, and having learnt from everyone who got there before me how best to enjoy the piece, I spent a hugely relaxing half-hour gazing up at the human constellation, looking for me, thinking large, untroubled thoughts. The women behind me were doing yoga exercises. An American in earshot was telling her friend about a guy she met in a hotel lift. Boy, did they get up to things. It reminded me of a fabulous month I once spent sleeping rough in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam.
The Tate’s turbine hall is nowadays the most dramatic open space in gallery land, a 20-lane megaramp down which 3m of us Orpheuses a year can descend gingerly into the mysterious underworld that is the art of today. What an entry. Size and awe have a natural empathy, and Eliasson has got it exactly right here. He’s from Iceland originally, and the scale being employed has been learnt from looking across lakes and gazing at glaciers. The mood, meanwhile, created by dark mists pumped silently into the space, is a twilit Norse miserableness that combines with the sublime size of the spectacle to achieve something genuinely impressive.
Thus, Tate Modern these days offers us city types an intriguing afternoon choice: we can either spend our lunchtime in Woolworths, queuing for low-calorie sandwiches, or we can lie on our backs underneath a spectral, giant sun, staring at our own reflections in a distant, mirrored infinity, and being made aware of how tiny we are in the overall scheme of things as we peer past ourselves into the mystery beyond. The choice is ours.