Anthony McCall at the Serpentine

    Thank you to the Serpentine Gallery for bringing us Anthony McCall. To my mild shame, I had never previously heard of him. He was, I read, an important figure in the avant-garde London film world of the 1970s. He retired from art in 1979, then resurfaced recently in New York as a reborn and suddenly fashionable installation artist, working with light. It’s a nice career story, heartening in its Lazarus aspects. Different, too, from the relentless trajectories of most of the artists who arrive at the Serpentine.

    Although I knew nothing of McCall’s career in the 1970s, the Serpentine show summarises it neatly. He was a polytechnic modernist, an aesthetic hardliner working on the far edges of the gallery system, mounting obscure performances with and for his chums, churning out flickering, wonky films that hardly anyone saw. There were many British artists like him: doomed obscurantists with inflexible agendas. They shared an intense distrust, bordering on hatred, of the tastes and timescales of ordinary people. And their wilfully obscure cinematic experiments, and interminable nocturnal performances, were a stern test of stamina as well as aesthetics. So, I’m happy enough not to have encountered McCall the first time around.

    The Serpentine show begins with a vestibule full of introductory drawings, plans, maps, graphs, scales, projections and photographic records of previous performances. It all forms an impenetrable fresco of documentary homework that might be a pleasure to delve into at the end of the show, but is surely off-putting and uninteresting at the start. So, don’t bother looking at any of that until you come out. Plunge instead into one of McCall’s whirring nocturnal booths, where the transport really begins.

    Although McCall began as a film-maker, his earliest works are aggressive negations of the experience you or I might call going to the cinema. We go to films to watch plots unfold and stars perform. he appears instead to have been fascinated by the actual mechanics of film projection: the way the shaft of light from a projector penetrates the darkness above the heads of the audience; the sudden illumination of someone stepping into that light; the glowing particles of air-borne dust. Even the old-fashioned whirring of a big Glendale projector is of more relevance to a McCall installation than any of movieland’s usual issues.

    The signature piece in this early terrain, Line Describing a Cone, from 1973, is being reshown at the Serpentine, where it introduces you, slowly, to all of McCall’s chief concerns. In a dark gallery, a whirring projector throws a beam of light onto a waiting screen. The beam is as thin as a laser, like those sinister defences that protect bank vaults in remakes of Ocean’s Eleven. Except that this beam of light is white, rather than red. Slowly – agonisingly slowly – the beam traces a perfect circle on the screen. It’s a process that lasts 30 minutes from the first dot to the full round. But don’t worry. That’s not all that goes on.

    What McCall seems to have realised from the opening moments of his film-making career is that light from a movie projector involves itself in a unique flirtation with solidity. The slow tracing of the circle on the screen gradually creates a gleaming white cone of light that stretches back from the screen to the projector. In the old days – and even I remember this – cigarette smoke drifting up from the audience would have supplied the fog the light needs to become solid. Nowadays, the mist is supplied by a specially employed smoke machine. As the cone slowly completes itself in front of you, a room that previously contained only darkness ends up with a huge geometric shape hovering astonishingly in its centre. It is a fabulous piece of installation magic; a sublime gallery experience.

    Line Describing a Cone is presented here as a cult artwork that everyone who saw it the first time around remembered, and that went on to have a potent influence on today’s installation art. But whatever it was that the piece achieved was not enough to keep McCall’s career or ambition afloat – hence his subsequent disappearance from the art world at the end of the 1970s. His recent return, in 2003, was prompted not just by a reawakened interest in his pioneering early pieces, but by the return to modishness of exactly this sort of metaphysical light sculpture. Think of Olafur Eliasson’s giant sun in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Or the mysterious blue fogs of James Turrell. International art audiences have discovered a taste for new-age moods and mysterious cosmologies. Thus, the hitherto obscure and difficult McCall finds himself cast suddenly in the unfamiliar role of crowd-pleaser.

    The new works made since his return are set in the cinematic dark, as before, and once again involve the tracing of magic solids of moving light. You and I, Horizontal features a tango between two bendy lines that seem to have learnt how to undulate from a Moroccan belly dancer (allow me my flights of fancy: these are dreamy pieces). Between You and I is even busier. An oval, a circle and two wavy lines play a bewildering game of three-dimensional tag in the dark. What’s always brilliant is the way the most interesting action takes place in the middle of the room, in your space, not on the screen. The seemingly solid panes of bendy light keep shifting and intersecting. Stepping through them is a surprisingly spooky experience. You know, of course, that they are not solid, but some internal perceptual instinct in the brain insists otherwise. Thus, a seemingly tranquil light installation taps suddenly into sensations that you might feel if a guillotine ever passed through your neck.

    These days, McCall uses video technology instead of creaky movie projectors, and the skips and starts of his lines of light have been worked out clinically on a computer. The new pieces are shorter, too. More happens in them. Even the titles feel more welcoming. Between You and I is surely a more tempting proposition than Line Describing a Cone. So, a cruel observer – perhaps a jealous former associate from the early film-club days – might dub the new output McCall lite. But it isn’t.

    Certainly, the interactive relationship with the audience has been heightened. When I went, people were enjoying ducking in and out of the beams, stepping transgressively across the panes of light, inventing funny little communal games to play with each other in the dark. Twenty years ago, McCall’s modernist geometry was driven by a set of harsh modernist demands. Nowadays, his art is definitely more fun.

    I was enchanted also, however, by the thoroughly tangible relationship his light pieces continue to maintain with the old days of black-and-white cinema. Despite the computerised video slickness, you somehow know that, if this was a movie theatre, and that really was a beam of projector light dancing in the dark, the film that was playing would have to be the latest Hitchcock.