I like the way he moves

    I was not gasping to see the Gabriel Orozco retrospective at Tate Modern. After all, it was only in 2004 that this fidgety, flighty, fiddly Mexican failed to impress us with a leaden half-retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery. That show underwhelmed. Why would a larger version of it overwhelm?

    The Tate itself successfully deflated further expectations by sending out a half-hearted press release promising us “a sculptor of global significance who draws on the histories of western and Latin American art practice”. Among the clunky bits of jargon created by the arts industry in recent years to make itself sound more intelligent, surely “art practice” is the clunkiest?

    So it did not bode well for the Orozco show. Which makes it especially pleasing to report that it turns out to be delightful, nimble, thought-provoking and potent. Orozco’s creativity is as unrelated to “art practice” as a swallow is to a tractor. He is, instead, the maker of delicate sculptural haikus, evocative nibbles of sculptural poetry, produced in various places and various ways, all of which have as their ambition the sending of tiny bow waves of meaning rippling through the spectator. It’s the pebble-in-a-pond approach.

    He was born in Veracruz in 1962, and now divides his time between Mexico, New York and Paris. He is, therefore, an emblematic example of the modern global artist, untied to a particular style or studio, hopping from country to country, biennale to biennale, in an opportunistic round of international gatherings and unveilings. Rooted in nothing obvious, his tinker’s art ranges from sculpture to photography, film to performance, painting to installation, in a jumpy manner that tests your concentration.

    In a single room here, we range from a full-size Citroën DS pimped into extreme thinness by some clever car surgery, to an empty shoe box on the floor, to a set of encircling photographs that tell the story of a yellow scooter meeting other yellow scooters on the streets of Berlin, to a tottering sculpture made of bicycles. Joining up all the dots is an impossible challenge.

    The old style of artist, the one who remains rooted to the same studio in the same country, and who progresses slowly through a narrow set of considerations — think, perhaps, of Frank Auerbach — is prone to repetitiveness and stasis, but this new kind of artist, the artist as tinker, is prone instead to flightiness and novelty-seeking. Floating internationally from place to place and method to method, their viewpoint is as reliable as a slip of paper in the wind. Or, to take a simile from the show itself, as a stream of toilet paper attached to a fan that swirls round and round in an eternal spiral, in a sculptural installation inspired, apparently, by a visit to India undertaken by Orozco and his wife, during which they were handed a fresh roll of toilet paper at every hotel room they booked into.

    What saves all this from chronic itsy-bitsyness is the surprising consistency of the message. Orozco’s methods may be nimble, but his meanings are deceptively weighty. This particular journey begins with a waterside view of New York, enlarged to wall height and pasted atmospherically across the entire outside of the show. It took me a moment to recognise it as a view of the Twin Towers, photographed from an unfamiliar angle before 9/11. At the front of the view, against a scruffy concrete barrier left behind by hasty repair workers, Orozco has re-created the momentous skyline above from bits and pieces of industrial rubbish gathered in situ. So, at the feet of the Twin Towers, he has made a model of the Twin Towers. Created in 1993, the work was always witty and resonant, but what tragic clout was added to it by subsequent events.

    According to the brand merchants of the art world, Orozco’s pioneering methods of peripatetic creation, his jumps from method to method and style to style, constitute the final important development in 20th-century art: a development that took us into a 21st century in which nothing is native or unvirtual, fixed or solid, immobile or certain. I buy some of that. The aforementioned empty shoe box on the floor has the curious effect of forcing you to notice what isn’t there. Whatever has gone from the box has left an unusually tangible sense of emptiness.

    As I said, these are sculptural haikus: art that communicates with whispers and hints. In one of Orozco’s most effective photographs, all you actually see is a patch of human breath on the shiny black surface of a grand piano. Some will instinctively sense a rumination here on the fragility of life.

    Others will not. A seemingly shapeless blob of clay turns out to record the imprint of two hands clasped around it. It’s just a squidge of clay, with fingermarks in it, but some viewers will be reminded by it of the origins of mankind as described in the Bible, where God fashions Adam from a ball of clay. I was.

    If the peripatetic nature of Orozco’s art is one of its characteristics, another is its lightness of touch and tangible environmental sensitivity. Over at the Royal Academy, in a sculpture show I will be reviewing next week, the muscular American Jacob Epstein also attempts a symbolic evocation of the origins of humanity with a Frankenstein’s monster of a sculpture, actually called Adam, a human beast fully 10ft tall, hacked brutally out of a huge slab of alabaster and endowed with a swinging penis-and-testes ensemble large enough to function as a wrecking ball. I mention it here by way of contrast.

    In using so little to say a lot, in working mainly with cheap, unglamorous, humble materials, Orozco is the paradigm of the environmentally sensitive modern sculptor. One of the most moving pieces here, a room-size installation called Lintels, is made from sheets of fluff gathered up in New York Laundromats. Orozco hangs them out on washing lines in a glum domestic arrangement that reminded me, in mood and colour, of the drab displays of clothing that speak so eloquently on the subject of missing persons in the museum at Auschwitz. His most celebrated work, a human skull covered with hand-drawn geometric patterns, is another meditation on mortality, with ambitions, this time, to laugh in the face of death.

    The chequered skull reminds you that one of his main sources of inspiration is the chessboard — several works here offer variations on the fatalistic idea of the winless game of chess. It comes as no surprise, either, that, among chesspieces, his favourite is the knight, the one whose movement is most illogical and awkward. As Orozco himself seems never to have a clear idea of where his work is taking him next, we, circling spectators, have no chance of mapping his progress.

    For all the international hopping and skipping recorded by his retrospective, however, Orozco struck me time and again as a far more Mexican, far more pessimistic, far more grounded artist than I was expecting.