Hit me with those laser beams

    Although everyone can, and should, enjoy the work of Anthony McCall, I wonder if the grey-hairs among us will enjoy the experience a dram or two more than the black-hairs? Or the yellows or the reds? Whatever your hair colour once was, if you can remember sitting under a whirring projector in a cinema filled with cigarette smoke while the couple in front of you canoodled noisily as you tried to watch the new Elvis movie, then McCall’s art will press a primary button in you. The experience of cinema seemed so tangible in our teenage years, didn’t it? So intimate. So physical.

    But you haven’t opened the arts pages of The Sunday Times to read Waldemar Januszczak’s sad little memories of going to the Glendale, in Caversham, and wishing Pauline Sarsons was with him.

    You are here to consider events on the front line of contemporary aesthetics. You are interested in McCall because he is currently a hot target for modern thinkers, and because the state has just handed him £500,000 to build a cloud sculpture in Liverpool for the 2012 Olympics. And £500,000 is a lorra lolly to spend on a cloud sculpture.

    Though it is difficult to think of a British artist who is currently more au courant than McCall, I suspect that nostalgia played an active role in the creation of his strikingly contemporary light sculptures. I suspect this because he happened to be wandering through his own event at Ambika P3 on the afternoon I visited, and I was able to watch him wander and grab a few words.

    Tall, thin, neatly grey, with a professorial air — think Steve Jobs 10 years on — McCall was born in 1946, and judging by the beatnik black he sported, head to toe, this was a cat brought up on Allen Ginsberg and the situationists. You can, of course, take a beatnik out of the art-house movie scene of the 1960s, but taking the art-house movie scene of the 1960s out of a beatnik is notoriously impossible. Certainly, nobody has successfully removed it from McCall.

    His show is black and white. Strikingly so. And vast. Ambika P3 is the biggest gallery in London: The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern is its only locational rival. Built in the 1960s, this was originally the construction hall of the University of Westminster’s School of Engineering, and it now offers its exhibitors 14,000 sq ft of spectacular underground emptiness. When you fill a space this huge with darkness, as McCall has done, you create an environment that affects not just your eyes, but all of you, right down to the bone marrow. Walking into this show has more in common with going potholing in the Yorkshire Dales than it does with the usual gallery visit.

    Into the vast cavern of black, McCall has introduced four of his so-called Vertical Works. Imagine four small holes in a cave roof allowing four intense beams of light to enter the dark and stretch in a cone all the way from the vault, through three storeys of pitch blackness, to the floor below. As they descend, the cones of light illuminate tiny particles of dust and haze swirling in the atmosphere. The churchgoers among you may find it easier to envisage a shaft of sunlight entering a gothic cathedral, whereas the nostalgic cinemagoers will already know exactly what I mean. You might even be able to hear the projector whirring.

    The point is, in certain subfusc conditions, light begins to feel like something magically solid. A shaft. A veil. A halo. Instead of forming pools of light at the end of the beam, as a normal hole in a cavern roof might do, McCall’s electronically created shafts are involved in drawing precise white lines on the gallery floor. They do it slowly, an inch at a time, so at first you do not notice the movement. Then, as your eyes adjust, you start to see the lines of light changing. Contracting. Expanding.

    Paul Klee once quipped that drawing is “taking a line for a walk”, and that is exactly what is happening here. A drawing is happening before your eyes, traced not with pencil on paper, but in the infinitely more miraculous and magical and mythic medium of light on a cavern floor. Pushing out. Pulling in. Cutting across. Tracing. Circling.

    Although each projection is an independent work, they act together to form a mysterious subterranean installation: the cavern of the four holes. When I encountered McCall, he was stepping in and out of the descending shafts, as if to test their ectoplasmic efficacy. It proved a surprisingly difficult thing to do. I had to force myself to pass through the skeins of light, as my senses appeared convinced they were out of bounds and solid. One bit of my brain needed to insist to another bit that stepping forward was safe.

    McCall, too, is an unusual mix of geek and sensualist. In technical mode, he explains his work with the precision of a lab technician. Every seemingly simple light shape was the result of endless redrawing and preparation. The light beams had to be “robust” enough to reach the floor. A computer programmer calculated the exact trajectory of every moving line.

    When I get him onto the subject of old cinemas, however, the beatnik heart starts to throb inside the lab technician’s coat, and poetic excuses begin popping out of him about the magic of the dark and the intimacy of strangers. All the Vertical Works are connected to notions of the human body. Breath is a line that expands gently, then contracts. Meeting You Halfway is an eye shape passing through a skirt shape. Eyes? Skirts? Strangers? Intimacy? Einstein finds himself sitting next to Freud in the suggestive darkness of a McCall experience.

    Also on show at Ambika is a working model of the insanely ambitious piece of land art that McCall has been commissioned to produce for Liverpool 2012.

    Column is a gigantic, man-made twister of the sort that usually swirls through Oklahoma, chasing after Helen Hunt, in Hollywood disaster movies. In this instance, it will rise instead from the Mersey at Birkenhead and climb several miles into the stratosphere, far beyond the airplane line.

    The working model for this miracle of artistic science is already an exciting sight. Created by heating water and sending clouds of steam spiralling skywards in a Dyson line, Column has, as McCall patiently explains, an ambition to be seen 100 miles away on a clear day. As he goes through the science, my eyes glaze over, but, at the mention of Turner, everything snaps back into foggy focus.

    If the spectacle of a giant tornado rising miles into the sky and drawing lines in the stratosphere above Liverpool is not an awesome Olympic prospect, what is?