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Michael Landy's art goes down the tube

Asking Underground travellers to report on acts of kindness may be heartwarming, but never achieves the intensity of great art

Art is alchemy. It can transform the humblest objects, the most everyday stuff, into pure gold. It is hard to explain how artists perform their magic, and this is why philistine scepticism always flourishes. I can't give a particularly rational account of the poetry and power of an installation by Joseph Beuys, for example. In the end, a good artist is a conjurer or even, as Beuys claimed for himself, a shaman.

Michael Landy is an artist who for me never achieves that enchantment, that intoxication. He would surely reply that he doesn't want to intoxicate but to make people think. This British artist combines an emphasis on everyday life with an implicitly radical view of modern society. So he's a modern realist. He first became known for Scrapheap Services, a dystopian social tableau that at least has a historical merit, reminding us that "young British art" two decades ago was born out of a recession. Since then, Landy has destroyed all his possessions as a work of art, exhibited portrait drawings of friends and family, and trashed art by others. Now he has a project called Acts of Kindness in a string of stations along the London Underground's Central line, where he asks people to talk about moments of helpfulness they've experienced on the tube.

There don't seem to be many such moments, to judge by Holborn station, where some of Landy's tales of subterranean generosity are on display. The fragile posters with their heartwarming contents are few and far between. It's early days: these first anecdotes will presumably inspire more people to submit stories, and the posters may proliferate over the summer. Or not.

The accounts themselves are almost comically banal. Someone helped me with my bag. The next is a variant on the same thing. None of the tales on display at Holborn is especially striking or dramatic.

Landy fans may answer: that's the point – here is an artist who does not sensationalise but instead tries to reveal the humble reality of good and evil in everyday life. This is an old British art attitude in new clothes. "Kitchen sink realists" were all the rage in British painting 60 years ago. Landy may be decent and honourable but I just don't see any alchemy in his art – it does not flare into anything rich or strange. Of course, art should be about life. But sometimes the cult of the ordinary is just a mask for a complete lack of imagination. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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