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Tacita Dean's artwork malfunction

Is the breakdown of Tacita Dean's Turbine Hall piece anything to worry about? Absolutely not. Glitches and good art have always gone hand in hand

Art is not reliable. Why should it be? Reliability is for trains to run on time, clocks to go like clockwork, and banks to be, er, trustworthy. Art and artists offer an escape from all that into the world of imagination and possibility – or impossibility. Art deserves as much slack as it wants.

News that Tacita Dean's Film, an 11-minute silent work projected onto a white monolith in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, broke down at the weekend is therefore no big surprise – and no big deal. While there may have been some disappointed gallery-goers, the public has long got used to, and loves, the unpredictable nature of art: in the end, few people protested when access to Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, the previous Turbine Hall spectacle, had to be restricted because of health fears over ceramic dust. Most visitors found the seeds moving from afar, and the political and poetic resonances of the work increased throughout its run, regardless of technical hitches, because of the tribulations of its creator Ai Weiwei.

Dean's Film was up and running again by Sunday lunchtime. But it's worth bearing in mind that failure is not necessarily failure in art. The most spectacular case of art going (harmlessly) wrong that I can remember was an installation in the old Tate Gallery. In 1999, American artist Chris Burden, famous for his performance art that included having himself shot in the arm, unveiled an installation in the form of an automated assembly line.

When Robots Rule was supposed to mass-produce balsa-wood toy planes, but it never produced anything. It didn't work and could not be fixed. For months. Burden can make steamrollers fly in the air, as a 2006 project showed. But the Tate machine was a disaster and no one seemed to mind. It became a thought-provoking example of a non-functioning artwork.

Our tolerance for artistic error has gone up as art itself has become more popular. James Turrell's skyspaces may or may not deliver the thrill they promise: for a long, long time, he has been turning a crater in Arizona into a mind-boggling artwork, but it is still unfinished. Will it ever be ready for the public? And does this make the artist any less visionary?

All these contemporary adventures have a great tradition behind them. The National Gallery's current Leonardo da Vinci show includes all the surviving paintings he is known to have finished in Milan. But what about his unfinished (and in his day impossible) projects for flying machines? Da Vinci failed more often than anyone – and he was the greatest of all. There's no shame in trial and error when the imagination soars. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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