In contrast to the frenetic, chaos-friendly 'Cities on the Move' show at the Hayward Gallery (AJ 27.5.99), 'A Village and its Surroundings' sounds reassuringly placid; but this installation by Sicilian artist Vittorio Messina, also intended as a commentary on urbanism, is in fact more disquieting than its title suggests.
You enter the first of the Henry Moore Studio's two adjacent spaces down a dimly lit corridor which, on turning, brings you to an antechamber that looks on to a dark, inaccessible room. Beyond this is a screen on which projected images of aeroplanes and birds circulate continually, flying in a blue sky which seems dense with threat - whether courtesy of Hitchcock or nato. The scene becomes more ominous still when, adjusting to the low light-level, you see that the bed in the intervening room has straps attached to it, as if designed for forcible restraint.
It's a relief, then, to move on into the big flagstone-floored second part of the studio, with its row of cast-iron columns down the centre - but only for a moment. What greets you is a prison cell, equipped with the bare necessities for immediate occupation. Thereafter, as the installation expands through the rest of the space, it becomes less literal. A 1952 Eccles Coronet caravan - its period-piece interior as cramped as any cell but with a semblance of cosiness - is part-enclosed by a structure of Thermalite-block walls, which are coursed like a ruin from antiquity. The blocks then recur to form a circle of columns, topped by upturned wooden stools that read as capitals and fluorescent lights instead of lintels.
Stretching from this 'rotunda', on a raised timber base is a branching, linear construction of blockwork, metal frames, grilles and Perspex (red in places) - with conspicuous clamps that make its rudimentary nature explicit. The components are angled in such a way that you can sometimes thread your way between them, as if in an intricate passageway. At others you are forced outside, where vistas along and across the construction are sporadically transfigured by the red Perspex (its aesthetic impact exceeds its means). Near this extended 'passageway' is a miniature greenhouse full of empty plant pots (is the emptiness potential abundance or dearth?); and then the installation, which is interspersed throughout with CCTV cameras and monitors, terminates in a cul-de-sac corridor with a glowing red oblong on the end wall.
By which time, the question of what all this 'means' can't be postponed: clearly, whatever the visual interest of the various parts, Messina wants them to be allusive in some way. The publication that accompanies the exhibition doesn't help much. While Messina likes arte povera mundanity in his materials, he opts for elevated company in his catalogue - but extracts from Plato, Kafka, Joyce and St Augustine don't make his intentions more intelligible. In the catalogue's introduction, Robert Hopper refers to past concepts of ideal cities ('Today the city has become a region') and highlights the urban emphasis of the work; but what, beyond cellular environments, conspicuous social control, and provisional (or residual) architecture, does Messina's disenchanted urbanism actually comprise?
One can envisage the artist leading us around this installation, elaborating on the allusions that its features have for him, and convincing us of its overall coherence. In his absence, although elements are often engaging (visually, intellectually, or imaginatively), neither logic nor poetry makes them into a whole. The result is a feeling of estrangement; and, in this respect, 'A Village and its Surroundings' is not so different from 'Cities on the Move'.