At the entrance to the gallery metronomes line the base of a wall, filling the space with an elegant racket. A neat, if literal demonstration of time passing at different intervals, it might have been a curatorial caprice but is, in fact, a work of art: Martin Creed's Thirty-nine metronomes beating time, one at every speed, Work no. 112 (2/3) (1995-1997).
The show's curator, Jeremy Millar, has not produced a straightforward survey of speed's influence on art and design - his intention was somewhat more oblique. Scattered wall texts supply sound bites or blocks of information, cryptically communicating contexts in a show that has such a wide remit it's hard to imagine what aspect of 20th-century production has been excluded. The selection lacks a discernible centre and taking it all in is virtually impossible. But that's part of the point: it's an arrangement of jump cuts and blips, eschewing logical categorisation and progression. Elusive and generalised, time becomes data. 'Speed' is information overload, a visual sampler of its subject.
Appropriately, the show has a mix-and-match aesthetic: it is not so much an examination of bodies of work as a display of momentary instances in an artist's or designer's career. Call it recontextualisation or even decontextualisation, the show proposes the influence of speed on the 20th Century as insidious and all-pervasive, not a side-effect of a revolutionary epoch, but the revolution itself.
'Speed' demands imagination from the viewer. For example, Joseph Beuys' Sled (1969) conjures up various associations - from the artist's crash in his fighter plane and subsequent rescue by Tartars, to the metaphorical slipperiness of everyday objects. Marcel Duchamp's snow shovel In Advance of a Broken Arm (1915) is art's possibilities accelerated to quite an arbitrary degree. Millar's approach is refreshing, a method unencumbered by the requirements of a perceived academic 'rigour'. Morsels of cultural production zig-zag between this and that, proposing the exhibits as evidence of the ubiquitous nature of speed. Never pinning itself down, 'Speed' is an idea in search of an image.
Using juxtaposition, Millar creates a dialogue between the century's different means of production and ideologies. The Beuys work is placed close to R.A. Bertelli's Continuous Profile of Mussolini (1933); Le Corbusier's Automaxima Car (1929); Chris Burden's C.B.TV to Einstein (1977), a model aeroplane that the artist launched down the aisle during a Concorde flight; Matisse's Windshield on the Villa Coublay Road (1917) and John Minton's Composition: the Death of James Dean (1957).
The exhibition contains many appealing works: Siobhan Hapaska's Land (1998), a gleaming fibreglass meteorite; Ed Ruscha's Racecar Drivers (1998), which shows the names of a selection of people who have made speed their profession and Vija Celmins' Large Desert (1974-1975), a meticulous drawing of a pebble-strewn desert floor. At the Photographers Gallery (the exhibition's satellite venue) a selection of Naoya Hatakeyama's photographs from the 'Blast' series (1995-98) capture in terrifying detail the soaring debris and release of energy during the quarrying of rock.
Just what is speed according to this exhibition? At times, it is seen quite simply as Modernity with all the nostalgia that the word now suggests. The furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, Marcel Breuer and Werner Panton present visions of how we thought the future might look; now they're the fantasies of the Wallpaper* generation. Other examples illustrate speed as something more tangible. Robert Smithson's video Rundown (1969) demonstrates various liquids spilling over the earth, while School of Velocity (1993) by Rodney Graham comprises a Yamaha disklavier grand piano playing a musical score over a period of 24 hours. And there is a great deal of Futurist art, including Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). Of course there has to be a Lichtenstein: In the Car (1963), which evokes an age of 'automobiles', super heroes and TV glamour. But it could have been any Lichtenstein image of something speeding or exploding, and this is a criticism that could be levelled at the show in general: the qualities of the individual works are subsumed by the thematic drive; primary motives recede until we are left with the grand narrative. And what is speed's relationship to society right now? Where is the telecommunications revolution in which distance is irrelevant?
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue produced in the same unstructured and associative style as the show and provides analyses that extend the discussion beyond the visual. With texts by J.G. Ballard and Paul Virilio as well as a selection of scientists, political economists, film theorists, musicologists, social thinkers and linguists, it is an expansive and varied index. Speed, as an idea, is a concept that encompasses every aspect of contemporary life. As an exhibition it feels like a blueprint for something bigger, a blockbuster of relentless potential. Zooming in and out of focus, easily distracted, but more than the sum of its parts, 'Speed' is rewarding, and at times frustrating - like a history of 20th-century art seen from the window of a train.