Stuart Macbeth explores the latest incarnation of Modern Art Oxford’s 50th anniversary celebrations

Modern Art Oxford’s Kaleidoscope exhibition opened in February - promising an innovative, yearlong series of exhibitions to mark the gallery’s landmark fiftieth anniversary.

In the run up to the launch MAO director Paul Hobson enthused about constant, shifting displays. The public could witness works being installed, taken apart, and moved through the various spaces. Iconic works from MAO’s first half century would re-appear alongside new commissions. “It’s a challenging thing to do,” he confided cautiously. And so it appears.

Kaleidoscope’s opening exhibition The Indivisible Present has slowly morphed into one entitled A Moment of Grace. In a month or so the next exhibition, Mystics and Rationalists will gradually take the plunge, and so on. Official “opening” dates come and go, without the gallery ever closing during its doors regular opening hours. I like the fact that no-one at the gallery can pin an exact start or end dates down, when “time” is the theme that purportedly holds everything in place.

So how do these promised transitions happen? What can you see? And will this experiment in audience participation extend to me being asked to carry tins of emulsion up and down the staircase to the Upper Gallery? Thankfully not, although the thick smell of white paint hangs pleasingly off the walls.

The transitions are made gallery by gallery. Instead of walking through the action – which would result in mayhem, of course – you view it from behind a window. Sadly, as though in front of plasma TV screen. The Upper Gallery was the first to get a 32” makeover.

Looking back to when The Indivisible Present opened in February, MAO’s largest space was in pitch darkness. A gallery assistant handed me a torch, and warned on the dangers of tripping over.

By mid March I had to walk through the rest of the galleries to look back on what had become a dazzling white space. The Pierre Huyghe had gone. Instead, through my viewing window, I watched five or six hardy workers putting the next show together – all local lads, who will work on the project throughout the coming year. The remainder of the exhibition was still intact – attracting visitors – mostly stood behind me.

I knew the workers were all local lads because I recognised two of them from a badly calculated Friday night out at the Wheatsheaf - and another as the barman who barred me from The Gloucester Arms on 4 July 2004. I waved at him, from behind the glass.

On the gallery floor planks of wood were stacked up. There was a trolley with nails, screwdrivers, hammers and gaffer tape. There was a large colourful work concealed under plastic sheeting. In the centre of the room was a Henry Hoover. Objects from outside the art world. Sitting there, waiting for things to happen.

Two weeks later I was back – and it had happened. Sort of.

I stood in the now-closed off adjoining gallery with my six year old. He asked why one of the aforementioned workers is chiselling a splash of white paint off the window. I responded with the same answer I would have gave him when he asked me if monkeys enjoyed exploding - stone cold silence.

MAO’s approach at least tells the truth. behind the scenes looks at galleries are becoming more and more common. Whether it’s a detailed feature about re-installing Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, a fast motion flick of an installation in Washington DC or one of the current Exhibition on Screen movies. But the fact is that nothing much happens. The paint smells. You may have to scrape it off. At least here they don’t play awkward classical music in the background.

In 2011 a gallery in Kansas allowed visitors in to watch the slow installation of a large Sol De Witt drawing, made in real time following instructions laid down by the artist. While this wonderful project has much in common with MAO’s ambitions, you – the visitor - weren’t allowed to hold the pencil. At MAO you are – for the next month or so. Here it’s in the form of a hammer and nails in a work by Yoko Ono.

Incidentally that large work I saw under the plastic sheets emerges as All Together Now, a 44 part panel constructed by Brazilian artist Jac Leirner during a three month stay as artist in residency at the gallery 1990. It contains a vintage version of my local bus time table. Please, my six year old said, can we go now?

A Moment of Grace is at Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke St, Oxford, from April 16 t0 June 10