What may be the world's biggest and most sophisticated multimedia Tinkertoy puffed, moaned and gurgled its way to life yesterday on the Mall, just east of the Air and Space Museum.

Entitled "Centerbeam," the piece was first created for the avant-garde Documenta 6 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, last June, where it was one of the most popular attractions.Critics, however, generally saw it as a big, endearing toy, but not art.

This 276-foot long performing light sculpture is the creation of 21 artists, engineers and scientists who have been crossbreeding ideas about art and technology at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T.

"This beast, this piece of matter," as Center Director Otto Piene calls it, incorporates laser projections, neon and argon beams, holograms, steam, poetry, synthesizer music and just about every other new technology.

But for all that, it had some trouble simply getting going yesterday. A gasket was missing on the Steam-Rent machine (replacement cost, 50 cents), and the water had not been hooked up because the nearest underground valve had not been found.

All was in order, however, by the time the assembled artists, Smithsonian officials and lenders and donors of various equipment heard project artistic director Lawry Burgess exude: "It is meant to create perceptual havoc, a riot of energy and images."

What you see at Centerbeam depends upon when you look. During the day the long, low rig, supported by blue steel stanchions looks like part of an oil refinery. It is dominated by a 144-foot-long triangular glass trough filled with water running the length of the piece and serving as an immense prism which produces inverted reflections and rainbow-clad images.

Along the side of the prism runs an equally long "Kalliroscope," a long plastic envelope filled with silvery fluid which changes when touched.t is the invention of Paul Matisse, grandson of Pierre, and the man who fabricated the giant Calder mobile which dominates the central atrium of the National Gallery's new East Building. Matisse has been a visiting fellow at the Center during the past year, and his "Kalliroscope" will be recognized by some as a larger version of a small "feelie" toy currently sold as a gift item for adults.

Also visible during the day will be whooshes of steam which periodically envelop the piece, triggered by "solenoids," electronically controlled valves. "Steam bathes the piece, strokes it, and provides a plasma which melds all the other elements," said artist Joan Brigham.

There are also holograms by Harriet Casidin-Silver, and eight squares of glass covering lights sunk into the ground which go on and activate synthesized music when stepped upon. On each square is written one word of a poem by Mark Mendel, whose poems also will be projected via laser beam upon the side of the Air and Space Museum after dark.

Night will bring the more dramatic element of light into play, with laser projections fanning out on giant clouds of steam, and special performances piercing the sky.

At his press conference, Piene thanked the Washington bureaucracy for its help, and well he might. His giant inflatable flowers, 35 feet in diameter, will soar to 250 feet, and had to be cleared with the FAA. (He hopes to launch one tonight.) And the safety of the laser beams had to be cleared with the FDA. The Fine Arts Commission had to approve the project, and the National Park Service had to okay use of the land. The National Endowment for the Arts coughed up $12,500 to help pay for the installation.

"Centerbeam" was originally built in response to a request from the organizers of Documenta 6 in Kassel last June. "We decided to make a collaborative piece which could incorporate work by many artists, engineers and scientists who worked at the Center over the 10 years of its existence," said Lawry Burgess. The piece has been refined considerably for the Washington showing.

Sponsored by M.I.T. in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service and the National Endowment for the Arts, "Centerbeam" will be open every day except Mondays between now and mid-September. Peak viewing time is just after dark when the lasers are turned on and other special steam and light events are scheduled to take place.