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Theatrical persuasion

review - Jannis Kounellis At Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, until 20 March

Jannis Kounellis left his native Greece in 1956, became an essential part of the Italian Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, and since then has been making lyrical sculpture about the end of the heroic industrial age.

Steel girders, burlap sacks full of coffee, toy trains, coal, cotton and wood are some of the recurrent motifs in his dense, abbreviated sculptures that evoke heavy labour and the oily work of trafficking commodities.

Throughout his 40-year career Kounellis has also produced sets and costumes for theatre and opera; they might seem like a sideline but this memorable show of his work now in Oxford - part retrospective, part new, and Kounellis' first major solo show in the UK in 10 years - suggests that theatre is in many ways key to his work.

There's a stagy feel even to the first low-key ensemble of untitled steel panel pieces, each hefty plate propped up on a chair and strung with lumps of coal as if it were some primitive counting tablet. It seems like a mise en scène, with the protagonist absent.

The theatrical theme is blatant in the next room, where a number of seminal works from the 1960s are set up on a stage-like platform of trestle tables. Again, the drama seems to have just ended: a candle is extinguished next to a blackboard, fish swim around a knife in a bowl, a black-sack bundle conceals some mystery, and the air is thick with the scent of coffee grounds. It could be the scene for a play about late-night dealings in a dockside bar, but equally it's a striking arrangement of important early works that appear to respond to influences as diverse as American Minimalism, European Fluxus and Russian Suprematism.

The next gallery suggests that Kounellis' sense of theatre also guides the production of his wall-based works. These often seem like cancelled-out paintings, with a pool of black paint obstructed by a hunk of steel girder or a fragment of a boat. They are disappointing pieces, though they hint at Kounellis' conflicted relationship with painting - a medium he explored in the early 1960s. While he soon abandoned it to concentrate on sculpture, these works suggest that there is in him a painter - or, at least, an old-fashioned illusionist - still trying to burst out.

But in the stunning final installation, a new piece that takes up the whole of the last room, we see how Kounellis comes alive when he leaves the wall and sets a stage. The floor is almost entirely carpeted with colourful Turkish mats on which stands a vast barricade of steel girders, all jack-knifed into the air, and, right at the end, hanging from a meat hook, are a black coat and hat.

For Kounellis this untitled work is a 'clash of civilisations; a meeting of technology and spirituality', and indeed there is an echo both of the heedless driving energy of Italian Futurism and of an exoticised Orient.

As sculpture, it is breathtaking, but it is also evidence that, if Samuel Beckett were alive today, he would have, in this still vital artist, no better set designer.

Morgan Falconer is a writer in London

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