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Traces of the post-industrial world

review

Joan Fontcuberta: Terrain Vague At the Graves Art Gallery, Surrey Street, Sheffield, until 30 May

In the Arts Council's programme that celebrates a different art form each year until the millennium - and which in 1999 sees Glasgow as uk City of Architecture and Design - this is the Year of Photography and the Electronic Image. The main events are in Yorkshire, at many venues; one being Sheffield's Graves Gallery where some 40 works by the Spanish artist Joan Fontcuberta can now be seen.

The terrain vague of the show's title, Fontcuberta explains, refers to 'areas abandoned by industry, by the railways, by the ports; areas abandoned as a consequence of violence, the withdrawal of residential or commercial activity, the deterioration of the built fabric; residual spaces on the banks of rivers, rubbish dumps, quarries . . .' What Fontcuberta makes from his exploration of such places is an unusual composite of photograph and photogram. He first takes photographs which he only partly develops; then, on these spectral prints, he places found objects from his selected sites that, exposed to light, form photograms. Glimpses and traces of a post-industrial world emerge from this two-stage procedure.

Vaguely discernible in the matt depths of Fontcuberta's new images at the Graves Gallery, made on his Yorkshire commission, are, for instance, cooling towers, gasometers, a steel furnace and a coking plant. The superimposed relics (mostly industrial in origin) are usually the brightest and most legible elements in these pictures, seeming to float on the surface. Recalling a tactic that Robert Rauschenberg has exploited over the years, there are abrupt changes of scale, as an object you could hold in your hand is juxtaposed (or partly fused) with something as sizeable as a power station. These part-visible, part-occluded scenes mimic the workings of memory, a few features assuming excess significance at expense of the whole.

The introductory text speaks of 'sombre elegies'. Certainly these works are sombre, but an elegiac intent is less obvious, for Fontcuberta may appear quite dispassionate towards his material. For instance, in the centre of each of the two rooms that his show occupies is a low square platform on which are arrayed some of the industrial odds-and-ends he has retrieved: cog wheels, pipes, chain-links, contorted wire, perforated discs. They are corroded, blackened, mutilated - fragments of a larger enterprise we do not see. Simultaneously mundane and mysterious, they await explanatory captions in a future archaeological museum; for the moment, few visitors would know for sure their former function. This ambiguity lends them readily to Fontcuberta's manipulations; in contrast, however, to earlier photogram-makers, Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy in the1920s, he doesn't pursue total abstraction. The 'real' world (albeit one close to obsolescence) is always there in the twilight.

'The culture of waste seems very similar everywhere,' says Fontcuberta. 'There are, however, some atmospheres to which I react with different emotions.' Striking though the results of Fontcuberta's Yorkshire commission are, hung as a group at the Graves, some earlier images in the adjacent gallery - especially a series made in Bilbao and the Basque region of Spain (1994) - are still more satisfying. Complex in composition and spatial layering, highly nuanced in their subdued colour (shades of sepia, grey, black), hovering between representation and abstraction, they engage both the eye and the mind.

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