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Edgar Martins' The Time Machine

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Edgar Martins’ power stations appear stuck in time, writes Robin Wilson

The work of Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins represents a new peak of technical and pictorial endeavour within fine art photography. The Time Machine, his current show the Wapping Project gallery, presents a series of Portuguese power stations and is impeccable in its rigour as both documentation and as an aesthetic project. His work follows in the tradition of the Dusselforf School and New Objectivity, yet this show also raises questions about the direction and future relevance of photography.

Most notably, Martins’ imagery has very strong resemblances with that produced by UK-based artist Nigel Green in response to a Photoworks/South East Arts commission to document Dungeness power station nearly a decade earlier. The two projects had a similar scope: perspective views onto monumental turbine halls, ‘portraits’ of specialist station equipment, control panel displays and empty waiting rooms with potted plants, alien, isolated, yet flourishing in these sterile environments.

As the title of his project suggests, Martins is also explicitly engaging with time and history. But, rather than presenting a linear history of Portuguese engineering and infrastructure, Martins constructs subtle and disorienting narrative possibilities within the images.

As a survey that documents multiple stations, Martins’ exhibition combines different periods of architecture and machine technology, from the late-Modernist grandeur of the Miranda do Douro power station, built 1957-61, to the more recent concrete engineering of a huge conduit tunnel, the ‘busbar shaft’ of the Alto Lindoso power plant.

The images are almost exclusively of interiors, with only minimal evidence of a world beyond the station and nothing to compromise the period purity of these environments. The buildings are shown as if they are untouched by the forces of history, in perpetual, material stasis. As much as these photographs represent engineering artefacts from different phases of the recent past, they may equally be projecting far into a strange and unchanging future.

This blurring of past, present and future is akin to creating of a kind of science fiction through photography; an association enhanced by the pictorial techniques Martins uses. The images are the result of very long exposure times (up to an hour), during which he moves around the space adding selective bursts of artificial lighting. The effect is a peculiar evenness of light and an intense rendering of the material details, which subtly estranges photographic realism from the ‘real’. Moreover, the installation of the work at the Wapping Project space does not include image captions, suggesting that Martins wishes us to imagine these scenes as an agglomeration of parts, fragments of a total machine.

On another level, the suggestion of a scenario that endlessly repeats into the future might also relate to the current state of ‘new objectivity’ photography itself. For, while Martins’ work represents perhaps unparalleled technical virtuosity, it might also be said to signal a phase of New Objectivity in which the possibility of original or novel subject matter is definitively exhausted.

Robin Wilson is a writer on art, architecture and landscape, and teaches the Architectural Utopics course at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Exhibition Edgar Martins, The Time Machine, at the Wapping Project Bankside, London SE1 until 5 November. Free Thewappingprojectbankside.com

Book Martins also has a new book of photographs showing homes abandoned after the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US. This is Not a House, Dewi Lewis Publishing, £35

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