A STEELY GAZE

When Switzerland was hit by recession in the late Eighties, Ferit Kuyas began photographing the country's vacated factories and power stations. Stephen Bayley explains why the camera is Modernism's perfect weapon of propaganda

AT SOME point in the 20th century industry and technology usurped art's power to astonish us. It's hard to say exactly which came first: an awareness that the innocent products and processes of industry were beautiful in their own right, or the self-conscious compulsion to make everyday mass-produced artefacts things of beauty. Whatever, perceiving the technology of production as a medium of artistic expression is one of the characteristic conceits of our age.

The early champions of Modernism were quick to exploit the powerful medium of industrial photography in their manifestos. Herbert Read or Nikolaus Pevsner in this country, or Henry Dreyfuss in the United States, might use pictures of laboratory glass or a grain silo to make their case for industrial beauty. Never mind that these photographs were highly selective and stringently edited (no crowds, no mess, no stains); they articulated the belief that the austere beauty and overwhelming force of industry made ornament redundant and irrelevant. "Industry demands standards," wrote Le Corbusier, "and standards lead to perfection."

This is the poetics of the 20th century. It was sensed by some artists practising in old media: the painter, Fernand Leger filmed a Bugatti engine as Le Ballet Mecanique; Francis Picabia used a diagram of a carburettor as a metaphor of sex; and Charles Sheeler's paintings of, say, the mighty River Rouge plant in Detroit, are fine exceptions which prove the rule that photography was the best witness of the 20th century. Of course, photography, like every other significant contemporary art form, is itself an industrial process.

There is a distinctly German tradition here. While the avant-garde in Britain was doing Arts and Crafts and Garden Cities, in Germany the Deutscher Werkbund was trying to establish objective standards for industrial production. In a 1910 essay, Josef-Josef-August Lux argued that "a bicycle is beautiful" and that "the technical and stylistic achievements of modern times are revealed most clearly in contemporary machines".

It was a short step from this awareness to the perception by Bauhausmeister Marcel Breuer that the tubular steel of his bicycle handlebars could be adapted to the design of a chair. Also at the Bauhaus was Lyonel Feininger who, on a poetic lakeside walk, found himself diverted not by the sunset, but by the sight of the wing of a Junkers flying boat.

There's a functionalist element in European thought that goes all the way back to Plato and returns to us via St Thomas Aquinas and Goethe. The functionalist argument that physical beauty is an inevitable result of mechanical efficiency is a seductive half-truth, but one which neatly closes a loop in European thought. It is a belief system as much as an aesthetic, and photography was one of the most persuasive agents of this propaganda of the faith. The heroic photographs which popularised Modern architecture of the Thirties were masterful distortions of reality: red filters and panchromatic film flattered grimy concrete and teased smeary reality into dramatic contrasts.

Germany's history of industrial and technical photography goes back to Karl Blossfeldt's mesmerising flower pictures of the Twenties and to Albert Renger-Patzsch's dispassionate landscapes, flat but hypnotically detailed, from after the Second World War. More recently, the influential couple Bernhard and Hilla Becher have created a genre of brooding water towers, wistful timber-framed houses, grim blast furnaces and scary steel mills. In Britain, the academic study of vernacular architecture was handled by tweedy sleuths with spiral-bound notebooks; in Germany it was the province of highly specialised technical photography. It was the Bechers who taught Andreas Gursky, whose astonishing monumental photographs created such a phenomenon at their recent showing in London's Serpentine Gallery.

There is something of the Bechers' sensibility in Kuyas' pictures. They are emotive not just because they record the awesome majesty of a lost industrial empire (some latter-day Gibbon might be inspired to write a Helvetian Decline and Fall while mooching in the echoing caverns of the abandoned Feldschlossen brewery), but because their clarity and perfection is a masterful delusion and, as a result, infinitely moving.

There has always been a strong inclination to be idealistic in Western painting. Fra Angelico did not paint the Virgin as a sallow, moustachioed, plump, Semitic nomad, but as a fair and refined Tuscan aristocrat. Kuyas does the same with factories. The high-contrast, high-resolution black- and-white pictures give us a pleasing illusion of monumental dignity, clarity, order and system. These images of boilers, levers, gauges and burners are powerfully poetic. They are far from a dispassionate scientific record: much more personalised vignettes dense with organising emotion.

They are the more wonderful because they persuasively evoke a fugitive, fanciful world. The water stains, the rust, the drip trays, the oily rags, the swarf, the congested sumps, the contaminated grease, the foetid blasts of steamy oleaginous air, the dangerous edges, the hot metal and the infernal noise are all missing. While the camera never lies, it is sometimes economical with its truth.

`Ferit Kuyas: Industrial Interiors' by Benedikt Loderer & Hans-Peter Bartschi is published by Edition Stemmle and distributed by Art Books International, price pounds 50

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