(Above) Charlotte Morgan, Lookout (2010). At Site Gallery
Festival: Art Sheffield 2010 – Life: A User's Manual, various venues, Sheffield, until May 1 2010
Art Sheffield is a biennale and, in the two years since their last campaign, the exuberant team behind the steel city’s Contemporary Art Forum have been hard at work.
Last year they took a "nomadic pavilion" – showing some of the best work from local artists inside it – to Istanbul, having forged links with the Turkish capital's Biennale via a former board member, and the planning process for this year's campaign began almost as soon as the curtain had been drawn on the 2008 one.
Haroon Mirza, An_Infinato (2009). At Millennium Gallery
The title for 2010, Life: A User's Manual, is taken from Georges Perec's 1978 novel of the same name, where the objects, items and traces residents leave in their flats tell the story of their lives, and the trail is consumed by spaces, places and things in a post-recession world.
Wind up the hill from the station and you'll find the Millennium Gallery, home of metalwork showcases, an enormous greenhouse which belies the bitter cold outside it and, for Art Sheffield, a room offering various snapshots of life on the fringes of society.
For starters, American-born Tate favourite Susan Hiller has produced 305 postcards of battered coasts which you could quite easily lose days looking at, faced by a surprising film by Imogen Stidworthy explaining how Scousers created backslang – a language of their own riddled with indecipherable syllables and tics – to escape the arm of the law.
Katerina Šedá, Der Geist von Uhyst (The Spirit of Uhyst) (2009). At Millennium Gallery. Photo: Michal Hladik
Other curiosities include residents capturing the spirit of a faraway village through single-line scrawls and a man from Belgrade trying to sing Shout by Tears for Fears, apparently relating to themes of isolation and struggle.
Over at S1, a small upper floor gallery hidden in what looks like a car servicing depot, the spirit of DIY has been flourishing for 15 years, although the founders have now passed their legacy on to younger protégés.
The space features draped light bulbs over washing lines and stuffed boxes full of candles, clouded in a mysterious fog. It's made by Haegue Yang, the young artist who represented Korea at the Venice Biennale last year, based on legends of tigers and bear-ladies living hermitic existences in caves.
Nina Canell, Mist Mouth. Installation view, Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo (2007). At Bloc
One visitor voices his disappointment that the smoke machines aren’t literally allowing him to walk on air, but there’s a definite sense of magic and mythology within the immersive mist.
Smoke vapours also haunt the space at Bloc, a tiny garage at the front of a cobbled, gated alley in a myriad of industrial streets which, it must be said, possess an unintentional, ramshackle beauty of their own.
Filtering out from a hole in the floor, it's the idea of Berlin-based Swedish artist Nina Cannell, cutting a quietly illuminating, slightly confusing spectacle as someone accidentally nudges a small veil of green tissue paper off the wall it has been stuck to.
Maud Haya Baviera, Happy (2008). At Sheffield Institute of Arts
The ethos doesn't get much more overstated elsewhere, but there are some excellent video works in the form of Israeli artist Yael Davids' film at Site, showing inmates at a Belgian prison performing illusionary magic with squidgy red balls, and Ruth Buchanan's observations of couples at the Sheffield Institute of Arts, a black and white short which feels alternately eerie and funny.
There are frequent moments of bemusement to be had – Phil Collins getting a hapless journalist drunk to the sound of a Mariah Carey soundtrack and Ruth Ewans' omnipresent images, based on Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, spring to mind, standing out in an overall body of work mercifully low on brashness and the obvious attention-grabbers biennales are frequently festooned with.
In this solemnity, at least, it goes some way to reflecting the mood of 2010.