Tate Britain Commission 2012, 7 March – 14 October 2012
Occasionally I’ve thought that in my role as The Berkshire Review‘s ‘London correspondent’ I ought to focus sometimes on things that are more culturally British; unfortunately, I just don’t think much of British culture generally, and with the Olympics now here, decimating arts funding and forcing friends and colleagues of mine out of their homes due to massive rent increases, I feel arguably less inclined than ever to take up the baton for this country.
One contemporary current that I am interested in, though, is the vogue among a certain appropriately London-based set of writers and filmmakers for psychogeography, which I am going to loosely define as the exploration of the psychological effects produced upon people by the natural and man-made environments around them. Alongside the writers Iain Sinclair and Will Self, Patrick Keiller, known chiefly for his trilogy of essay films centred round an imaginary explorer called Robinson, is among the vanguard of this movement. The current Tate Britain exhibition The Robinson Institute is the first of a new series of commissions by the gallery in which they invite an artist to curate an exhibition using Tate’s permanent collection; Keiller has taken this opportunity to mark the culmination of the Robinson project, presenting his installation as a body of work related to the character’s investigations into the origins of the present economic crisis, as detailed in Keiller’s 2010 film Robinson in Ruins.
Circling the edges of Tate Britain’s Duveen Gallery, the exhibition is divided into seven themed sections, each describing a particular stage or aspect of Robinson’s last journey on foot across the English countryside. The accompanying text to the first section, introducing the concept of ‘Robinsonism’, tells us that the aim of this trip was “to find out more about his subjects by looking at, and making images of, landscape” — extrapolating, through psychogeographical practices, ideas of how earlier stages of capitalism in Britain relate to the state of affairs it finds itself in today. In terms of the artworks on display, this was one of my favourite sections and probably the most effective, opening with Nigel Henderson’s ‘Head of a Man’ (a collage of photos of natural materials) and Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Shattered Head’ in bronze, which concisely pointed up the theme of the connection between man and natural world, and suggested an unresolved trauma or disturbance in the collective psyche. These were followed by more general images of travel, mostly on foot, but also by train, horse and sea (in which context Muirhead Bone’s drawing of the reading room at the British Museum, looking remarkably like a shipyard, stood out), as well as drawings with a more mythological or supernatural element, and Hamish Fulton’s photo ‘The Pilgrim’s Way’, showing an apparently ancient path through woods; the cumulative effect is to underscore the importance of Robinson’s own pilgrimage in a manner light and self-aware enough to not feel too portentous. Section 1 ends with video excerpts from both Robinson in Ruins and the ’50s British sci-fi film Quatermass and the Pit showing military bases in the countryside, a foreshadowing of a topic explored in greater detail later on.
With the next two sections we delve into specifics of time and place, with Robinson firstly visiting the town of Newbury, where in 1795 a system of relief for the poor was established at the George and Pelican Inn. Freely associating between photos of lichen growing on a road sign for Newbury and pieces by Warhol and Beuys depicting Goethe, who wrote a poem describing a man disappearing in undergrowth, we arrive at a still from Robinson in Ruins showing the building that used to be the George and Pelican – amusingly now surrounded by curry houses. Also in 1795, the first meteorite observed in Britain fell in a Yorkshire village; for Robinson/Keiller, there is a huge symbolic significance in this conjunction of events, hence another set of artworks relating to the meteorite, including similarly shaped sculptures by Hubert Dalwood and Lucio Fontana, various sky drawings, an L.S. Lowry cityscape and John Latham’s painting ‘Full Stop’, a smudged black circle in the middle of a white canvas which seen alone might seem innocuous, but here has an undeniably threatening air. Rounding off this section are tables filled with books whose relevance to the installation, the exhibition catalogue ‘The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet’ excepted, is sometimes hard to discern, including Tristram Shandy, Borges, Poe, Hobbes’ Leviathan and various Robinsons of print (Crusoe, Little Pig Robinson by Beatrix Potter, and a pamphlet on Hugo Chavez’s ‘Mision Robinson’ literacy program) — amusing in itself, it nevertheless slightly breaks the spell of the exhibition as a whole.
On the outskirts of Newbury is Greenham Common, the former site of a US Air Force base carrying cruise missiles, and a major destination on the Government Pipeline and Storage System supplying aviation fuel to military bases and civil airports. Section 3 accordingly deals in Middle Eastern oil (pipeline maps, an old Pathé newsreel, a photo of the Bahrain Grand Prix track) and the Iraq war (paintings in bleak red and grey by James Boswell, satirical juxtapositions of images of peace and conflict by Peter Kennard), with the highlight being the droll inclusion of a black and white Pollock vaguely reminiscent of an oil spill.
Sections 4 and 5 I found the least compelling, I think less due to their broader themes of ‘the non-human’ (i.e. flora and fauna) and agriculture respectively than to the pieces on display being more forgettable. Amid some minor Turners, Richard Hamilton prints and early 19th century agricultural scenes, what stood out were the pieces by Beuys and Eileen Agar incorporating actual leaves, a huge photo of the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade (which lists prices of agricultural commodities) and a striking blue threshing machine.
Revisiting the idea of meteorites as harbingers of social change, Section 6 sees Robinson heading to Oxfordshire, where in the village of Launton another fell in the year 1830, a time of great upheaval in Britain and Europe; one example of this was rioting at a wetland area called Otmoor, protesting the enclosure and drainage of land. Here the artworks are divided between those directly referencing this location (including a copy of Through the Looking Glass, whose chessboard was apparently inspired by the view across Otmoor from the village of Beckley) and others returning to a general idea of traveling in the countryside, such as Graham Sutherland’s ‘Entrance to a Lane’ and a Richard Long piece documenting a journey on foot. The single best piece of the exhibition was to be found here — Paul Nash’s painting ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea),’ a haunting vision of waves of aeroplane parts breaking on a deserted shore. Fortunately, its inspiration in a junkyard in Cowley, an Oxford district, provided just enough of a tangential connection for it to be included.
Finally, in Oxfordshire’s Cherwell Valley, the site of one of Britain’s worst ever train crashes in 1874 and a failed rebellion against exploitative landowners in 1596, Robinson/Keiller finds the perfect analogue for the posited failure of neoliberal capitalism and the need for its replacement, to which end he proposes founding an ‘experimental settlement’ in a disused cement works in Shipton-on-Cherwell. This sets up a satisfying variety of work in this last section, from a William Blake engraving of Wat Tyler and a Marcus Gheeraerts portrait of Henry Lee, the landlord of Ditchley, to a photo series of coal bunkers and a marble plaque entitled ‘This Could Be a Place of Historical Importance.’ Two further paintings by Nash and Turner seem quite loose and perhaps unfinished, just as Robinson’s work might be, his film cans and notebook having been discovered in a derelict caravan but with no sign of the man himself — perhaps Keiller hedging his bets in case he wishes to return to the character at some later date? Very last of all, with the inclusion of fossils, a Situationist International booklet, a collaborative Henderson/Paolozzi photocollage called ‘Study for Parallel of Life and Art,’ a psychogeographic guide to Paris by Guy Debord and a video piece on the artist/architect Constant Nieuwenhuys’ Utopian concept of a ‘New Babylon’ city of the future, Keiller makes explicit the theoretical origins of the methods he has used to probe the past’s formation of the present and the clues it holds to finding the path towards a better future.
Comparing the exhibition to Robinson in Ruins itself, which I saw on the same day, I found The Robinson Institute to be considerably more engaging in spite of its unevenness, with a wryly humorous voice mollifying the earnestness of its thesis in a way that would have improved the rather desiccated-feeling film, which was more effective when split into short excerpts incorporated into the Institute. It also felt like a much more appropriate medium in which to explore its ideas, not least due to their inevitably far greater resonance when transmitted, intentionally or otherwise, through the work of many artists rather than one; ironically enough, it has taken just one person to draw together the kind of collective action Keiller advocates. For those who are able, the results are well worth freeing yourself from the Olympics’ tyranny of the majority to see.