Tate Britain, London, United Kingdom
From: 27 March 2012
Until: 14 October 2012
The Robinson Institute
Saturday – Thursday, 10.00–18.00
Last admission to special exhibitions at 17.15
Last admission to special exhibitions at 21.15
Open as normal on Bank Holidays
Filmmaker and artist Patrick Keiller emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in British cinema with London (1994), Robinson In Space (1997) and Robinson In Ruins (2010). In these film-essays, the fictional, unseen scholar Robinson and his companion, the ‘narrator’ (variously, Tilda Swinton, Vanessa Redgrave and Paul Scofield), undertake journeys around England. In each film, these rogue flâneurs set out to study a particular ‘problem', which leads to meditations on the failings of capitalism, economic, environmental and cultural decline, the post-industrial landscape, and myriad literary, historical and occult threads that weave into a secret history. In the films’ measured pacing and crisply edited combinations of words and images, Keiller has a Ballardian capacity to find the poetry in a supermarket car park, a deserted US airbase nestled in the English countryside, or of lichen slowly consuming a metal road sign.
But despite the seriousness of the films, there’s a deft playfulness in his approach, a narrative sleight-of-hand that lends his work its unique wit. It’s tempting to say that, essentially, Keiller is Robinson, roaming the countryside armed with a notebook and a camera. But it’s not that simple. “Handing over the responsibility for these ideas to someone other than the narrator seemed to make it easier to examine them,” he tells Phaidon.
Now Keiller has a new role, that of curator, as the Robinson project comes to Tate Britain. The Robinson Institute stems chiefly from Robinson In Ruins, but it is more than just a movie adaptation; it is Robinson In Ruins made flesh. Given access to Tate’s archives (“I had a few items of my own, but I didn’t have any preconceptions about the Tate collection. I just started at ‘A’ and kept going”), Keiller has selected more than 120 pieces – paintings, photographs, films, both historical and contemporary – to revisit Robinson’s last-known mission: a study of the current economic crisis via the English landscape.
“Both London and Space asked the question: ‘If we are obliged to put up with capitalism, can we not have an economic model that is slightly less unpleasant?’,” Keiller tells us. “The answer is always a very firm ‘No’. Ruins was more ambitious, hopefully less specific to the UK. It examines a perceived discrepancy between the cultural and critical attention devoted to the experience of mobility and displacement, and a tacit, seemingly widespread tendency to hold on to formulations of dwelling deriving from a more settled past. The events of 2008 enabled the film to explore this very directly.”
Ah, yes – 2008. Cinematography on Ruins began on 22 January, the day after the first of several major stock-market crashes that year. “The film’s journey, largely unplanned,” admits Keiller, “involved a series of genuine coincidences, as the camera almost intuitively found its way to sites of dispossession and resistance to it.” Ruins is more overtly political than London and Space, and takes in abandoned military sites, a deserted village and sites of rebellion and execution.
The ‘problems’ explored in Ruins haven’t diminished, making The Robinson Institute a timely exhibition. Robinson muses that “if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future”. The question is, can he see a way out?
“I think what is most urgently required to address the economic/environmental crisis is the political will to do so, followed by a certain amount of forward planning. Neither is much in evidence. But art, especially landscape art, has a key role. [French philosopher] Henri Lefebvre wrote that ‘to change life we must first change space’. Art can do this.”
You won’t bump into Robinson at the show, but you might feel his presence. “I think he may have undergone some kind of metamorphosis, perhaps into lichen growing on a milestone,” says Keiller. “Or he may have gone to Aberystwyth. But the exhibition at Tate Britain is the inaugural exhibition of the Robinson institute, and I imagine there may be others.”
The Tate Britain Commission 2012 is at Tate Britain, March 27–October 14.