The Robinson Institute

by Ann Jones

Patrick Keiller is a hard man to describe: an architect who makes films, a filmmaker who makes art, an artist who curates installations. He’s certainly someone who seems to keep his options open so that his films may also become books, or art installations such as this one. Perhaps woollier descriptions like cultural commentator are needed. Or perhaps it’s better to think about what connects different aspects of his work. At the heart of much of Keiller’s work is the notion that by looking at the past we can find out about the future.

The Robinson Institute, in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain until October, is about England, about the economic crisis and about the last days of Robinson the unseen subject of Keiller’s films London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997) and, most recently, Robinson in Ruins (2010), which is at the heart of the installation at Tate. The work takes us on a journey through the Tate collection, through southern England, through the mind of Robinson, through time and through the gallery space. The premise of the exhibition is that the researchers of the Robinson Institute have brought together film footage made by the elusive Robinson on his last known journey – the film of the English landscape that forms the basis of Robinson in Ruins.  It was supposedly discovered in a derelict caravan with notebooks describing Robinson’s journeys to ‘sites of scientific and historic interest’, along with other materials that reinforce Robinson’s findings and his thinking, in the form of artworks mainly drawn from the Tate collection of maps, texts and objects.

The installation can be seen in a number of different ways. With no prior knowledge of Robinson from Keiller’s films, there is a fascination to be had from simply ignoring the premise of the work and enjoying the gathering of art and artefact, although the text and the mode of display make it amply apparent that there is more to this than an oddly curated journey through the Tate collection presented in a manner more akin to a public library display than an art museum. In the absence of the voiceover that drives the narrative of the film, the projection of footage from Robinson in Ruins at the centre of the installation can be enjoyed as a series of beautiful, barely moving images that speak of the English landscape – pastoral and industrial, urban and rural – and of decay, abandonment of the built environment to nature and, to a lesser extent, renewal. The meditative simplicity of Keiller’s image-making – or Robinson’s search for the picturesque – makes this feel in some ways like a welcome resting place on an otherwise challenging journey.

The arrangement of the installation is tricky and in some ways encourages browsing rather than fully engaging. Arriving from the main entrance on Millbank, one finds oneself half way round a set of numbered displays, making starting at the beginning a deliberate act rather than a default. Given the elliptical nature of Robinson’s travels, arguably this doesn’t matter much – as Robinson tours the country, we tour both the gallery space and the Tate collection – and certainly on my visits people seemed to be giving the installation quite a lot of time wherever their starting point. There is a lot to absorb. The text, notionally drawing together the research of the Robinson Institute in relation to Robinson’s films and notebooks, makes connections between the disparate elements of the display but it’s the selection of works that makes the installation fascinating for me. There are works I know well but am surprised to come across in this context – Andreas Gursky’s Bahrain I (2005) for instance, given Robinson’s concern with economic crisis Gursky’s Chicago, Board of Trade II (1999) seemed more at home in the setting – alongside works whose inclusion immediately made sense to me in the context – Peter Kennard’s Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) for instance, or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Coal Bunkers (1974) – and plenty I don’t know at all. The installation makes me realise that my knowledge of English painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is patchy to non-existent, and the way Keiller uses it to talk about migration from countryside to city and the start of the industrial revolution makes me want to know more. In a way this shift from the pastoral to the industrial that underpins Robinson’s investigation of the landscape is interesting also in the context of the shift from local to global of Tate’s dual remit as holding the national collections of both British and Modern Art.

There are some interesting juxtapositions in the display. Fallen meteorites and bronze sculptures are echoed in John Latham’s painted full-stop. Keiller’s own photographs and film stills from Robinson in Ruins both punctuate and help drive the narrative. There is work here by an extraordinary range of artists who would be unlikely to be seen alongside one another in any other circumstances. Even factoring out the books and films, opportunities to see the work of say Andy Warhol in the same space as that of LS Lowry don’t come along very often and that’s before you add in an early nineteenth century threshing machine or a can of Piero Manzoni’s shit. And, in the main, nor should they. What Keiller has done is to make some sort of sense of what on paper must look like a very random selection, that he’s done it by presenting the works in close proximity and on a physical framework not normally used in an art museum makes the installation all the more intriguing.

It takes time to navigate The Robinson Institute and, despite a couple of visits, a good look at The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, the book that accompanies it, and having seen Robinson in Ruins from which it the installation has emerged, I think I’ve barely scratched the surface yet. And as it looks like this may be a summer to spend indoors rather than roaming the countryside, Robinson style, I have an awful feeling I may yet spend an afternoon sitting in the Duveen Galleries watching Quatermass 2, and I’m pretty sure it’ll happen when I go to Tate Britain with the intention of seeing something completely different. I know I could also happily watch the projection of Robinson’s film footage in its entirety. Ultimately though what will bring me back to this work is Robinson’s curiosity and the way that this is manifested in the selection of artefacts on display and in the text that accompanies them.

The idea that to figure out where we’re going we must first know where we’ve come from could is one that carries the risk of quickly descending into nostalgia or cliché, but this is something Keiller avoids in part through some of Robinson’s more curious beliefs, such as the possibility of communication with ‘a network of non-human intelligences’. There is perhaps a wistfulness in the beauty of the landscape footage but though it shares a space with industrial and post-industrial spaces – recorded with equal care and none the less beautiful albeit in a slightly different way – the pastoral idyll survives and if it’s the decisions of the past – and present – that make the future bleak then the past is a place to learn from rather than one to yearn for.

Whether art is a good way to investigate the economic crisis in which the world now finds itself is debatable. Certainly Robinson’s notion that studying England by walking through it could bring about a significant transformation is a problematic one. But in making The Robinson Institute Keiller is offering us Robinson’s ideas as part of the debate, rather than presenting them as a meaningful indictment of global capital; in doing so he has made a work that is quietly but insistently political.

The Robinson Institute is on at Tate Britain until 14 October 2012.

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About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at ImageObjectText.com and occasionally contributes to MostlyFilm.com – writing about art, mostly.

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