The filmmaker Patrick Keiller has recently joined our department (Geography at the Open University) as a visiting fellow. As an introduction to the postgrads, a group of us met Patrick at Tate Britain in April for a guided tour of his current exhibition ‘The Robinson Institute’ in the expansive Duveen Gallery. Intended as an adjunct to his latest film, ‘Robinson in Ruins’ the exhibition is a selection of artworks, books and other objects that serve to illustrate themes from the film.
‘Robinson in Ruins’ was developed as an AHRC funded research project, of which the film was one of the outputs. Patrick worked with a team of researchers, including Professor Emeritus Doreen Massey as part of the AHRC Landscape and Environment project. Patrick was interested in the themes of displacement and mobility in relationship to the English landscape and the film is a complex unpicking of ideas which span history, economics and geography. The film is characterised by Patrick’s static shots of the landscape which are accompanied by the actress Vanessa Redgrave elaborating complex historical, socio-political or economic anecdotes which relate to the landscape in question. For instance, an extended shot of a spider spinning its web is used to illustrate the origins of the current financial crisis.
The content of the exhibition is driven by Keiller’s desire to make connections within the film to its larger cultural influences. It is narrative based and is effectively a progression through the films main themes. Keiller had unprecedented access to the Tate collection and was able to use paintings, drawings and sculpture to illustrate and animate the various themes. His only constraints were the gallery space itself. In the Duveen gallery, no nails could be used. The curators got around this constraint by constructing large aluminium structures which display the chosen artworks in sections which span the length of the gallery. The pieces of work, varying from Turners to large Andres Gursky photographs are broken up into themes which mirror sections from the film. The pairings throw up interesting juxtapositions: Ed Rucha’s ‘Mad Scientist’ of 1975 next to L.S. Lowry’s Industrial Landscape.
The exhibition has a decidedly scholarly emphasis, as excerpts from books including Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation and Jameson’s Seeds of Time. But Keiller’s references are expansive and also include copies of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the project’s namesake, as well as Tristram Shandy, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. Copies of the books are displayed in vitrines in the middle of the gallery.
The guided tour was very much like an illustrated tour of the process of filmmaking itself and the film and the exhibition are inextricably linked. To understand the way Patrick’s mind works and the way he finds connections with political and social events in the landscape, take for example his comment when standing in front of the mock up of an oil pipeline marker: ‘from finding this oil pipeline in the countryside, it’s two thoughts away from the Iranian revolution’.
Keiller is a very deep thinker and while the exhibition helps to further illustrate the film, it is best viewed alongside the film. Having watched the film over a year ago, I, myself, could use another viewing. The film itself is very complex and packed with information and similarly, my experience listening to Patrick explain his choices for the exhibition and how they related to the film was a slight sense of awe at his complexity of thought. But the themes of the exhibition seem particularly relevant to our current economic and environmental concerns even if the connections brought about in the exhibition are not immediately obvious.
The Robinson Institute is on display at Tate Britain until 14 October 2012