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Tuesday29 July 2014

Patrick Keiller: The Robinson institute

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Patrick Keiller: The Robinson institute
Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1. www.tate.org.uk/britain
Until October 14
5/5 stars

The physical embodiment of Keiller’s most recent film is the ultimate DVD extra

An etching of Wat Tyler by William Blake. A psychogeographic map of Paris by Guy Debord. A recording by Ray Charles. An edition of the academic journal Past and Present. A Turner gouache. A 1962 Dutch documentary about Constant Nieuwenhuys. At first sight, it seems the curator of the new exhibition at Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries might be a bomb. In fact, the organising principle is the fertile mind of architect-cum-film-maker Patrick Keiller. What we are witnessing are the fruits of the Robinson Institute, a fictitious creation that claims to have retraced the final steps of the equally fictitious academic Robinson, the eponymous but never-glimpsed hero of the trilogy of films that made Keiller’s name.

Robinson’s last journey was the subject of the final film, Robinson in Ruins, in which we wandered the county of Oxfordshire in concentric circles, attempting to get to the bottom of today’s crisis of capitalism. It was a quiet, melancholic end to the Robinson saga. But here, in the most opulent DVD extra you could ever imagine, it comes alive. Every reference, every thought, every intellectual aside that the film makes is exhibited and expanded on in a thrilling and restless mass of paintings, documentaries, etchings, music, photographs, maps and meteors that all burst out at you (via an elaborate tangle of rather interesting metal supports) from the walls of the Duveen Galleries.

The exhibition is grouped into seven segments, mirroring Robinson’s seven Oxfordshire journeys, each of which subtly shimmies through various hot and not-so-hot topics. There’s a thought-provoking visual essay on England’s forgotten and failed revolts of 1830, taking in a Turner print, a Richard Long diptych, a snapshot of Lidl, a poster for the Morris car, a Paul Nash and a Henry Moore. There’s a loving riff on the landless agricultural worker and a halcyon series of images devoted to nature. Things get political (Chavezian paraphernalia springs up, as does a reminder of Britain’s nuclear links with America), but in classic Keiller fashion the debate is always sober, wry and subtle.

Every reference, every thought, every intellectual aside that the film makes is exhibited

Art works are cast afresh. Eduardo Paolozzi’s Shattered Head becomes something quite moving reimagined as a metaphor for the dispossessed. And there’s a heart-stopping moment when our eyes shift downwards from Charles Turner’s Shipwreck — in Jackson Pollock-like tumult — to JMW Turner’s steadfast Robin Redbreast, a vision of eternal and imperturbable domestic bliss. The visual mutation — in one sequence, jumping from a Ruscha to a Long to a Turner to a Constable to a Fontana — is a joy, but so is the unfamiliarity of many of the works, most of which hail from the Tate vaults. There’s Muirhead Bone’s dense lithographs of scaffolding and ship-building, a froggy portrait of Hugh Gaitskill by Richard Hamilton in coloured pencil, the extraordinary frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and a beautifully simple little video portrait of some motorway detritus by Keiller, called Roadside Figure.

No one who has ever entered the world of Robinson will be surprised that the films work just as well as in exhibition form. Their references are so multifarious and speedy that one often watches with a degree of regret that one can’t linger a little longer over the details of the failed 1596 Oxfordshire rebellion, for example. Well, now you can. And many Keiller fans will be eagerly hoping his two other Robinson films, London and Robinson in Space, might receive the same treatment.

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