From a foreigner’s point of view, it is hard to find a more English artist than Patrick Keiller. This filmmaker, researcher and polymath obsesses over his country and the relation between land and economy, but without being provincial. That’s because it’s hard to be parochial if you’re obsessed with the workings of western capitalism. And Robinson, the fictional, unseen scholar that Keiller created, is a kind of exile, an outsider, a dying species of intellectual, and this is precisely what allows him to see “the problem of London”, England and, subsequently, the whole western world.
The show at Tate Britain is a course in Keillerism and Robinsonism, but so advanced and complex, such a rhizomatic system of references, that a novice may get lost. It’s almost as if it were trying to imitate Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with complex, impossible storylines displayed as paintings, books, fragments, photographs and scattered data; as if, at the urging of his fans, Keiller has made a map of his brain and how he thinks. But, no worries – it’s a very rational, logical brain: even English romanticism had a rational basis and, in dealing with the monster of late capitalism, one should be rather cool-headed. The exhibition is divided into eight sections, with crucial dates and events on memorabilia, canvases and screens. As if to answer at once the problem of “but I haven’t seen any of his films”, Keiller, who is the fiercest chronicler of the present financial crisis, retraces the origins of modern capitalism to the start of the industrial revolution. One of the first objects on show is a huge, heavy threshing machine, forerunner of mechanised production and object of the Luddite movement’s hate and destruction.
We then travel towards modernity: the enclosure of land, which changed everything, including our perception of the world. There are documents depicting movements of resistance, including mutinous peasants who saw it as a seizure of their freedom. From then on it’s impossible to imagine common land with no possessions, where people live together and share, although attempts at independent communities are documented. Everything becomes a potential profit-maker, open to market speculation. Keiller shows how our thinking would be impossible without this revolt, with signs of melancholy, even nostalgia, for an unmechanised, rural world – a “biophilia”, as he calls it – and the most basic forms of life. But this world is post-human: we exploited everything, capitalism reached its end, we had food crises and disappeared, leaving behind the scorched earth.
Even at his most biophiliac, Keiller is not a Tarkovsky gazing at the Zone, but an ironic, politicised observer. With what delight and suppressed anger he must have displayed his screens on war economy (maps of war zones, photographs of roads, closures, private accesses, warnings). Maps of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, locations of his films, overlap with maps of Iraq – because perhaps the truth of one can be found in the other. Robinson believed he could best explore the world by walking, as if then he would make the land unfold in an act of politico-economic transformation. We can also only do as much – by gazing intensely enough at the exhibits, we may see “the molecular basis of historical events”.
The show is an erudite delight: including exhibits such as a poster for Kippenberger’s The Happy Ending of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” and displays of Constant’s New Babylon. But something tells me that Borges’ Labyrinths is less important than, say, Engels, Marx, Hobsbawm or Polanyi.
The ultimate message may be to read and use this knowledge against the state of things, rather than attend an evening of psychogeography.