Iraq at The Robinson Institute

I finally made it to see The Robinson Institute, Patrick Keiller’s project for the Tate Britain 2012 Commission, which people have been recommending to me since it opened in March. It’s free, and an absolute must for anyone interested in the many different ways that art and geography overlap and speak to each other. As it happens, the exhibition comes out of a research project, The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image (there’s a blog here), in which geographer Doreen Massey was also involved.

The exhibition presents material concerning the last known journey of Robinson (a fictional scholar invented by Keiller) and explores the roots of the current financial crisis as they have been expressed in the English landscape. Building on the material left by Robinson, the Institute’s researchers have trawled the collection of the Tate and other institutions to assemble a series of displays of canvases, maps, films, audio and other objects that coalesce around particular themes. Many of these are stunning in their own right; presented together they construct an alternative geography of the English landscape that shows just how closely it is interwoven with other places, in highly asymmetric ways.

I was intrigued to see how Iraq was included and connected into the web woven by Robinson/Keiller/The Institute. One section of the exhibition deals with geographies of oil, militarism and conflict. The centre piece of this is a stunning Andreas Gursky photo of the Bahrain Grand Prix circuit from 2005. It looks like an Escher drawing, an impossible space that shouldn’t really exist but which has come into being in large part as an expression of the petrol age. There’s a massive irony here of course in view of the ongoing controversy over the Tate’s continuing acceptance of sponsorship by BP, an irony of which Keiller is surely aware and may well be playing upon.

As well as maps of the Middle East and petroleum pipeline infrastuctures in the UK, there are photos of the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment and protests at Greenham Common, two classic anti-nuclear montages by Peter Kennard and some 1951 Pathé news audio on “Oil for the Twentieth Century”. There’s a canvas by Miurhead Bone, a Jackson Pollock and a photo by Keiller of a spigot on the Government Pipeline and Storage System (geographers interested in infrastructures are no doubt well aware of this, but it was new to me).

There are also landscape paintings of Iraq by Sidney Carline (a version of his Flying Over Kirkuk from 1919 – which I’ve previously posted on, from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) and James Boswell (an artist, communist and radiographer who joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was stationed in Iraq during the 1940s). To me, the Carline conveys – and perhaps celebrates – what must have been the dizzying sense of freedom and power bestowed by air power in its early days; Kirkuk itself recedes in perspective between the biplanes which circle above. Boswell’s canvasses, meanwhile vibrate with hot red against black and grey, and perhaps depict a stifling, oppressive bleakness experienced on bare military installations in foreign lands. Like the Gursky photo, these pictures are all constructed from a viewpoint of privilege; in Gursky’s case from above, in the case of Carline and Boswell, from the vantage point of occupying military forces.

The inclusion of these works thus connects the present crisis with previous moments of geopolitical crisis and intervention in the Middle East. They also serve as a reminder of how a visual archive of Iraq lies distributed across British institutions and suggest how it might be reassembled. Included alongside maps and photographs they are a further indication of the role that artists and art practices have played in representing, mediating and contesting geopolitical power.

There’s also a suggestion that art practices have a part to play in making alternative futures possible, by helping us to see the past and present in new, and highly spatialised, ways. In response to an interview question about whether he could envisage a way out of the current crisis, Keiller said,

“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.”

The proposition (or maybe it’s a hope, gamble or claim) that art can change life by changing space is one that has been extensively explored and tested over the years; The Robinson Institute is an expression of how it continues to animate contemporary art practice, academic research and conversations between them.

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