Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 reports from a bench

Report from a bench on Wood Street E17

My 'being-hole' flooded in the recent April deluge and so I am no longer able to commune with my many selves . As reported in a previous post, the experience of being so solipsistic hindered potentially worthwhile field study. How did the extraction of this singular self from the multiplicitous land of 'Being Julian Beere' come about?  I wish I could remember. The extrication probably involved inaccessible mental processes and confabulation and it is the latter, confabulation - the filling in of gaps in ones memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts (or purposeful fictions)- you will endure if you continue reading this post.

Recent field research found me traversing Patrick Keiller's, The Robinson Institute, at Tate Britain.* The installation occupies the Duveen Galleries and is, in a sense, a grand walking tour come illustrated essay on the subject of landscape replete with  a fascinating convention of artefacts drawn, I believe, mainly from the Tate collections. I visited to look for insights into the nature of cargo environments. The art is very smartly mounted on a fabulously severe free-standing framework of aluminium (or alloy) angle which has been welded and bolted together. The cool bare metallic projections, angles of incidence and trajectories are anchored to the floor by the weight of large stones or concrete blocks. The display apparatus was designed by Jamie Fobert Architects and made me think of  aircraft hangers - perhaps a reminiscence of a visit I made to a Boeing surplus warehouse near Seattle, or recall of Fiona Banner's, hanging and supine aircraft, 'Harrier and Jaguar'. Robinson Institute's, Section 5, 'Agriculture' saw me lost in admiration of the supporting structure before I found the artefacts and got lost (or tried to) in their fields.

In 'Agriculture', a number of art works by other artists (Keiller selected) orbit around a piece of Keillers own work, an extract from the film, Robinson in Ruins, in which a combine harvester and tractor work a wheat field. The film is a patient sustained study of a labour saving (or destroying) harvester as it proceeds to reap, thresh and winnow the crop, while the tractor towing a trailer collects the winnowed grain that is the wheat mechanically separated from the chaff.
This mechanised perspective belies the fact there are people operating the machines. At one point a (post human?) farmer appears to jump from the tractor and climb aboard the slowly moving harvester to sit with the harvester driver. I mused to myself on the improbability that there was just one farmer frantically hopping between tractor and trundling combine harvester such is the isolation of modern industrialised farming.

The contemporary itinerant Robinson observed how fewer people are to be seen working on the land, an observation that accords with one of the accompanying artefacts, 'Hereford, Dynedor and the Malvern Hills' (George Robert Lewis, 1815) when and where the harvest was a much more social event. All appears well in that picture - the farmers/labourers are well dressed and appear healthy. There are many people harvesting and plenty of sheaves of corn stacked up and away into the expanse of the field. Beyond there is a homely patchwork of fields, hedgerows and trees beneath a pale blue of a late afternoon sky. A group of men standing together appear to be resting and taking refreshment. What are they saying about the harvest? Who or what is the figure seated by the besmocked husbandmen? A cursory glance at kitsch reproductions of the image might miss this camouflaged and perhaps ghostly presence. Lewis has rendered the terrain and sheaves with intimacy, subtlety and delicacy, a closeness and involvement that contrasts with  Robinsons more distanced and remote rural observations. Is Lewis's vision an idealised one, an elegy and Keiller's filmic nepsis, a testiment to the degradation of the land socially and environmentally? Are the farmed fields in Robinson in Ruins still actually 'rural'?

Keiller's Robinson remains a stranger, always outside of the picture. It is not as if Robinson is a latter day William Cobbett meeting and fraternising with the husbandmen in the fields as he passes by, astride his horse, delivering his rustic harangues on the discontents of genetic modification, common agricultural policies, gang masters, seasonal migrant labour forces, and, of course, the rains of climate change. How could Robinson commune as such given the depopulation and lack of a horse? The medievalist William Cobbett might be imagined riding by Lewis' scene and delighting in the bucolic conviviality or perhaps not. Cobbett's 'Rural Rides' is an apt work to cite in terms of Robinson's agenda in revealling the then 'current economic and ecological crises, written in the landscape'.
The talk in Lewis' scene might be of e.g. a new canal, or some other new infrastructure nearby and the consequences for the farmers. In Cobbett's account, there is 'an accursed Canal' 'to convey away the wheat and all the good food to the tax eaters and their attendants in the Wen'**. The Great Wen is London, and it is the source of a 'hellish system of taxing, of funding and of paper money' - a canker infesting merry Englands Eden. The Lea Valley has a history of such disputes concerning new waterways and their impact on the rural economy and more local relevance might be drawn in by comparing Cobbett's medieval imaginary to that of William Morris. Is this comparison devolving history into heritage; a sort of cultural diversion, a resort to a mythical dwelling?

Robinson's mission was to investigate 'a perceived discrepancy between, on one hand, the critical and cultural attention devoted to experience of mobility and displacement and, on the other, a tendency to fall back on formulations of dwelling derived from a more settled, agricultural past.'
The art works are there to compare and contrast within that research context. 'Harvest Home' (JMW Turner) and 'Chicago Board of Trade' (Andreas Gursky)  are present within the setting of the wealth or surplus value that became art dealer, Joseph Duveen's (Lord Duveen of Millbank) philanthropic exhibition space. Is Gursky's image representative of an apotheosis of a 'hellish system'? Owen Hatherley regards Keillers installation as 'a concretely politico-economic interrogation of landscape and its production, leavened with a flirtatious humour'***, a discrepant flirtation with the global institutions who flaunt their prestige in museums and galleries the world over? Perhaps the installtion is an act of cultural  or contextual subterfuge although this notion may be confusing Patrick Keiller with the fictional character, Robinson.

How many of the visitors to or participants in, The Robinson Institute, stopped long enough in front of the harvesting extract to see that farmer move from the tractor to the harvester, to see the harvester make the traversal of the field - from the left hand side of the screen to the right? The answer, in my experience is, very few. Was that a trivial detail? What does the installtion require in or of the visitor to actually make it a concrete 'interrogation,' to separate the wheat from the chaff and get to the nourishing kernels? I wondered if there is no willingness to look further into the myriad contexts of the artefacts they will only serve as an Arcadian window display that relegates, The Robinson Institute, to a form of bricolage.

* - Patrick Keiller
The Robinson Institute, Tate Britain, 27 March -14 October 2012
** - James Sambrook
William Cobbett, Routledge Author Guides, 1973


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