The everlasting face of solitude

This short piece on Chris Marker appeared recently on the London Review of Books blog.

A few years ago I wrote to Chris Marker about Staring Back, a book and exhibition of his photographs. Many of the two hundred images, made across half a century, were of political protest: from demonstrations against the Algerian and Vietnam wars to marches in response to the electoral success of the National Front in 2002 and the liberalisation of French labour laws in 2006. I was hoping – rather against hope, given his well known attitude to publicity – for an interview on the subject of his portraits of protesters, maybe even a meeting at his legendarily crammed studio in Paris. A reply came back within minutes; Marker was simply too busy: ‘crushed under my present grind’. He was happy to reminisce by email about his visits to Ireland, but if I needed a thread through his imagery I would have to unspool it myself.

wrote about the book anyway, and imagined I’d found a canny analogue for Marker’s luminously Photoshopped video grabs of young Parisian militants when I gave the piece an epigraph from Ezra Pound:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It seemed that alongside Marker’s more celebrated preoccupations with time and memory and travel – all of them now well rehearsed since his death on 31 July at the age of 91 – had been a fascination with the private and political significance of the human face.

Most famously, in La Jetée, the face of a young woman glimpsed ‘in peacetime’ on the observation pier at Orly becomes the nexus for a labyrinthine meditation on memory and loss among the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Paris. (Proust is always invoked regarding that film’s hold on the past, but Marker must also have had in mind the moment in Citizen Kane when Mr Bernstein recalls a girl he saw on a ferry half a century earlier.) And in Sans Soleil, Marker tracks ‘like a hunter’ the faces of sleeping Japanese commuters and engages in a heart-stopping game of hide-and-seek with a woman in Guinea-Bissau, who eventually condescends to look at him: ‘she drops me her gaze… I see her; she sees me.’

But it’s perhaps in the lesser known films and especially the photographs that the extent of Marker’s political interest in faces is most fully expressed. (Which is not to say that he could not be whimsical too: see the photographs he commissioned or took himself for the Petite Planèteguide books in the 1950s.) In Les Statues meurent aussi, which he co-directed with Alain Resnais in 1953, a young black woman stares intently into the face of an African mask in a Western museum. For his 1959 bookCoréennes he interviewed and photographed North Korean workers.

It’s this strand in his work that Marker pursued in the last decade of his life, extracting stills from his video footage of Parisian street protests andtravellers on the Metro. At times his enthusiasm for the smears and haloes of Photoshop made the photographs look dated in the wrong sense, and his analogies with Old Master paintings could seem forced; but in an age when young protesters were routinely accused of solipsism or a lack of historical perspective, Marker was convinced that there was ‘something special in the solitude of contemporary youngsters’.

Some time after I wrote about the photographs in Staring Back, an email and an essay arrived from Marker. I had been right about ‘In a Station of the Metro’. When he planned the book and exhibition, he wrote, he had scribbled the lines from Pound in a notebook but abandoned the epigraph as ‘pretentious’. Reading it at the top of my review, he said he ‘was thunderstruck. So it was true, after all, there existed such a thing as poetry, whose ways are by nature different from the ways of the world, that makes one see what was kept hidden, and hear what was kept silent.’


No Regrets

This piece on Scott Walker appeared recently in the Guardian.


Has there been a pop singer more flagrantly reticent than Scott Walker? Summon the YouTube spectre of him in his 1960s pomp and you’ll discover a performer seemingly cold-stored at his very moment in the sun. He mimes his part in the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” (1966) as if from some debilitating distance, and seems just shy of a fastidious shudder when co-singer John Maus goes all snake-hipped for “Land of a Thousand Dances”. A couple of years later Scott pouts, solo now, through Jacques Brel’s “Jackie” in a mocked-up bordello on, of all things, The Frankie Howerd Show. The voice soars, but the boy shivers. As he sang later, in a line much quoted in this collection of essays on his darkling oeuvre: “This is how you disappear.”

The exaltation and Icarus fall of the man born Scott Engel have been sketched before: from rock’n’roll prodigy to reluctant object of Walkermania, Europhile crooner to avant-garde enigma, via alcoholic MOR lostness. The chronology emerges piecemeal in No Regrets, which is apt given the acute angles of Walker’s career graph, commercially and (so the myth has it) artistically. Here he is in his teens being touted as “the gonest gasser of all gassers”, gleaning production smarts as a studio hand for Phil Spector, recording the first Walker Brothers tracks with Spector’s legendary arranger, Jack Nitzsche. The apprenticeship is important; by the time he arrived in London in 1965, Walker was well apprised of the lure of well-groomed professionalism versus the scarier potential of artistic self-fashioning.

Maybe he was already stranded. The rest, anyway, is well known: brief manic stardom, diminishing sales for four astonishing solo albums, the long slow trek to a place where he was in control. What is there to add to that narrative arc? Rob Young, author of Electric Eden, a remarkable history of visionary musicin Britain, is well placed to fill the analytic gaps. A former editor of the Wire magazine, he has corralled a book that at first glance seems to depend on Walker’s current experimental credentials. His last two albums have essayed a music of extraordinary intimacy and strangeness, schooled in the last century’s avant gardes but with baritone phantoms of the familiar Scott still in attendance. Young mounts a compelling case for Walker as belated modernist: an American remaking himself according to English and French models.

Brian Morton pursues that comparison in an essay on Tilt, from 1995: Walker’s song had evolved to a state of extreme lyrical abstraction, the voice grown higher and panicked among blocks and wires of indeterminate sound. By the time of The Drift in 2006, the now 60-something singer had vanished inside soundscapes that were constantly, as David Toop puts it, “flexing, sagging, cracking, breathing, stretched over bloody fluidity”. There’s a persuasive argument here that the recent Scott is the true Scott.

The longest and best essay in No Regrets, however, is Ian Penman’s “A Dandy in Aspic”, on the “lost” years when Walker, facing commercial failure, was huddled inside the smooth carapace of the consummate pro: taking care of business, grinding out standards after a Transit ride to the sticks, boozily committing to “the album of the TV show of the solo act”. Penman is acute on the adult pleasures of 1960s MOR, and on the sheer craft and work ethic demanded of a pop drone at the time. But he is also alone among the writers here in truly, or at least imaginatively, divining the state of mind of such a figure, lost to internal exile and “so withdrawn into a hinterland of edgeless, glassy introspection and landscaped musical anonymity he almost doesn’t seem sexually human. Almost, at times, an angel.”

This is heady stuff, but it gets to the heart of Walker’s 60s persona, and perhaps also explains something of the coldness of the later work. (Consider Scott’s four songs on the reformed Walker Brothers’ last album Nite Flights, in 1978, where he knowingly trumps the dystopic abstractions of recent Bowie.) In her essay on Walker’s first solo album, Nina Power makes a similar point about the singer’s sexual ambiguity, verging as it does on froideur, even (or especially) while he effortlessly emotes. “The bigger the songs get, the more he disappears.” The vanishing act surely had something to do with his amazing looks, so unlike the cheeky or hairy male pop stars of his day: the young Scott was Bacall-beautiful, hard to credit, never mind touch. Toop cannily aligns him with Dirk Bogarde, another pretty studio pawn turned serious artist and commercial suicide.

But the more apt comparisons may be with women artists of his ilk: artists barred from, or allergic to, rock credibility, for whom the path from teatime TV to left-field studio fulfilment was equally arduous, figures as unalike as Marianne Faithfull and Kate Bush. Walker has seemed to some (as Penman puts it) “provocatively and unforgivably inauthentic”. You just have to return to his first single from 1958, when he was 15, for an inadvertent hint of how he’d flummox expectations about surface and depth. “This must be,” sings little Scott Engel brightly, “the living end.

Nothing much

This review essay on Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012 appeared recently in the London Review of Books.

Stare long enough into the void, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, and the void stares back at you. The trouble with nothing, no matter an artist or writer’s aspiration to the zero degree, is that it tends to reveal a residual something: whether a sensory trace of the effort at evacuation or a framing narrative about the very gesture of laconic refusal. In the case of the Hayward’s survey of half a century and more of invisible art (until 5 August), the void was filled in advance by a lot of tabloid mock-horror at the thought that a publicly funded gallery was about to charge £8 so that one could turn one’s gaze upon that vacancy, the air. The BBC ran a sneery piece on the Six O’Clock News. Actually, they phoned to ask if I’d comment, but my take on the show (which fittingly I hadn’t yet seen) must have sounded drearily accepting of its premise, because they never called back. The silence seemed right.

‘Magic Ink’ by Gianni Motti (1989)

In truth, Invisible is both a bracing provocation – there really are empty rooms here, and notionally circumscribed gobbets of air to be wondered at – and a modestly meticulous story about the ways artists have found to approach, but perhaps never really achieve, complete invisibility. As Marina Warner wrote in the 5 July issue of theLRB, while reviewing Damien Hirst along the river at Tate Modern, the Hayward’s is an exhibition that courts attention above all else: attention to surfaces and atmospheres as much as, maybe more than, the works’ conceptual content. This last is all that such art’s detractors like to claim is going on, or not going on: the mere idea of emptiness left hovering, a grin without a cat.
The exhibition shuttles between the sublime idea of absolute nothing and the engaging reality of almost nothing. This oscillation has a prehistory, broached as much in certain artists’ attempts to articulate it verbally as in their near absconded works. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is the record of a month’s careful rubbing out and therefore not exactly a pure void, more a palimpsest in reverse – in Jasper Johns’s words, an ‘additive subtraction’. Such a work has also, of course, to live in a world that may fill it with meaning or form; John Cage had already observed of some white paintings of Rauschenberg’s that they were ‘landing strips’ for light and shadow. Cage, whose 4’33 is just the most notorious instance of an apparently silent work filled with inadvertent sound, liked to tell the story of visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, and in the absence of all other noise hearing the roar of his bloodstream and the electric whine of his nervous system. It’s more likely that he was experiencing mild tinnitus, but his insight holds: ‘What silence requires is that I go on talking.’
‘Untitled (A Curse)’ by Tom Friedman (1992)

At the Hayward, this notion of a full or replete invisible art is introduced via Yves Klein, whose empty exhibition known as The Void seems uncompromisingly committed to vacancy, but also reveals how much aesthetic, even occult or spiritual content could be projected into a pallid abyss. Klein mounted four exhibitions deserving of that title, though he only attached the word ‘void’ to the third. For the first, at Galerie Colette Allendy in May 1957, he painted the whole interior white so as to create ‘an ambience, a genuine pictorial climate and, therefore, an invisible one’. In a brief snatch of film, Klein hams up the suggestion that paintings have fled, leaving only their aura. He frames with his hands the spaces they might have occupied, then sits on a radiator, looks around quizzically at the white walls and an empty vitrine, and walks off. The second version, staged the following year at Galerie Iris Clert on rue des Beaux-Arts, was a more provocative affair. Thousands thronged the street, and Klein happened on a young man playfully drawing on the freshly painted gallery wall; he called security and demanded: ‘Seize this man and throw him out, violently.’
‘Untitled (Horse), Invisible Painting/Energy’ by Bruno Jakob (2003)

The third void was installed, if that’s the word, at the Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany, where Klein’s small empty room may still be viewed by appointment. The fourth version returned to the conceit of disappearing artworks: the artist and friends removed all the paintings from one room for the Salon Comparaisons at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1962. Klein had by this stage devised an elaborate and alchemically inflected theory regarding ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’; he was willing to sell these zones, though he only accepted gold as payment. If the buyer – not quite a collector – agreed to burn the receipt, Klein would throw half the gold in the Seine. An art that seems at first all about nothing was as much concerned with value, exchange, material and transmutation.
As the Hayward’s director (and the curator of Invisible) Ralph Rugoff points out in a suitably svelte catalogue (Hayward, £5), later artists have responded less to the mystical urges latent in Klein’s voids than to the institution-baiting gesture of stripping the gallery or museum of actual artworks. This is true for example of the conceptualist collective Art & Language, which in 1967 proposed (and in 1972 staged) The Air-Conditioning Show: an empty air-conditioned room accompanied by lengthy wall texts that explained the work’s ambition to create a ‘non-juicy’ or ‘ultra-usual’ space. And yet even here it is hard not to feel something more than is claimed by the austere intention. The forbidding Art & Language writings are not without texture and wit: ‘It has been customary to regard “exhibitions” as those situations where various objects are in discrete occupation of a room or site etc: perceptors appear, to peruse.’ Stray too close to one of two big floor-mounted air-conditioners and you’ll get a giddying blast of cold up your sleeve.
‘Aire/Air’ by Teresa Margolles (2003)

There are many such reminders of a minimal presence at odds with the vaunted immaterialisation of art in the conceptual era, and several of them have to do precisely with air. (Marcel Duchamp’s ampoule of Air de Paris is one reference point here, but Klein also made plans for an ‘air architecture’ composed of compressed-air ceilings and walls of fire.) Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series (1969) consisted of documented releases of gas into the atmosphere; Tom Friedman’s Untitled (A Curse) is a plinth purportedly topped with a spherical portion of space cursed by a witch. Elsewhere, the media used to make the work had been assumed into the air, as in Bruno Jakob’s paintings made with snail trails or Zurich snow. There and not there, giving away very little but not quite nothing, such works seem like examples of Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infra-thin’, like mist on glass, or the warmth of a seat just vacated.
Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnameable: ‘It is all very well to keep silence, but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.’ They are all, it turns out, a little different, and none of them pure or (as Susan Sontag put it) raw. Among the artists inInvisible perhaps Andy Warhol, already a walking void of sorts, gets closest. In 1985, at the Area nightclub in New York, he stood briefly on a white plinth and then was photographed beside the ‘invisible sculpture’ that still retained some of his aura. The aura, that is, of an artist who was hardly there to begin with, and whose ambition was ‘the best American invention, to be able to disappear’.

On not getting it

This brief notice of Adam Phillips’s Missing Out appeared recently in the Irish Times.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life By Adam Phillips. Penguin, £20

“The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?” Thus Adam Phillips, essayist and analyst, whose books cunningly match Freudian insights to an erudite, engaging style – books with titles such as Going Sane and On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored.

Phillips’s aphoristic bag is very much the kind of dialectical switcheroo canvassed above. Missing Out, an essay on getting or not getting what we want, and the difference between the two, is full of paradoxical quips: “We get into relationships only by trying to get out of them . . . All tyrannies involve the supposedly perfect understanding of someone else’s needs.” And most thoroughly apropos: “We can be fobbed off by the satisfactions of getting it and oddly enlivened by the perplexity of not getting it.”

“Not getting it” here entails unexpected potential amid a world of familiar hurt. We seem, says Phillips, to have a more precise notion of the life we could have lived than the one we actually possess (if that’s the right verb). Whether we’re railing at our constrained lives or justifying having bailed out, we know, or think we know, too well what might have been.

And knowing is often our besetting trouble, as in the cases of Hamlet, Othello and Lear, all of whom Phillips subtly diagnoses with a morbid urge to interpretation. (Mostly subtly, at any rate, though Othello is “someone in a need-to-know situation”.)

In its latter chapters Missing Out turns into a disquisition on “getting it” in several senses, from the feeling of being excluded from a joke to the assurance that while we “have” sex we don’t really “get” it.

Phillips’s style doesn’t come without its frustrations. He’s developed a habit of hedging around his apercus with little caveats that sound canny at first and then uncertain. Nothing gets defined without a clausal nod toward “whatever else it means”, so that you start to wonder what such locutions are shying away from. I look forward to Phillips’s paradoxical, parenthetical study of all that “else”.

Adventures in architectural hell

This review of books on cities by Owen Hatherley and P. D. Smith appeared recently in the Irish Times.

A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain By Owen Hatherley. Verso, 434pp. £20
City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age By PD Smith. Bloomsbury, 383pp. £25

I LIVE IN CANTERBURY, an hour from London, and the train I take into the city stops briefly at Stratford International station, slap in the middle of the Olympic Park. I’ll be making sure I work from home once this summer’s corporate folly and civic con begins, but it’s hard not to be awed by the sight that will greet rail passengers from Kent and the Continent en route to the games. On arrival at Stratford the kitsch Olympic enclave is invisible; you disembark at the bottom of a concrete-lined gorge of sublime proportions and uncompromising asperity. It feels as if you’ve detrained into a high-tech, functional ruin, a genuinely thrilling (though likely inadvertent) hint at the classically inspired sporting rigours ahead. As PD Smith puts it in his ambitious guide to, and history of, urban life, “There is no better way to arrive in a city than by train.”


Exit this austerely inviting station, however, and you are swiftly dumped in the architectural hell that Owen Hatherley explores in his furiously detailed book, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain. There is the Olympic site itself, with its hilarious, quasi-sculptural thing by Anish Kapoor, “a shocking pink entrail laterally curved around an observation tower”. And the huddle of speculative high-rises that passes for Stratford High Street resembles, says Hatherley, “the peripheral estates of the late Soviet Union”.

Most tellingly, he finds himself in Westfield Stratford City, a vast and crushingly predictable shopping mall designed to fleece Olympic punters and stand in for a wholly absent town centre. “On the way to the toilets,” Hatherley notes, “a wall features several photographs of old East London Markets, an appeasing of the slain ancestors that is . . . profoundly evil.”


Stratford is neither the most dismal nor the most fake of the towns Hatherley visits in this second volume of his tour of contemporary urban Britain. The first book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, from 2010, dealt with larger cities and conurbations, such as Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow, as well as aspects of London that he expands on here.

The example of Stratford should not suggest that he’s against new buildings, nor even against vast, overbearing buildings. Quite the contrary: an earlier short volume titled Militant Modernism sought to rehabilitate the architecture – specifically the much-maligned brutalism – of Britain’s brief social-democratic interlude after the second World War. The target of the present book is the urban fabric born from the ashes of that optimistic and now routinely despised era: the retrograde products of a rampant speculation enabled by Thatcherism, perfected under Blair and now struggling on in phantom form, postcrash.


Hatherley doesn’t hold back about the present crisis. “It’s abundantly clear that we neither know nor care about what makes a city into an architecturally or socially coherent thing.” The sights he details are indeed dispiriting: the “meretricious yuppie colonies” that flourish on waterfronts from London to Edinburgh, the timid and shoddy Victoriana lately appended to the once-confident modernism of a city such as Coventry, the scurf of chain stores around a new library in Brighton, which dross seemingly has to accompany every effort at civic architecture. This last is a clue to the book’s more fundamental argument. What terrifies British politicians and city planners most today is the very idea of the city itself: a place of properly communal, modern and at least aspirantly democratic living. They would rather flog what they can to the highest bidder and train CCTV cameras on what is left of “public” space.

All of which is almost comically at odds with the notion of an ideal metropolis that ghosts Smith’s book. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age is a compendious and lavishly illustrated guide to real cities and the ideas they embody. Fittingly, it begins and ends among ruins: the first cities built by the Sumerians, 4,000 years ago, and contemporary visions of what assuredly lies in store for the places we live in today. In between is a vexed history, slightly buried by Smith’s organising conceit of the travel guide, of urban planning versus organic development.


Smith is an engaging and curious docent to the museum of urban history: there are fascinating digressions here on the development of cemeteries, pneumatic postal services and the delirium of city walking, from Poe’s story The Man of the Crowd to the situationist dérive. But despite, or maybe because of, his interest in modernist literary responses to the city, Smith is no fan of the architecture that Hatherley equates with progressive thinking in the middle of the 20th century. He dismisses Corbusier-inspired experiments in high-rise living as glum “towers in a car park”. And though he expends some evocative pages on the monumental cities of the Aztecs, he clearly prefers the human-scale messiness championed by Jane Jacobs in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The trouble is (as Hatherley proves) that so, often, do neoliberal planning mavens: nostalgia for the pleasing chaos of the street is easily matched to laissez-faire lack of vision.

A New Kind of Bleak and City are in some respects rather traditional projects: the structure of the tour (grand or grim) is familiar among English writers from William Cobbett and John Ruskin to John Betjeman and Iain Sinclair. Hatherley’s immediate precursors are Niklaus Pevsner and Ian Nairn: learned, opinionated guides to the successes and failures of architecture in Britain. It’s a literary form that depends on authorial voice as much as on scholarly authority, and Hatherley’s judgments are nothing if not pointed: the Lloyd’s building in London is “monstrous, compelling and utterly fucked up”, the heart of Oxford “a Harry Potter playground”. (Elsewhere he’s less of an aesthete than his architectural tastes imply – with its slangy sarcasm and frequent repetitions, the book feels at times too swiftly composed, too marked by its origins in magazine pieces and blog posts.) Smith’s exemplar, lightly invoked, is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, wherein we learn that, with cities, “everything imaginable can be dreamed”. Or every dream dashed.

Present Future

This essay on art and the future appeared recently in Art Review.

‘I utterly spurn and reject so-called “science fiction”. I have looked into it, and found it as boring as the mystery-story magazines – the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles of dialogue and loads of commutational humour.’ Thus speaks the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1952 short story ‘Lance’. The writer seems to have shared his creature’s scorn for the genre – though, predictably, ‘Lance’ is also Nabokov’s sole ‘amateur’ stab at sci-fi. The tale is notable too as the source for a statement later quoted by Robert Smithson (who knew a thing or two about timescales) and which seems perfectly to describe the attitude to the future, and to futurisms, in much recent art. ‘The future’, writes Nabokov, ‘is but the obsolete in reverse.’

Isn’t that essentially the would-be paradox that animates a good deal of the future-oriented art of the last decade or two? To the extent, in truth, that it has become a cliché on a par with the popular claim that science-fiction futures are only ever versions of the present in which they are imagined. Contemporary art seems to go further – further back, that is – and assert that the only futures we can conjure today are in fact those that belong to the past: a past in which technology, ideology and avant-garde brio meant that things to come were palpable, vivid, almost present, for much or most of the last century. To speak in terms of tense, the only future that seems to have mattered in the recent past has been the future anterior: what will have been, or more accurately what might have been. The future has belonged to others: possibly including – if we’re old enough to recall, say, the digital thrills of the 1990s – our own past selves.

This is not to disparage any of the art made under a temporal regime of the backward look, only to say that until very (very) recently these lost futures seemed to manifest everywhere, in art that variously returned to the buried dreams of Modernism, the hubris of late-capitalist production and the fading lures of the big (really big) ideas. Consider, for instance, Gerard Byrne’s video installation 1984 and Beyond (2005), based on a 1963 Playboy magazine roundtable, in which assembled sci-fi writers attempt to picture existence in the year of Orwell’s dystopic fiction. Whatever the risible lineaments of the efficient, eroticised pod-life they predict, at least they are imagining some future. Or the brace of works by Duncan Campbell and Sean Lynch concerning the doomed DeLorean DMC-12 car: a futuristic sliver manufactured in Belfast in the early 1980s and by 1985 fit only to be sniggered at in Back to the Future, where the 1950s seemed more modern. Campbell’s Make It New John was made in 2009, Lynch’s DeLorean Progress Report shown in 2010 at Simon Starling’s Camden Arts Centre show Never the Same River: an exhibition whose subtitle probably sums up best this entire recent adventure with temporal paradox and nostalgic divining: Possible Futures, Probable Pasts.

The former, at least, were short-lived. Or so one reading would have it, in light of the economic crisis in the wake of which it became de rigueur to quote Fredric Jameson, writing in his Archaeologies of the Future in 2005: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ If in the precrash era Jameson’s statement skewered a collective imagination quite prepared to contemplate environmental catastrophe (or its sci-fi stand-ins of meteor strike and alien invasion) but unable to believe in alternative futures except as antique remnants of an ideologically or aesthetically gulled twentieth century, then postslump the aphorism could be wielded, a little too hastily, as a moral admonition of the recent past and our own place in it.

One could plausibly argue that once the unthinkable future actually arrived it became paradoxically possible to start imagining other futures again: the crisis functions oddly as the end of one big (neoliberal) narrative, with all the glamorous catastrophisms and premature pronouncements of revolution that that entails, and as year zero for other, maybe more modest futures. And contemporary art, having spent time contemplating obsolete futures from the past century, has in a way simply carried on reflecting on the same histories and the same possibilities, but with the nostalgia stripped away: invoking the future seems bizarrely less quaint now that it has diminished on many fronts. Think for example of Ben Rivers’s remarkable film Slow Action (2010), in which island utopias centuries hence are worked up from footage of such places as Lanzarote and Gunkanjima, the postindustrial ‘battleship island’ off the coast of Nagasaki. For sure, Rivers’s film makes reference to some coming (or maybe present; I mean our present) catastrophe, but its utopias come from some genuinely fictive elsewhere, schooled on such texts as Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1624) and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man(1826) rather than the familiar futurisms of the past century.

In short, the future has hardly gone away. A number of exhibitions this summer have courted its allure in more or less measured ways. In Limerick, Ireland, Eva International, a biennial curated this time by Annie Fletcher of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, is this year titled After the Future. Fletcher invokes the irony that after the end of the grand futures of the recent past – and Ireland’s dreams grew very grand indeed – it is both easier and more imperative to imagine modest and workable futures, futures conjured by theorist and activist Franco Berardi in his 2011 book After the Future: ‘If we come to terms with this post-futuristic condition, we can renounce accumulation and growth and be happy sharing the wealth that comes from past industrial labor and present collective intelligence.’ Which is a restricted vision that actually sounds, of course, exorbitantly optimistic. Utopianism does not necessarily fade away in an era of postcrisis scaling down: at Firstsite in Colchester, the group show News from Nowhere (taking its title from William Morris’s novel of 1890) mixes recent work by Mark Titchner and Mungo Thomson with frankly futuristic inventions of the past by Naum Gabo and László Moholy-Nagy.

Perhaps the most flagrantly nonnostalgic of futurisms canvassed this summer, though, is the Arnolfini’s ambitious Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction, curated by Nav Haq and Al Cameron. This despite the title of one of the standout works: Omer Fast’s three-part film installation Nostalgia (2009), which juxtaposes the fate of a contemporary child soldier from Nigeria, seeking asylum in Britain, with a future in which the geopolitical roles are reversed and a British migrant seeks refuge in ‘Fortress Africa’. Haq and Cameron certainly acknowledge the familiar explanation for our visions of the future in the realities of the now – ‘SF may not really [be] giving us “images” of the future so much as a projection of the present’, they write in their curatorial essay. And it’s true that there are remnants of familiar lost modernist futures in work such as Kiluanji Kia Henda’s installation Icarus 13 (2008), which situates its absurdist sci-fi among the ruins of Soviet architecture in Angola.

But the shift, if there is one, might have to do precisely with fiction itself, which courts the unprecedented rather than merely reminding us of future dreams recently abandoned. That’s to say, the archaeology of actually existing past visions of the future gives way to acts ofex nihilo invention or divination, because suddenly it looks necessary to invent a future again, however unlikely. In 2009, Haq and colleagues edited an issue of Arnolfini’s biannual journal, Concept Store, devoted to ‘Possible, Probable and Preferable Futures’. That contains, among essays on past and present artistic futurisms, a work by Graham Gussin, Various Futures, that excerpts blurbs from sci-fi paperback novels, their adventures condensed in précis (sample sentence: ‘At point zero the rigour of time would be like a mistaken memory’), dense, abstract fragments that are hard to explain using the familiar framework of science fiction as projection of past or present urges or anxieties. Imagined futures are perhaps not, after all, mere ghosts of what has come before, which is one reason Nabokov found the genre so maddening to read and write, involving as it does (or ought) the purest of leaps into invention. As he put it in Ada(1969), a novel seeded with wry bits of counterfactual history, ‘The present is only the top of the past, and the future does not exist.’

The molecular basis of historical events

This review of Patrick Keiller’s The Robinson Institute, at Tate Britain, appeared in the London Review of Books.

A static shot, as always. On screen, in the sunshine, a bright yellow combine harvester is toiling across an Oxfordshire wheatfield like a paddle steamer in reverse, churning up a mist of chaff and dust. The machine growls very slowly out of sight – any second now the scene will surely cut away. But here it comes again from left to right, the camera still unmoving and far enough from the action, such as it is, to obscure the tiny figure in the vehicle’s cab. This goes on for some time: three passes, if memory serves, though it seemed like more. Until at length a swift cut. To what? Another shot of another combine harvester, labouring up and down another field, diagonally, this time accompanied by a blue tractor.

This pairing of views in Patrick Keiller’s 2010 film Robinson in Ruins – glimpsed again as part of his current installation at Tate Britain (on display until 14 October) – is almost too typical to be true and must, among other things, be a joke at his own expense. Since the early 1980s Keiller’s work has combined extremely laconic imagery – schooled on English landscape painting and the industrial photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher – with more or less ironised, more or less fictional, increasingly erudite voiceovers. His first film, Stonebridge Park (1981), was a piece of glumly comic suburban noir: black and white footage of a motorway bridge and a railway footbridge in North-West London accompanied the narrator’s tale of petty theft and attempted murder. Keiller took the austerity of 1970s structural film and conceptual art, and filled their narrative voids with a voice that seemed to belong to a type of rambling English essayist who was also – somehow – a visionary devotee of surrealism and the Situationists.

Image from ‘The Robinson Institute’

Keiller’s methods paid off impressively in London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), the first two films to feature – if that’s the word to suit an unseen ‘character’ who is more rumour than solid invention – the peripatetic scholar Robinson, a stand-in for the more delirious side of the filmmaker’s researches into landscape and urbanism. In the first film, Robinson imaginatively repurposes drab districts of Major-era London as monuments to Continental romantics and modernists. (Like some ruinously well-read Blairite of the mid-1990s, he fondly believes Britain will be a better place when it is texturally more like Europe.) In the second, Robinson and a long-suffering narrator-companion, voiced in both films by Paul Scofield, set out to solve ‘the problem of England’: the advent of a new exurban landscape of logistics sheds and information hubs, bristling at the edges of cities that have failed to flourish as post-industrial enclaves for leisure and service.

Image from ‘The Robinson Institute’

Robinson in Ruins, which plays without its voiceover at the centre of Keiller’s commission for Tate’s Duveen Galleries, is the third film in this not quite a series, conceived just as recession loomed over the economy and architecture that Keiller had explored in Robinson in Space. It shares much with the first two: the immobile camera frames bits of anonymous infrastructure and residual pastoral, mostly filmed not far from Keiller’s home in Oxford, and the whole is propelled by a story about land use and power over several centuries, voiced this time by Vanessa Redgrave. But it is in some ways a different proposition from London and Robinson in Space. The film arose in part out of a research project called The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image – an academic collaboration with the geographer Doreen Massey and the cultural historian Patrick Wright – and it’s altogether more sober, less playfully immersed in the faintly mad worldview of Robinson, who has anyway vanished, presumed dead. But he has left behind his notes and the footage from which the film has notionally been constructed. Robinson in Ruins seems more provisional than the other films, part of an unfinished argument, and maybe therefore better suited to what Keiller has done at Tate Britain, which is essentially to expand the film, and the whole conceit of Robinson the scholar, into an installation-cum-exhibition drawn from the gallery’s collection.

Image from ‘The Robinson Institute’

The Robinson Institute is the result of Keiller’s trawling the Tate archive, initially online, and selecting 120 works – a few are drawn from other museums and libraries – to be attached to a series of metal frames that extend through the long galleries. The exhibition style seems apt: the sort of Bauhaus-meets-minimalist gesture of which Robinson would approve, but with an echo too of the Mnemosyne Atlas, the set of wooden frames and panels on which the art historian Aby Warburg made associative maps of Western art in the 1920s. Some of Keiller’s choices, interspersed among video screens showing more footage from his film, are direct reminders of Robinson in Ruinsand its vagrant take on the history of English landscape, more specifically on the ways the countryside around Oxford has been ploughed and parcelled by aristocratic landowners, heavy industry and the UK and US military.

Image from ‘The Robinson Institute’

In fact, one could construe the show mostly in terms of its historical-political subject matter, which is extremely varied, but circles around the topic of land and its use, and the constellation of commercial, political and military interests involved. So here is Turner’s Harvest Home (1809), with its crowds of revellers and merchants and produce piled high, juxtaposed with Andreas Gursky’s Chicago, Board of Trade II (1999), a typically vast (and partly fantastical) photograph of a teeming trading floor. Here is Paul Nash’s Totes Meer (1940-41): its pile of wrecked German aircraft, compositionally modelled on a frozen sea by Caspar David Friedrich, was in fact discovered by the painter at the Morris car works at Cowley. Keiller pairs it with a French advertisement for the Morris 1100, an image of an economic future for British manufacturing that never came. In Keiller’s cartography, there is always some secret affinity or passageway to be divined, like the connection between 18th-century road maps, the romantics’ walking excursions and a chart of the Government Pipeline and Storage System, which since 1942 has served the interests of oil companies, the Ministry of Defence and the US Air Force.

Image from ‘The Robinson Institute’

You can easily get drawn into the web of Keiller’s connections. He has a knack for making port statistics, the lichen patterns on a motorway sign or the remains of a cement works in Shipton-on-Cherwell suddenly seem like the key to our contemporary cultural-political moment. Which is why The Robinson Institute, for all the persuasive correspondences it divines among historical representations of British landscape, can’t be read as a work or a show with a strict thesis. It is also very much about Robinson’s (and therefore Keiller’s) way of seeing: a protracted, melancholic and almost occult concentration out of which his insights or intuitions eventually emerge. It’s visible in some of Keiller’s choices of artwork: the Bechers’ coal bunkers from 1974, August Sander’s Vagrants of 1929, chemical scroll waves photographed by Fritz Goro in the 1980s. But it’s already there in the film around which these works describe a fascinating constellation. In one of the longest shots in Robinson in Ruins, outdoing even those slow, tireless combines, the camera lingers on a gently nodding foxglove, and Vanessa Redgrave coolly informs us that Robinson suffers from biophilia, an affliction of surrealists. In fact, his attention, if not Keiller’s, is keener than that: he believes, we’re told in the second Robinson film, that ‘if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events.’