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Contemporary Art: Missing in action

Thomas Calvocoressi talks to Patrick Keiller about his elusive protagonist.

Speaking to Patrick Keiller is like spending time with his fictional creation Robinson (Baudelaire meets Defoe with a sexually anarchic dash of Joe Orton). In the artist's film trilogy, the eccentric academic's roamings are narrated to us by "researchers" (Paul Scofield, then Vanessa Redgrave) but the reports of his quests around England are tinged with absurdism. Describing his commission for Tate Britain, Keiller's conversation is full of fascinating tangents, political reference and literary allusion - ranging from the 16th-century Oxfordshire rising to today's Chipping Norton set - and is similarly surrealist: "There's a picture in Robinson in Ruins of an oil pipeline marker, near Didcot Power Station. It's an extremely beautiful pipeline marker and one of the reasons I wanted to film it is because it reminded me very strongly of Gainsborough's painting Mr and Mrs Andrews . . ."

That picture's not in the show because it's up the road in the National Gallery. What Keiller can reveal about his commission is that it is, in essence, a three-dimensional extension of his 2010 film, Robinson in Ruins, a psycho-geographic dissection of the English countryside in the dying days of Labour. It uses art from the Tate's collection (which was his brief) to rework Robinson's journey in the film: "It's styled as the inaugural exhibition of the Robinson Institute, which I first thought about in 1999. It's a place of resort for scholarly and cultural activities - a physical installation, like a piece of sculpture, but one that incorporates many works." The show spans 16th-century to postwar art. "I spent last year looking at the whole of Tate's collection online - I still haven't quite recovered."

So what of the rebellious Robinson, elusive in the last film, having been released from a stretch in jail after loitering around RAF Spadeadam and - we're told by Redgrave - "made his way to the nearest city and looked for somewhere to haunt"; is he still absent in the show? Yes, says Keiller, though he's mentioned. Robinson in Ruins begins by explaining how his lost footage has been discovered in a box in a derelict caravan in the corner of a field and ends with a milestone pointing towards London, or Aberystwyth. "One of the things I hoped people would infer is that perhaps he'd gone back to London," says Keiller, "but also that he might have turned into lichen - or, indeed, the milestone."

At Tate Britain from 27 March until 14 October

Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible