Exhibition Review: Roger Palmer, REFUGIO - after Selkirk after Crusoe, Kirkcaldy Galleries


In 1704 Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor and privateer, was marooned on an island in the Pacific Ocean. His story may have inspired Daniel Defoe to write one of the first English language novels The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk was born and raised in Lower Largo on the Fife coast. 

In the novel, after twenty-five years of solitude, Crusoe encounters cannibals visiting his island. A man who is about to be eaten escapes, hotly pursued by two of his captors. Crusoe kills the pursuers and the escapee bows before him in submission and gratitude. Thereafter he becomes Crusoe’s dutiful servant. In return Crusoe gives him three unsolicited gifts: the English language, Christianity, and the name Friday. One reading of the Crusoe story is as an apologia for imperialism. Crusoe’s mission before being shipwrecked was to fetch slaves from Africa. Once on the island he is presented as a white European Christian bringing his civilising influence to bear upon dark skinned, cannibalistic, ‘savages’. 

In 1986 the South African author J.M. Coetzee wrote a post-colonial Robinson Crusoe inspired novel titled Foe. In this tale of language, story telling and power there are four main characters: Crusoe, a tongue-less Friday, Susan Barton who was briefly marooned with them, and a successful writer, Foe, who Barton enlists to help tell her story. Barton’s story is lost however in Foe’s telling or lack of it. 

Now in 2019, exactly three hundred years after the first publication of Robinson Crusoe, Roger Palmer is holding an exhibition, REFUGIO - after Selkirk after Crusoe, at Kirkcaldy Galleries. He has travelled to Lower Largo and also to Isla Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe’s island was a fictive invention. The island now named for him is the one where Selkirk was marooned. Palmer took his cameras to these two strangely connected places and made photographs of different elements that drew his attention.


REFUGIO spans two interconnected gallery spaces. The first gallery feels like the ‘Selkirk room’ and the second the ‘Crusoe room’. The Selkirk room has three almost life sized graphite wall drawings of a young man practicing survival skills whilst marooned: marking days on a tree, drinking water from a stream, praying to God with arms stretched skyward. It later becomes clear these are illustrations copied from a German children's book titled, Robinson, but in this room they can be read as pictures of young Selkirk marooned on his Pacific island. Along another wall there are five silver gelatin prints showing views looking out into the Firth of Forth with Lower Largo in the foreground. In the far distance we see oil platforms. There is one other print on a separate wall with a view looking upstream along the coast toward Leven and the two huge wind turbines in Methil. Everything in this room appears to be black and white until one is about to pass through into the Crusoe room. Low down on the wall to the right of the connecting doorway there is a quotation from Foe hand written and reproduced in maroon vinyl: “The island is not a story in itself… We can bring it to life only by setting it within a larger story. By itself it is no better than a waterlogged boat drifting day after day in an empty ocean till one day, humbly and without commotion, it sinks.”



In the Crusoe room we see a grid of twenty four colour photographs of San Juan Bautista at Cumberland Bay the only settlement on Isla Robinson Crusoe today. There are a few pickup trucks and satellite dishes but mainly we see the rustic boats and dwellings of lobster fishermen. The houses are in various states of repair and rebuild - the village was badly damaged by a tsunami in 2010. On the opposite wall there are three large silver gelatin prints with views looking out over the bay. These echo the photographs of the Forth in the other room but they create a different feeling in the viewer perhaps due to the deliberate blurring of the foreground. It is as if the viewer has been marooned, and it is now they themselves who look out over the bay nervously watching and waiting for a friendly passing vessel to come and rescue them from their fate.


On two of the walls there are temporary installations of images and text. One, titled Fire, was made using mixed media on vinyl; it shows an enlarged book illustration of Crusoe and Friday signalling their presence through fire to a passing ship. This is flanked on either side by photographs of real fires on the island. On the opposite wall is Bones, another enlarged illustration, this time showing a wide-eyed Crusoe stumbling upon the skeletal remains of two unlucky people. Maps show the outline of the island where thankfully there is in fact no recorded evidence of cannibalism. On a small plinth there is an open book, the German edition of Robinson, that first piqued Palmer’s interest. In the book, alongside an illustration of Crusoe and Friday, we see the scrawl of a child's energetic looping marks made with a crayon. The colour of the marks is maroon.

REFUGIO - after Selkirk after Crusoe is a visual puzzle with many layers and connections to be deciphered. There are themes of refuge, migration, and colonialism relating to literary and historical references but also of interest is Palmer’s method of combining photographs, drawings and text. Traditional silver gelatin prints create atmosphere that transports us back and forth through time. The smaller digital prints inform us of the present condition of the island. The illustrations remind us of problematic undertones embedded in the Crusoe narrative. Two short quotations, handwritten but reproduced in vinyl, signpost some of the key ideas present in this body of work. The island does not tell the whole story. Context is required. The voices in any given story are heard relative to the power possessed by the speaker.  

Depending on your point of view this is an exhibition about Alexander Selkirk and Robinson Crusoe and their connection to two geographical locations, one in Scotland, one now in Chile. Or it is about the way that stories are told and heard and the power dynamics involved. Alternatively it could be about the tools we use for communication through language and images. It could be about all of the above or none at all. This puzzle is waiting to be solved by you not far from Lower Largo in the Kingdom of Fife where this story began. 


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REFUGIO - after Selkirk after Crusoe can be seen at Kirkcaldy Galleries until 22nd June 2019

Image titles:
1. 'Refugio' (detail) 2017, digital inkjet print
2. 'Largo Bay #4' silver gelatin print, 2017
3. 'Refugio' (detail 2) 2017, digital inkjet print
4. 'Fire', mixed media, 2019

All images © Roger Palmer

Installation photo of Fire, credit John McKenzie

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