When did I last get butt-naked with a painting in the line of duty, I ask myself. There's just the two of us here: me, and a work by Luc Tuymans called, propitiously enough, Allo!
I'm off to bed. We're in my cabin on a boat called the Roi des Belges ("King of the Belgians"). Tuymans is Belgian too. To be honest, this is the only cabin. It's after midnight and the crew – let's call them "room service" – aren't about. The tide's up. Where's my cocoa?
I'm sailing through the night on the Roi de Belges, the riverboat shuddering and creaking on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank. Rain slaps at the windows and the wind howls. The Roi des Belges is named after the boat Joseph Conrad captained on his journey up the Congo river in 1890 – a trip that became the inspiration for his most famous work, Heart of Darkness, which itself inspired Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now. For one colonialist misadventure, read another.
The tub is also A Room for London, a collaboration between Artangel and Living Architecture, working with the artist Fiona Banner. I had been invited on board – following David Byrne, Jeremy Deller, actor Brian Cox (who read Orson Welles's original screenplay of Conrad's story to a live audience here a few weeks ago) and others. Creative types are invited to stay on the boat, to write and to perform, and the public can rent the joint for the night.
This is more nautical-themed hotel suite than boat. But it is shipshape, with high-thread-count bed linen. It isn't the first time I've set sail across the concrete Sargasso of the South Bank either; last time I floundered in a rowing boat on the flooded sculpture court of the Hayward Gallery, courtesy of the Austrian collective Gelitin in the Hayward's 2008 Psycho Buildings show.
Tuymans' painting, like me, is a stowaway. Allo! was painted especially for the Roi des Belges, and the artist has gone on to paint a whole series of related works since this one-off commission. Tuymans's art has frequently returned to the troubled history of Europe. He has painted the gas chamber, Hitler and his sidekicks, the rotten history of Belgium's colonial past and its relationship with Africa – in particular Belgium's role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first post-independence prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1961. Tuymans filled the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001 with a cycle of paintings related to this. Belgium officially apologised for its role in Lumumba's assassination a year later.
Invited to think about Heart of Darkness, and in particular a passage in which the monstrous and haunted ivory-trader Mr Kurtz (the Marlon Brando part in Apocalypse Now) speaks with admiration about two paintings he has made, Tuymans took a different tack. He alighted instead on the 1942 movie version of a novel by Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence, first published in 1919. Tuymans's painting also involves a bar in Antwerp, a parrot, and the story of Gauguin, retold at several removes.
Instead of Gauguin, who travelled to Polynesia in search of an idealised tropical paradise, Tuymans based his painting on the last scene in the movie version of Maugham's book, which recasts Gauguin as an English painter, Charles Strickland (played by George Sanders), who leaves his family and ends up dying of leprosy in the jungle, where he has covered the walls of his hut with giant paintings before going blind. These, only glimpsed at the end of the film, are filled with images of a Gauguin-like paradise.
Propped against the shutters in my cabin, Tuymans's painting leans among piles of books, which come supplied with the room. I sit and drink with it; dance around the cabin in front of it and get undressed with it. When I'm not scoping out the hotel windows of the Savoy on the far bank of the river with my binoculars, I look at it from the comfort of my bed. This is the life. I have only the painting and the weather to distract me.
Handled with Tuymans's characteristic short stabs and paddled-about marks, the painting, which isn't very big, is an accumulation of touches which creep up to and shrink away from a schematic pencil under-drawing. The more you look, the more variety there is. Approaching his subject, Tuymans keeps a distance, like someone visiting the sick, hovering near the door in case they might catch something.
His paintings have always had a feel of being infected by something – mostly, Tuymans's own sensibilities and lapses of concentration. The smaller his paintings are, the more concentrated the image, reduced to a kind of essence. Getting up really close, my face inches away from the canvas, I sniff the painting in the dark.
It's a fantasy to imagine that this sort of intimacy comes close to the artist's own relationship to the work, even though it is very different from the theatrical encounter with a spotlit painting on a gallery wall, with a gallery attendant present to stop anyone behaving inappropriately. What's appropriate, anyway, in your nightshirt?
I glance at the painting from under the duvet, the boat creaking and groaning in the wind. I give it a sideways look at 4am. I peer at it balefully at dawn and over breakfast. How long can you really look at a painting? And the room itself – cabin, barque or Premier Inn deluxe – is beginning to get to me.
Who knows what the writers invited to stay here spend their hours thinking about? London. Old Mother Thames. Conrad. History. When the shops will open. Jeanette Winterson has stayed, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Sven Lindqvist. Michael Ondaatje is coming later this summer. I dance about the cabin, waving my arse first in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, then the London Eye, then Cleopatra's Needle and finally St Paul's. If anyone were to cross Waterloo Bridge and look up, they'd be horrified. But the few pedestrians around are heads down under their brollies.
I don't quite know what came over me. Speaking to Tuymans before this trip to nowhere, he told me: "Gauguin was a typical stockbroker. He'd fuck anything that moves." Tuymans said his painting is his joke on modernism, dealing with fake ideas of the new, the exotic and the colourful. The title relates to a bar in Antwerp, near the red light district, where the owner keeps a parrot that cries Allo! when anyone comes in for a drink and a bit of tapas. The painting's colours – a coral red, blue, dirty yellows – are based on the parrot, that living bit of exoticism in the Spanish-themed bar.
He morphs this into his own painting, otherwise based entirely on a movie still from the final scene of The Moon and Sixpence, when the Doctor – a man with a heavy German accent who has gone in search of Strickland – discovers his hut and the fantastical paintings it contains. Seconds later, the painter's native wife sets fire to the hut.
Everything emerges from a darkness that is not quite black, except for a ghostly shadow that seems to be Tuymans's own. More a weight or looming coalescence of darkness than a recognisable silhouette, it is a blot on the image. This, Tuymans says, "is probably where Kurtz comes in". Oh that Tuymans, he's such a tease. His art always depends on the power of suggestion. Most art does. If Tuymans says a painting is about some evil little moment, you are briefed and ready to see it, especially at 3am. It's a wonder I didn't jump ship there and then and get the night bus home. If Tuymans is Kurtz, then I'm the one in search of him.
The vegetation, the darkness, the woozy patterning and the odd shapes between the figures in what Tuymans calls the "mock-Gauguin" backdrop he is repainting from the movie still are as important as the naked figures that swoon across it. The Doctor walks in front of this backdrop, turning away from us. The shadows in the folds of his clothing threaten to climb all over him, and the way the light catches the back of his blue suit is as much a thin, slithery sound as it is a mass of flickering contours. The naked women beyond look stark and overlit, bleached out by movie lights. This is moments before the hut goes up in an enormous conflagration, but the whole painting looks on the verge of eclipse.
What's background? What's foreground? Allo! is a painting of a movie still, and also a painting of a painting that was made only to be seen in a movie. And Allo! was made for a room that is also a mock-up of Conrad's riverboat. All this is hard to get your head around in the middle of the night, looking for Kurtz on a South Bank rooftop. Allo! is a weird thing to spend the night with. But then, so am I. The horror! The horror!
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