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May 04 2012

Adrian Searle encounters … Luc Tuymans's Allo!

The Guardian art critic journeys deep into the heart of darkness with Tuymans's Gauguin-themed painting, displayed in A Room for London, the boat perched on the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Gallery: cast adrift in A Room for London

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! © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 15 2012

A Room for London – review

A small vessel perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall has become London's most coveted hotel room

The river Thames has a way of defeating plans for its jollification. For decades architects have looked on its great, tempting emptiness and felt an irresistible urge to propose beaches, inhabited bridges, lidos, zones for festivals fluttering with pennants and balloons, places to promenade as if it were the edge of the Mediterranean. In the 1980s Richard Rogers imagined an archipelago of pleasure, with the forms and construction methods of oil rigs remade into towers and pinnacles of fun. Most recently, the architects Gensler proposed the floating hospitality suite they called the London River Park.

Mostly these plans don't happen. The river flows on, lugubrious and imperturbable, which is possibly because, as Joseph Conrad observed, it is not really a fun sort of thing. "And this also," he wrote in Heart of Darkness, "has been one of the dark places of the earth," as he embarked on that book's journey into forms of savagery that lay beneath a veil of civilisation. For him it was the "sleepless river" of a "monstrous" and "brooding" city. "What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river," he also wrote, "into the mystery of an unknown earth!"

One Thames project that has happened is A Room for London, a boat-like object perched high on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth hall at the Southbank Centre, as if stranded there by a receding deluge. Where many Thames proposals want to put things of land on to water, this puts something riverine – a boat – on to land. It is a temporary structure, a cross between building and sculpture, by the architect David Kohn and the artist Fiona Banner. It contains a single hotel room which anyone can in theory book, if with rather more difficulty than Olympic tickets. When nights for the first six months were made available they sold out in 12 minutes; the next batch goes on sale on Thursday (at £120 a night).

This little space is the production of an impressive array of cultural impresarios: the Southbank Centre, Artangel, and Living Architecture, the organisation set up by the writer Alain de Botton to build beautiful new houses which can be rented for holidays. It comes, like many cultural projects in 2012, with an Olympic tag, being officially part of the cultural Olympiad. As well as paying guests, writers, artists and musicians have been invited to stay there, and be creative.

From the outside the jaunty vessel seems to fall within the "fun" category of Thames projects. It juts perkily into the void, and three little wind turbines, like displaced propellers, whirr on the top of a triangular rig. It is a toy, palpably and deliberately incongruous. It is a folly. But it turns out that its makers also had Conradian ambitions. The boat is called the Roi des Belges, after the vessel in which Conrad himself sailed up the river Congo, in the journey that would inspire Heart of Darkness. Inside there is a cabinet containing old maps of the Thames and the Congo, in reference to the parallels that Conrad made between the two rivers. An octagonal table and a box of dominos echo similar objects described in the master's novels.

There are other inspirations. The intricate house and museum of the architect Sir John Soane is cited by David Kohn as a help in designing the "episodic" sequence of small spaces that are inside the boat, as you progress from a little vestibule to a galley, to a bedroom that opens up to penthouse views of the river, bracketed by the Palace of Westminster to the left, and St Paul's Cathedral to the right. Alongside the river maps there is a copy of a drawing by Soane's collaborator JM Gandy that shows Soane's Bank of England as if it were a Roman ruin, and which might be taken as a comment, if desired, on financial calamity, or on the fragility of civilisation described by Conrad. Kohn also mentions the baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor as an influence, even though his heavy white stone churches would come top of most lists of Structures Least Likely to Float. The spire-like superstructure of A Room for London refers to these churches, and to the spires of London in general.

The main point, says Kohn, is to combine the intimate and the epic, in a way not unlike the relation of domesticity to vastness that you get in boats. "The interiors feel comfortable and you know what to do there, but it's not just an easy or twee kind of comfort. You are connected to the Thames, to a wider world, also to what one thinks of the world. You have a relationship to disputed, uncertain territory."

In all this the intention was to avoid kitsch and creating a one-line joke. The timber-lined interior, stained in places in rich pinkish-red, is not pushed to the point where it is literally boat-like in every detail, but rather seeks other architectural qualities, which is where the influence of Soane comes in. It was also important to Kohn and Banner that the structure was exactingly well made, by the specialist company Millimetre. "It is solid; it has a kind of earnestness," says Kohn, which keeps it away from being a stage set.

And so the lucky purchasers of nights in the hotel room, the intellectual aesthete's equivalent of Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, will be able to contemplate the "venerable stream" much as Conrad's characters did in the cruising yawl Nellie. At sunset they will be able to watch the gloom "become more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun". They can, should they want to, think their thoughts about the world and their place in it.

A Room for London is small, and temporary, and will only be fully enjoyed by a few people. It is not a prototype for future Thames-side development, and offers no solutions to the problems of urban regeneration. It may, even, not quite match the fathomless profundity of its inspirations, being rather an enjoyable and well-made jeu d'esprit. But I have a feeling it will give satisfactions that other Olympic projects will not match: it is intelligent, witty, pleasurable, and is based on observing its surroundings as they actually are, rather than imposing a bombastic idea of what they should be. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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