Here in London we have been having a lot of trouble with pageants. After the riots last August, the state is hoping that summer plans – the Olympics, the Hackney festival – will be distraction from the impoverishment of life and extensive violence done by the conservative government to the Welfare State. Last month the Queen floated down the Thames on a barge – we were assured that the world was watching – and the celebrations were welcome excuse for the Conservative administration to ensure that the city was millitarised and policed to an extraordinary degree. Half-way through her stately progress the barge passed underneath a small boat, perched high on top of the brutal concretes of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, an arts venue on the city’s south bank. The boat – a collaboration of artist Fiona Banner and David Kohn Architects, built by Living Architecture – is named after the boat Joseph Conrad sailed up the River Congo before writing Heart of Darkness and the project – A Room for London/Roi des Belges – seems to have been conceived in the spirit of this dubious tribute. We blogged about it with some incredulity when the news first hit the internet.

Artangel, an innovative London-based commissioning body, invited a series of artists to inhabit the boat. The first of these was technologist and Conrad-enthusiast James Bridle, whose innovation was to set up a weather station and to create ‘a ship adrift’, a log-book for a fictional double for the boat whose movements, determined by weather conditions in London, you could follow on twitter, if you so choose. In February David Byrne spent a comfortable day in the boat, and compiled a rather appealing track from London’s noises. In March artist-curator Jeremy Deller invited a musician, Chuck, to play songs from the boat’s stern to the passing crowds below. In May Fiona Banner invited celebrated British actor Brian Cox to read Orson Welles’s script for his great unmade film of ‘Heart of Darkness’ (the reading, all 157 minutes of it, can be seen here until June 30).

Luc Tuymans, a Belgian artist, was invited by Artangel to produce a painting based on a scene from Conrad’s novel. Tuymans decided instead to base his painting on a still from ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, a 1942 film adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel inspired by the Tahitian adventures of French painter Paul Gauguin:

The particular sequence I’m interested in comes at the end of the film. Strickland, the main character, is already dead. His doctor, who speaks with a thick German accent, travels to Tahiti to visit the village where Strickland used to live. He meets with the local wife of the deceased painter and enters his cabin, which was the working place of the artist. Up to this point, the entire movie is in black and white. But when the doctor enters the space, the film jumps into bright colour.

In Tuymans’s painting – Allo! – a man wearing a suit is seen walking past a large, generic painting of weirdly elegant women. The painting is of a photograph of a still image of the painting in the film taken by the artist from a computer screen. This confusing series of framing devices clearly attempts to deconstruct the image of the ‘exotic’ to the extent that it becomes merely an image of the artist himself: a head – reflected in the computer screen – is visible as an indistinct presence on the ‘surface’ of the painting. Tuyman’s portraits of Patrice Lumumba practice a similar form of mediation, distorting the image through the accidents and subdued intentions of memory.

The insistence that the framing device becomes a totalising subject of the painting – put more simply, how you look defines what you see – is a familiar one within academic discourses about travel literature. The decision not to paint an image based on a fictional text but a painting of a painting from a fictional film inspired by real paintings by Gauguin, inserts pastiche as a defense mechanism against accusations of exoticism. This seems sensible, except perhaps in light of Conrad’s own attempt to do the same. Though he had made a similar journey to the one his novel describes, Conrad decided to place the narrative in the mouth of Marlowe, who tells the story to an unknown narrator on board a ship at Gravesend, the last outpost of ‘civilization’ at the mouth of the Thames. Chinua Achebe’s famous attack on the novel describes this:

It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad’s but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism. Certainly Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator. The primary narrator is Marlow, but his account is given to us through the filter of a second, shadowy person.

I don’t mean to suggest that Tuymans is making the same mistake: in his painting the artist’s own shadowy presence is no more socially determined than the blanched bodies of the women or the intermediate figure standing in the foreground. And, unlike Conrad, the painting is validating its obsession with an unknowable terrain through mediating figures. Tuymans’s painting is interested in the vague and distant exotic which is not known but created in paint; but, given that we in London still have relations with people in distant countries mediated by financial and erotic exploitation, such a deconstruction does not help to map out inter-continental violence.

The most recent celebrity inhabitant was the Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle whose good-humoured account of the day was published last month. The article opens with Searle standing naked at night in front of Tuymans’s painting. Searle describes his approach to the painting on the wall of his cabin: “I sit and drink with it; dance around the cabin in front of it and get undressed with it.” ‘Apocalypse Now’, Francis Ford Coppola’s film relocation of Conrad’s novel to 1970s Vietnam, famously opens with the protagonist dreaming from his Saigon hotel room of forests destroyed by napalm, then freaking out and smashing his mirror. Again and again, these works serve as a mirror in which the distortions of the white male body are seen. Achebe’s essay claims that, for Europeans writing about Africa, ‘the abandonment of unwholesome thoughts must be its own and only reward.’ Tuymans’ painting does not confront the persistent problem of understanding other cultures but distills the image of the exotic into a pure vision of ‘unwholesome thoughts’. Freud believed all dreams of flight – whether aviation or self-exile to the colonies – are fantasies about erections, a phallocentric vision of the unconscious which goes unchallenged here.

Searle remarks that the room ‘is beginning to get to me’ and starts to have fun: “I dance about the cabin, waving my arse first in the direction of the Houses of Parliament …” It’s a shame this fitting tribute to English democracy need be induced by such luxurious detachment; if he were to do the same on the street, the journalist’s expression would be swiftly policed. Searle’s identification with the painting produces an excellent analysis: “Approaching his subject, Tuymans keeps a distance, like someone visiting the sick, hovering near the door in case they might catch something.” He spoke to Tuymans before entering the room, and tells us that the artist “said his painting is his joke on modernism, dealing with fake ideas of the new, the exotic and the colourful.” This mock-mock-Gauguin painting, whose subject has disappeared into the abyss of post-modern self-reference and cannibalising tradition, disputes the idea that art can know anything outside the artist himself. This is a conclusion Achebe identifies in Conrad also:

[I]f his intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator, his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters.

Conrad, writing from ‘literary’ London, was unable to imagine an African subject with language or culture not imposed by imperialism but natural and universal. Achebe says that this is why he cannot consider the novel to be art. And Tuymans’s painting? Searle’s article concludes:

Allo! is a weird thing to spend the night with. But then, so am I. The horror! The horror!

The final declamatory sentences, quoting Conrad’s famous slogan, confirm our original suspicions: this boat is not a special lebensraum for intellectuals but a theme-park attraction profiting from the cultural histories of European colonialism. Amadou & Mariam played a gig there and on BBC Radio 4 Mariella Frostrup had a conversation with some novelists about ‘literary’ London, but there doesn’t seem to have been anyone reflecting on the legacy of Conrad and London’s imperialist past (or indeed its imperialist present). If there’s a problem with Searle’s account, it isn’t lurid enough, and the organisers seem to have failed to invite a more skeptical approach to their project. Tuymans’s bathers belong in a painting but Gauguin was painting women; the distance doesn’t affect the fact of the violence at the heart of the image. The truth is, of course, that you can’t see anything from the boat that isn’t visible on the streets of central London, or at any rate, from the administrated transcendence of the London ‘Eye’.

As Walter Ralegh – the godfather of English colonialism, who spent most of his adult life by the river, sitting in a prison cell in the Tower of London – realised, to his cost, that the golden city of our daydreams is always around the next bend in the river, a paradise Ralegh died after failing to reach. ‘Apocalypse Now’ cuts out the initial scenes in the capital which frames Conrad’s narrative. Narratives which remember (after Sartre) that Hell is trying to occupy someone else’s country must recognise that imperialism starts at home. The site of conflict between the individual in London or Belgium and imperialism is not just in the museum or the gallery, and certainly not in ‘literary’ projects, but in the streets, at home or in the workplace.

Last December, the UK’s Congolese communities descended on central London to protest against the contested elections in the DRC. Protesters demanded that the international community realise its responsibilities in relation to this conflict. Thousands gathered, protesters caused one of London’s most important underground stations to be closed, private property was damaged, other members of the public threatened and 139 people arrested in one day. How could this recent history be admitted into the space? Sammi Baloji’s work, for example, measures the extraction industries in the DRC against the human body, a form of thinking which starts to expose the violence of global industries towards individuals and communities. And which artists and writers have been documenting the network of relations which continue to exact imperialist violence? It will be interesting to see what Teju Cole, whose novel novel Open City made a precise constellation of life and post-colonial history in New York and Brussels, says in his ‘London Address’ from the ship in August.

Inter-cultural encounters do not happen because of lust for adventure or self-knowledge but as inevitable accompaniments to commerce and colonialism. The computer screen which gave Tuymans his image may well have contained coltan, the mineral whose illegal trade by global corporations has helped to finance violent struggle in eastern Congo. Recently, corporations based in America and London have been accused of endangering the precarious political situation in order to exploit the country’s natural mineral resources. As Achebe reminds us, ‘poetry surely can only be on the side of man’s deliverance and not his enslavement’. The real work of art has new maps of material complicity to contend with.

* Photo credit: peripathetic.