For the last few weeks, a small wooden riverboat has been perched atop the roof of London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. It looks dangerously close to the edge, as if about to be pushed from the heights into the Thames running down below. Conceived by David Kohn Architects and contemporary artist Fiona Banner, this modest vessel is the latest coup of art commissioning agency Artangel, in collaboration with Living Architecture and Southbank Center.
The sedentary ship is an invitation au voyage anchored in the heart of the capital — and it is yours for just $460 per night. It hosts a bedroom and a small library with sweeping views over the House of Parliament, stretching to the London Eye and the city beyond, as well as a logbook to record observations made during any imaginary travels. "It is right in the center of London, in a very restless place on the edge of the Thames," says Banner, "but at the same time it is very much apart from London, and will create a particular scenario, especially for the people who are staying there for several nights."
Dubbed "Le Roi des Belges," this incongruous addition to London's fleet is inspired by the ship that took Joseph Conrad from the British capital to the River Congo in 1890, and by his novel, "Heart of Darkness," born out of the trip. Conrad's most famous book has been controversial, understood by turns as advocating or critiquing the colonial system. By referencing it, Kohn and Banner's architectural intervention — which is part of London 2012 Festival, the city-wide art extravaganza coinciding with the Olympic Games — subtly inserts some grit into what is sure to be a well-oiled self-congratulation machine. "We were mindful that we were being asked to do this during the Olympic year and that [the project] is in part funded by the Olympics," said Banner. The team was able to "create some space for people to talk about nationalism, and globalization, which is not necessarily the straightforward, celebratory way people approach the Olympics," she continued. The ship is "a suggestion that there might be a more reflective, and complex way of looking at those things."
"In its time, 'Heart of Darkness' had parallels with what was going on in the world, it is basically a story of power gone bad," Banner continued. "That book provides quite an uncomfortable lens through which we look at ourselves, and it ricochets through generations and through history." Some of these questions might be explored by the international artists, writers, and musicians who have been invited to spend time on "Le Roi des Belges," including Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Jeremy Deller, and Laurie Anderson. "In many sense the project is really just at the very beginning at this point," Banner said. "It will reach its conclusion at the end of the year, when these people have stayed and performed the works that they've made on the boat."
Banner is also plotting the "world premiere" of Orson Welles's script for "Heart of Darkness." It was written in 1939 and was to be Welles' first feature film, but it didn't get the green light from RKO Radio Pictures and was never shot. "I've been working with the script for a long time, and it is quite key to my involvement in the project," explains Banner. "I think that on the eve of fascism in Europe, it was considered too contentious. Welles, then more than ever, was interested in complex political material, and in the democratization of art. He used 'Heart of Darkness' to look at the world of the late 1930s. It was another moment in which parallels were drawn." Held on March 31, Banner's version of Welles's script will involve a several-hour-long performance of the entire script by a single actor. It will be screened live at the Southbank Center and on the Internet, and will be available online thereafter, like most of the performances and podcasts created on the ship.
Next week, "Le Roi des Belges" will set off with Vasquez's three-day residency. "The ghosts of Kurtz and Marlow will mingle with the million ghosts of London, which is not a city, but a metaphor," he says. "In my days on board, I hope to discover what it stands for."