Who was it again that wrote every time he came to Brussels, he had to think of the plundered richness of the Congo on which this city was built? From Park Cinquentenaire, to the stately avenues Louise and Tervuren, King Leopold II’s Museum for Central Africa, and the many other buildings, sculptures and squares across town, which directly or indirectly remind us of the country’s colonial past. It’s a valid reflection that makes the capital of Europe a perfect setting for Radek Szlaga’s (°1979, Warsaw) exhibition All the Brutes. The exhibition consists of a selection of works from his on-going series, which digs into Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902). This book has become the textbook example in colonial studies of a caricatured depiction of Africa.
The best-known adaptation of the novel is of course Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematographic masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979), which trades the Congo River for the Nung, and searches for the heart of darkness in the jungles of Vietnam. Szlaga drags Conrad’s narrative back to Brussels where the river has been covered for nearly 150 years. The fact that the artist is Polish might be an autobiographical detail, but to some extent explains his fascination with Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, a Pole who wrote better English than most native speakers and reinvented himself – just like his character Kurtz did in the novel as an ivory trader, or in Coppolla’s translation as an exemplary officer who becomes a sectarian war poet/demigod.
In case any Belgian viewers might object to a body of work dealing with the Congo that’s painted by an artist who has never been to Africa, let’s remind ourselves that Leopold II never placed a foot on Congolese soil as he uprooted it. Besides, neither The Congo nor Conrad’s book is the main subject of Szlaga’s journey.
In one of his paintings, a diptych, Szlaga tries to catch the enigmatic character that could have been Kurtz, depicting an ivory trader shielded by two giant tusks and surrounded by his private troops. The trader’s image is painted three times in similar compositions, as if to evoke the impossibility of fully grasping the complexity of this character or his history. Next to this, Dennis Hopper, Martin Sheen and other Coppolla recruits are recognizable in an image taken from the film. The first work might evoke a scene from the film as well. It is based on a picture of an archetypical English colonialist whom Szlaga imagined Kurtz might have looked like. The image illustrates the variety of sources he brings together in this body of work: from old colonial footage, stills from the movie, external references like mug shots of convicts in Detroit (where his parents emigrated) and the documentary that brings forward the behind the scenes ‘making of.’ This includes a moment where we see Coppola holding a gun to his head. Coppola’s portrait hangs next to those of historical figures like Leopold II and Conrad himself, but also to portraits of for example Kurtz and the actor Robert Duvall playing Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. Again, the line between reality and fiction is blurred as various layers of representation filter through it.
The left side of the diptych is covered in a thick layer of white paint that says: “ALL THE BRUTES.” This is a quote Szlaga borrows from the title of a book by Sven Lindquist, which is taken from a scene in Apocalypse Now. The words are rendered in a style of text driven stencils most often attributed to the aesthetics of American painter Christopher Wool. In other works, Szlaga paints one of Wool’s paintings into a painting. The original work takes a quote from Apocalypse Now (“Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids”) and puts it to canvas, something Szlaga in his turn appropriates in several of his paintings.
Suddenly, we’re close and far from the Congo at the same time as Szlaga explores how this text has become engrained in our collective imaginations and what Conrad was referring to in his classic line: “The horror, the horror.”
Approaching a subject from its echoes, reflections and various interpretations can be more revealing then going for “the real thing” – which is, by the way, impossible in his case, as he refers to a closed- off historical period that is only reachable through secondary sources. Szlaga continues this game of filtering images and quotes. This approach is crucial to his practice, and has visual ramifications. While in earlier works, he uses green in a gestural way to wrap historical portraits into ambiguous forest landscapes – as a reference to his compatriot Wilhem Sasnal – in the more recent ones, he uses a blurry, red filter, like the rivers of blood spilling down the Congo River. This is another way of distancing himself from the original source material. This series is not about Heart of Darkness, it is a ‘Luc Tuymansish’ reflection on the medium of painting, the status of the image and the horror of reproduction – whether that is another painting, a found picture from the internet, a movie still or a text that shapes our perception of history and future. Though technically he is perfectly capable of doing so, Szlaga is not interested in making identical copies of his source material. He wants to emphasise the materiality of his medium, which explains the many stains, thick layers of paint, expressionist brushstrokes, drippings, cut outs and deliberately unfinished parts of certain compositions.
The action of painting itself is referenced frequently as Szlaga injects paintbrushes, cans of paint, and painters painting, another way to disrupt the mimetic illusions of his medium. This is reinforced by applying different pictorial styles as subjective approaches to different sources; an almost pure abstraction that creates a visual break and opens up the coherence of the body of work, while simultaneously avoiding the trap of making a literal illustration of the novel.
Szlaga goes from the heart of darkness to the dark heart of Europe. His mission is not to capture a derailed ivory trader or colonel, but to face horror while embarking on the adventure of painting. And that is already risky enough.