HMS Belfast, a warship dating from the Second World War, has for the past few decades been moored on the Thames, where it is run as a tourist attraction by the Imperial War Museum. Each year, about a quarter of a million people visit this floating museum, liberally dotted with explanatory texts and filled with mannequins representing various members of the crew, and offering attractions such as Kip-on-a-Ship children’s sleepovers.
The Museum must keep paying visitors happy, explaining HMS Belfast’s role in British military history, showing its scale, speed and firepower – yet all the while not exactly glorifying war. It is something of a balancing act. Splice this with the inspired commissioning of an art installation by artist Hew Locke, creator of high visual drama and subtle political commentary, and something uncommon and exciting is afoot.
Locke was given impressively free rein by Imperial War Museum, and his artwork, called ‘The Tourists’, does not disappoint. His starting point was the discovery that in 1962, HMS Belfast stopped at Trinidad. Significantly, this was during the ship’s last international tour, and only months before Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Britain.
Outside and in, HMS Belfast is mostly battleship grey; it is brutally utilitarian, as it had to be. Locke’s innovation is to dress many of the ship’s mannequins in Caribbean-style carnival masks and costumes, introducing intense splashes of colour and sumptuous-looking materials. A radar-operator has an ornate mask hung with pearls; the ship’s dentist wears a headpiece festooned with gold chains and medallions; the captain is adorned with cerise fabric and multi-coloured flowers. Also, many of the mannequin-crew have been given ornate facial tattoos. In a room dedicated to carpentry, it seems that the men here have turned their skills to making model warships – Belfast is, alarmingly, reproducing itself like a queen bee.
Additions such as these extend into 27 spaces within the nine decks of this vast ship. It is as if a new mood is spreading through the Belfast on its last tour, as it reaches the warmer waters of a soon-to-be-independent country. Could it be that something of the inner life of the crew, usually concealed within a culture of male repression and harsh discipline, is finding its way to the surface? Locke is recommending more rum and less lash, perhaps.
It makes for a curious reversal of Carnival, where groups of revelers in themed costumes dance their way past crowds of onlookers: here, instead, individual visitors process through a delicately paced sequence of art interventions in red-and-pearl, white-and-black-and-beige, crimson-and-floral. Locke has also introduced music, of the kind popular in Trinidad in the sixties, which plays on the ship’s own radio station, and soon starts to syncopate your step and sway your hips.
Any vessel at any time, crossing and re-crossing the globe, serves as a means of trading goods, ways of life, disease, DNA – and, in the case of a warship, shot and shell. But whereas a former colonial power such as Britain will even now expect these exchanges to be heavily in its favour, Locke’s HMS Belfast expresses a cross-pollination of a different kind. His ship is a register of a loss of sovereignty; he seeks a post-colonial dawning, an arrival of awareness.
The high spirits on HMS Belfast are double-edged, however. In keeping with the traditions of Carnival and Mardi Gras, Locke’s masks and headdresses are full of skulls and skeletons. Six skulls sit atop a sailor’s wide-brimmed hat; the dentist’s gold chainery is draped over a tiny, grimacing skeleton; the masks and other adornments on the mannequins do not hide the true nature of this tourist destination, with its masquerade of smiling ticket-sellers and upbeat displays. HMS Belfast is – all things said and done – a ship that could dispense death, and potentially a tomb of war. The men who served in such a ship knew they would die immediately in their hundreds if it received a direct hit. They were, of necessity, fatalists to a degree and, whenever they got ashore – man, was it time to party.