Marcus O’Donnell – Derek Jarman’s Queer Resilience

Derek Jarman—Prospect Cottage. Main image, Howard Sooley. Other images Prospect Cottage New Year’s Day 1999, Gordon Thompson

A major retrospective in Dublin, which is set to travel over the next three years, has finally brought together the many aspects of British queer icon Derek Jarman’s career. Marcus O’Donnell talks with the exhibition’s curator, Seán Kissane

Prospect Cottage, a black tar-stained fisherman’s shack with bright yellow window frames and door, on a shingle beach in one of the bleakest parts of England, has become an enduring symbol of an artist’s lifelong attempt to craft poetry out of the everyday. On one wall this is literally writ large: a fading sculptured scrawl traces John Donne’s beautiful poem, The Sun Rising.

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere.

British queer filmmaker, painter, writer, theatre designer and queer activist, Derek Jarman bought the cottage in 1987, six months after he tested HIV positive, and for the last eight years of his life this was the calm centre of his chaotic world.

Prospect Cottage is a miracle three times over. First, the emergence of Jarman’s verdant garden from this desert landscape is completely unexpected and one of the major artworks of his final years. An artist’s stubborn tribute to impossibility. Second, the miracle of love and grief in the years after Jarman’s death as his partner Keith Collins devoted himself to the landscape and to Jarman’s legacy.

And early this year, with the cottage in danger of being sold following Collin’s sudden death in 2018, we saw a third miracle when Jarman’s celebrity friends led by actor Tilda Swinton, crowd-sourced 3.5-million pounds in a matter of months to ensure the cottage will be preserved as an artist retreat.

Jarman’s garden has always been one of his most popular creations, the beautiful picture book, Derek Jarman’s Garden, published just after the artist’s death in 1994, is one of Thames and Hudson’s best-selling books. It has been translated into multiple languages and has a strange crossover appeal where his queer fans and grandma gardeners meet. It is not just the celebrity fundraising campaign that has brought Jarman and his garden back into the public spotlight, 30 years after his death he is now the focus of two new exhibitions. The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin has finally brought together the many aspects of Jarman’s career in a stunning retrospective exhibition and catalogue and London’s Garden Museum staged a smaller exhibition focused on Jarman as a gardener.

Both exhibitions garnered international media coverage with the gardening show, in particular, capturing the imagination of a number of writers under lockdown. Writing in the New York Times in April, Mary Katharine Tramontana, asked: ‘During this coronavirus pandemic, it is perhaps worth exploring what can be learned from Jarman’s act of nurturing plants during his own health emergency. Can the simple, tactile pleasure of pottering in the dirt or watching seedlings sprout comfort us at a time of loss and bewilderment?’

Talking to Tramontana, Stephen Deuchar, one of the team behind the Prospect Cottage fundraising campaign, noted how unusual Dungeness is. Not only is it a rough shingle, or pebble, landscape but in the background rises a sprawling nuclear power station, and a miniature steam train stages another mechanical interruption as it cuts across the headland.

‘It’s as if there’s a contest between the optimism and audacity of plants, and the relentlessness of the shingle,’ Deuchar said. ‘There’s something moving about a small plant that springs up, forging its way to the surface through the stones. It’s what makes his garden—his last great work of art—so mesmerizing.’

Howard Sooley, one of the friends who cared for Jarman in the final years of his life, often spent weekends chauffeuring Jarman from London to Dungeness and became a key collaborator on the garden. A photographer, it is Sooley’s images that have brought the garden to the world. He told Tramonata what a powerful impact the garden had on Jarman:

‘Gardening carries you to a fundamental place of living, rather than doing,’ Sooley said. ‘When he was quite ill, he’d just grow the second we got onto Dungeness, gardening all day like he was breathing air.’

Seán Kissane, the curator who brought the Dublin Jarman retrospective, PROTEST!, to life admits that the breadth and depth of Jarman’s achievement surprised him. It also became his biggest challenge. Because the eclectic artist roved across so many art forms over a busy 35-year career, Kissane says curating Jarman was like herding cats.

It began with a casual conversation with Amanda Wilkinson at a social event soon after her Gallery had taken over the Jarman estate. Kissane had no idea where it would lead, but out of curiosity he set up a time with Wilkinson to look through the work next time he was in London.

‘I arranged to go to her warehouse and there was a team of four guys and they started to unpack all these huge paintings,’ he tells me in a Zoom

conversation from Dublin, where he is, like I am in Melbourne, in lockdown.

‘So, small paintings, huge paintings, things from the 60s, things from the 90s. They were all just coming out in a complete jumble, you know, there was no rhyme or reason. It was just this is this, this is this. And I quickly realized I knew absolutely nothing about Derek Jarman.’

But from that visit the seed of the show was sown. Kissane says: ‘This provoked me to see what I could do’.

In that first visit to Wilkinson’s warehouse, as he looked at the series of slogan paintings Jarman made at the end of his life, rich abstract canvasses with camp slogans—‘Dizzy bitch’ ‘Fuck me blind’ ‘Infection’—he sensed a key idea. He wrote down a working title for a possible exhibition: PROTEST!

‘That was the overwhelming impression I had been left with by my visit to the warehouse. It was of rage and sadness actually, and so it really was just capital letters P-R-O-T-E-S-T exclamation mark; and then it sat there [as a working title] and as the project continued there was no reason to change it.’

As he began to research Jarman’s work Kissane realised that this sense of radical critique was there from the start, in even Jarman’s earliest work.

‘I was finding this sense of responsibility and social engagement, connection to literature, connection to philosophy and a rage against particularly English, social structures, political structures, cultural structures; and that was the overriding theme which I found through all of those cats that I was trying to herd.’

‘My practice as a curator has very much focused on researching around the edges. I really enjoy that kind of process of uncovering things that are really obvious when they’re done but haven’t been done for whatever reason until now,’ he tells me.

This can in a sense mean working blind.

‘So up until the last week of the installation I had no idea was this show any good,’ Kissane confesses with a smile. ‘I was kind of too close to the work and I had no real external feedback. But then the critics came in and their reaction was similar to mine. None of them really knew the full extent of his practice.’

Even just looking through the 300-page catalogue is an adventure. It is a beautiful production bound in mock black leather with gold and red lettering, giving it the impression of one of those medieval alchemical spell books that so fascinated Jarman. It is of course richly illustrated and comes with 18 specially commissioned essays that show off Jarman’s remarkable achievement. I’ve been a Jarman fan since first seeing and writing about his work in the mid-eighties and my library has all of Jarman’s books and films mixed in with several biographies and studies, but Kissane is right, it’s a revelation to see the early paintings, up against the films, the writing, the stage design and the activism. This really is Jarman in a way most of us haven’t seen him before. Not only do we get to see the full scope of his painting—something Jarman never really stopped even when he was more publicly known as a filmmaker—but there is new insight into his working methods and collaborations, his ventures into radical drag, and even a detailed exploration of his private 1200 book library.

Derek Jarman PROTEST! IMMA installation view. Photo Ros Kavanagh

In the first room of the Dublin exhibition visitors were greeted with a 1959 self portrait of a 16 year old Jarman—this Picasso-esque, but strikingly realist portrait, is juxtaposed with the adult filmmaker’s last and most radical work, his film Blue. Blue presents a vibrant shimmering blue screen for 80 minutes—no discernible images and a lyrical soundtrack that ruminates on art, death and love. Made at the end of his life when HIV was playing havoc with his eyesight it is also a hymn to seeing and memory.

This juxtaposition is very deliberate as Kissane explained in a curator’s talk, now available on the IMMA website:

‘The approach for the whole exhibition was to try to always remember this paring when approaching his work,’ Kissane says. ‘Because what you are seeing is the making of an icon, the making of an image and then this work of total iconoclasm, the almost complete destruction of the image. There is also this oscillating, this shifting constantly between figuration and abstraction, stillness and movement, materialism and the mysticism, the body and the soul.’

The PROTEST! catalogue gives a sense of this juxtaposition, but the exhibition design took this further and allowed one type of artwork to bleed into another—creating what Kissane describes as a deliberately overwhelming experience to match the diversity and passion of Jarman’s many art practices. The soundtrack of Blue can be heard in the room of early paintings and Shakespeare’s sonnets from the Angelic Conversation soundtrack bleed into another room of stark black and gold paintings. This seems only appropriate for an early innovator in pop videos, a filmmaker whose work celebrates collage and a diarist who moves quickly from the blazing nightlife of London’s gay disco scene to the silence of Dungeness.

Jarman called the United States ‘the billboard promised land’ which captures a sense of alure wrapped in a sarcastic dismissal. He thought at one point that he might live for a while in New York, and returned there often on visits, but in the end Jarman was distinctly English and his work emerges out of a deep engagement and critique of British life and history

Kissane draws an analogy to Jane Austen.

‘Jane Austen described her writing as being done ‘with a fine brush on a little bit (not two inches wide) of ivory’. What she means is that her entire world emerges from two drawing rooms and the minute observation of the nuances of life within that very limited structure. Jarman said England was his small frame, partly because he couldn’t speak for people outside that frame but also because of the richness of experience that could be found there.’

Like Austen, Jarman drew from his everyday experience but Kissane says he ‘stretched’ this by combining it with a deep sense of history and sense of baroque vision which is often over the top and sometimes even kitsch.

Jubilee one of Jarman’s early features begins in a country garden and we have Queen Elizabeth I with an alchemist, John Dee, who calls forth the spirit Ariel to show the monarch a vision of the future of her kingdom. This vision turns out to be a post-apocalyptic version of punk Thatcherite England. But it is also Bankside—the then rundown area of London where artists like Jarman lived in abandoned warehouses. A spread in the catalogue that mixes images from Jarman’s various studios and residences with stills from Jubilee, gives a compelling insight into how he worked with his own tiny piece of ivory.

‘So, he kind of buys into this National Trust English identity, or cliche of what Englishness is, and then collides it with this kind of Bankside reality. And I guess that’s part of where the tension is,’ Kissane says.

Although Jarman’s life and work was deeply political, 30 years on his films are not as well-known as his garden. The beauty and power of his garden has resulted in what Kissane calls a kind of ‘unintentional middle-class washing’ of a radical artist … Because so many people had this strong sense of him being a gardener … the kind of punk and activist and troublemaker had been erased,’ Kissane says. ‘So, one of the reasons to emphasize the political and the protest was to brush up in a very rough way against this gentler identity because there was also a sense of needing to rebalance that.’

An exhibition about Jarman the troublemaker couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Jarman’s activism grew out of the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the homophobic policies of Thatcherite popularism. It is not hard to find parallels with 2020.

Although the exhibition has been in the making for a number of years the current political climate—the international rise of right wing popularism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the COVID epidemic—has added to the sense of urgency already inherent in Jarman’s work.

‘The Coronavirus and HIV and the way they were handled by Britain and the United States were similar,’ Kissane says cautiously, ‘which is right-wing politicians like Thatcher and Regan putting their heads in the sand and saying, ‘Take personal responsibility. This is not our responsibility.’ And so, you can draw parallels there. I still think it’s a little bit soon to start drawing parallels between coronavirus and HIV/AIDS, but at the same time, government inaction has been the thing which has seen most casualties, and in the case of Trump wilful ignorance.’

We can only speculate what Jarman might be saying about Boris Johnson had he lived. He died well before the onslaught of social media but today you can imagine him having a pretty rousing twitter feed. His book Queer Edward II intersperses his film script with campy queer protest slogans that would get lots of shares and retweets on social media. Kissane says that part of the appeal of the exhibition to younger audiences new to Jarman were the ‘gramable’ moments: with plenty of selfies in front of the big slogan paintings like ‘Fuck me blind’.

Fuck me blind, 1993, oil on canvas, 251.4 x 179 cm, Collection Julia Muggenburg

It’s another example of the multiple ways that Jarman’s work can be read and the multiple audiences it appeals to. His oeuvre embraces everything from a cerebral ‘imageless’ film and work which reaches back into deeply researched histories of strange English alchemists, to paintings of campy slogans and pop video clips for Pet Shop Boys.

The triumph of his posthumous garden book as one of his most enduringly popular works would have thrilled Jarman, who said towards the end of his life that perhaps he should have been a gardener rather than a filmmaker. But Kissane’s deeply researched retrospective under the banner headline PROTEST! would have confirmed for Jarman that he had, at last, actually been understood. He might have laughed that it took some Irish distance to understand this quintessential British artist and, always fond of appropriating a biblical quote, he might very well have muttered something about prophets, honour and their hometown.

PROTEST! Edited by Seán Kissane & Karim Rehmani-White is published by Thames & Hudson RRP $100. The exhibition will travel to the Manchester Art Gallery in mid 2021 and to the Yale Center for British Art in 2024.


Marcus O’Donnell is a writer, visual artist and academic. His fiction, journalism and poetry have been published in periodicals and anthologies including, Verandah, Siglo, Bent Street, New Writing, OutRage, Hard, and The Conversation. He is currently an Associate Professor and Director, Cloud Learning Futures at Deakin University, in Melbourne Australia.

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