‘Derek Jarman Protest!’: autobiography and abstraction

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I finally realised my parents were epic when they told me about Derek Jarman. They described him as a ‘subversive eroticist visual craftsman’ and showed me pictures of his apocalyptic garden in Dungeness, Kent. I was sold. This guy is cool, and if my parents like him, then I suppose they must be too. Just last month, they took me to see an exhibition about him at the Manchester Art Gallery. 

I had been told a lot about Blue (1993), which we came across towards the end of the display. Released four months before his death, by which time he was partially blind and saw everything only in shades of blue, the film consists of just one image: a square of ‘International Klein Blue’, accompanied by a rambling narration from Jarman and Tilda Swinton, among others. It’s the poem at the end which perhaps feels most autobiographical: 

“Shell sounds whisper / deep love drifting on the tide forever / the smell of him / dead good looking/ in beauty’s summer / his blue jeans / around his ankles / bliss in my ghostly eye / kiss me / on the lips / on the eyes / our name will be forgotten / in time / no one will remember our work / our life will pass like the traces of a cloud …”

They described him as a ‘subversive eroticist visual craftsman’ … I was sold

Indeed, for me it keenly recalls a passage in Jarman’s memoir: Dancing Ledge (1984), about an encounter on the ‘beach on which Caravaggio died’ in 1971: 

“When I drew closer I saw a young man lying in its shadow and as I passed his eyes met mine and sleepily followed me up to the dunes at the top of the beach… we lay together under the sun for an hour … [then I] walked slowly back through the Frisbees and Ambre Solaire, castles and buckets and spades to find the family.”

I felt Blue was Jarman’s continued exploration of a very personal and particular experience of embodiment. His embodiment was one that he had begun discovering and describing on Caravaggio’s beach. But it wasn’t only sexual: the abstraction of voice from person seems to mimic Jarman’s experience of emotional dissociation from his body as he suffered from AIDS. It’s excruciating and gruesome — but of course it is — as the artist put it: “no ninety minutes could deal with the eight years AIDS takes to get its host,” necessitating such an arresting style.

Blue might be the most ambitious work in the exhibition, but I also found it the trickiest and didn’t stay to watch the whole thing. What I liked the most was the footage from the Alternative Miss World pageant, a drag show Jarman and his friends put on every year. This was ingeniously juxtaposed next to a display of Jarman’s designs for ballet sets and costumes, seeming to cast the models as performance artists, either dancers or dramatis personae, as they walked around. 

Like so much of Jarman’s work, Alternative Miss World is both an artistic and a social pursuit, and this was what I found particularly thrilling about it. If you look closely, you can identify faces from his other films: The Angelic Conversation and Sebastiane. I loved that the exhibition showed the metafictional relationship between Jarman’s friendships, subject matter and method. 

Like so much of Jarman’s work … Alternative Miss World is both an artistic and a social pursuit

My brother once told me that creative experience and emotional experience are the same thing, and I think Jarman would have agreed. I suppose it’s not that controversial to say most art is autobiographical. That said, Jarman’s films feel particularly personal, so watching the footage in the exhibition felt almost voyeuristic. I really felt like I knew him deep down. I thought I knew, for instance, that he was a bit in love with all of his subjects, that he wanted to understand them personally, and that filming them was both an obsession and a release.

I knew that he used a camera — even a rubbish Super-8 camera — to capture and possess what he loved, envied and would lose to AIDS at the age of 58. I knew that making art was the centre of his social and emotional life. I knew that he was a narcissist — that even though most of his projects were collaborations, at the end of the day, he wanted everyone to know it was all about him. And it is, obviously. Everything in every piece of footage is about him, and he remains instantly recognisable. 

Illustration:
Image: It’s No Game via Flickr

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