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Exhibition Review – Derek Jarman, Art Monthly, Issue 433 (February 2020)

February 10, 2020

‘Derek Jarman: PROTEST!’, Irish Museum of Modern Art Dublin (15 November 2019 to 23 April 2020)

‘The Last of England’, Void Derry (15 November 2019 to 18 January 2020)

Known to many of his friends and collaborators as the Warlock of the West-End, the visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman was a lifelong lover of alchemy. Citing Francisco Goya as his ‘spirit guide’ and William Blake as a ‘presiding angel’, Jarman included among his other idols mavericks such as the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. Rather than overtly provocative, Jarman viewed his proto-queer filmmaking as simply arising out of his social situation – a situation that changed violently during the l980s, amid Thatcherite policies, rampant homophobia, tabloid hysteria and the AIDS epidemic.

Currently showing at IMMA is a major retrospective of Jarman’s work, marking 25 years since his death in 1994 from AIDS-related illness. In April, the exhibition will travel to Manchester Art Gallery, where ‘QUEER: Derek Jarman’ was previously staged in 1992. As well as Jarman’s acclaimed feature films and experimental Super 8s, ‘PROTEST!’ brilliantly draws together strands of his wider practice, from painting and set-design to writing, gardening and activism, with works sourced from a vast array of private and public collections. The gallery layout (sequential spaces leading from central corridors) lends itself to the presentation of works in chronological and medium-specific clusters, commencing with early painting and theatre design and concluding with his ‘Slogan’ and ‘Prospect’ paintings. These assiduous groupings help to make visible urgencies across Jarman’s prolific multidisciplinary practice, most prominently relating to sex, religion, politics, nature and death. These enduring themes are also found in a vitrine of books sourced from his library at Prospect Cottage, while a useful timeline occupies a large wall at the exhibition’s midway point. Jarman’s work defies easy categorisation, yet its capricious qualities are suitably galvanised through the curatorial approach, which permits film soundtracks to bleed between spaces, thus echoing Jarman’s non-hierarchal treatment of artforms.

Placed at the entrance, Jarman’s last feature film, Blue, 1993, sets up an ontological position for experiencing the entire exhibition. The film famously comprises a single monochromatic frame of saturated International Klein Blue. For Jarman, this universal blue ‘transcends the solemn geography of human limits’; it is an open door to the soul, the terrestrial paradise, the ‘universal love in which man bathes’. Blue is darkness made visible. The scripted narration by Jarman and friends combines everyday observations with dreamlike elegies. In witnessing the raw reflections of a dying man, Blue is almost unbearably moving.

From there, we trace the influence of European existential painting across a selection of Jarman’s earlier works. A Sartrean darkness is embodied in paintings like Landscape with Blue Pool, 1967, which uses austere geometry and raw canvas to explore themes of entropy and alienation, pervasive in post-war art. While embodying the cultural trauma of the atomic age, Jarman’s works from this period also demonstrate his attraction to ancient and unknowable landscapes. Paintings like Landscape with Marble Mountain, 1967, and his 1973 ‘Avebury’ series use the accessible medium of collage to sharply render Neolithic stones, plotting them against horizontal and vertical axes, as if mapping deep time. These ideas resonate further in Jarman’s Super 8 film Journey to Avebury, 1971, which documents a pathway leading to the standing stones. Slow and surreal footage in hazy golden hues emphasises the otherness of this ancient landscape, bereft of figures. The film is a precursor to subsequent explorations of occultism in 1970s British cinema, including The Wicker Man, 1973, conflating stone circles with sacrificial rituals.

Other works make visible Jarman’s exploration of sacred geometry. Pyramids appear throughout, including in Garden of Luxor, 1973, where they absorb superimposed images, and Archaeologies, 1977, an engraved slate in which linear projections recall the mathematicians of Ancient Greece. Providing a tantalising and perfectly composed vignette between adjoining spaces is black-and-white footage of Frederick Ashton’s Jazz Calendar at the Royal ballet in 1968, for which Jarman designed the set, comprising Bauhaus-inspired geometric backdrops. Other works like Landscape with Crow, 1967, highlight the use of geometric shapes as alchemical symbols, including triangles (variously denoting the classical elements) and circles, signifying gold – the goal of all alchemical pursuits.

Other modes of alchemy occur in later works, such as the antagonistic assemblages made at Prospect Cottage, incorporating conflicting paraphernalia like crucifixes, blood vials and used condoms. Utilising a weather-proofing material found ubiquitously along the Dungeness coastline, Jarman’s ‘Tar’ paintings entomb various trinkets in a glistening bituminous void, with obvious allusions to tar as a brutal punishment for transgression. However, the ultimate alchemical act is gravely memorialised in One Day’s Medication, 1993, which indexes a cocktail of HIV pharmaceuticals. By this stage, the virus raged fiercely, catching all of his friends ‘like a blue frost’.

Offering an intimate counterpart to the expansive museum show, ‘The Last of England’ at Void in Derry showcased Jarman’s 1987 film of the same name. This dystopic masterpiece charts the social and political disintegration of Thatcherite Britain, as well as the decimation of the body through AIDS. British imperialism is derided throughout, including one antagonistic scene of gay sex on a Union Jack. It seems particularly potent for this work to be screened in Northern Ireland, a post-conflict landscape still at the mercy of Westminster decision-making and where same-sex marriage was only recently legalised. A sense of surveillance, disorientation and paranoia in the film is achieved through non-linear sequences captured with a hand-held camera. Heroin addicts, soldiers and football hooligans feature alongside fire performers, men in drag and a renegade bride and groom, creating moments of anarchy and carnival to dismantle the militarised state. Also shown in a darkened space at Void were four large paintings from Jarman’s ‘GBH’ series,1983–84, their scale, verticality and primal rage engulfing the body. Though well preserved, the paintings’ newspaper surfaces have warped over time, hardening like the leathery parchments of some ancient manuscript.

Designed as an ambient video with a thunderous soundtrack by Throbbing Gristle, In the Shadow of the Sun, 1981, comprises a montage of Super 8 footage from the early 1970s, affectionately described by Jarman as his ‘cinema of small gestures’. Caped ghouls and masked skeletons feature among the pageantry, whose slowed down gestures appear excessively theatrical. Amorphous images seem to simultaneously channel the past and the future – they both reminisce and prophesize. Sun-bleached landscapes, as luminescent as a JMW Turner scene, give way to all-consuming fire. Once the remote vision of dystopian fiction, blazing red skies have become synonymous with environmental Armageddon, currently unfolding in real-time across the planet. The film’s title – a 17th-century term for the philosopher’s stone – offers a useful metaphor for the alchemical properties of Super 8, underscored by the union of light and matter. For Jarman, the spiritual attainment of art was ultimately achieved through alchemy – through a noble transmutation of the world’s raw materials into iridescent words and images.

Joanne Laws is a writer and editor based in the west of Ireland.

Featured Image: Derek Jarman, Journey to Avebury, 1971, Super8 film still; Image courtesy of LUMA Foundation.

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