Derek Jarman, 20 years after his death

Celebrating Derek Jarman 20 years after his death

To kick off year-long celebrations of the life and work of film director Derek Jarman on the 20th anniversary of his death, Neil Bartlett explains why he will be holding an all-night party-vigil in King’s College London’s chapel

Neil Bartlett
The Guardian, Friday 24 January 2014 13.30 GMT

Derek Jarman in 1968 in Islington, London. Click to enlarge. Photograph: Ray Dean

Anniversaries are strange things. They are meant to fix time in its proper place, but sometimes they seem to do just the opposite, bending and distorting it instead. Although I know for a fact that it is now a full 20 years since Derek Jarman died, I’m still finding this particular anniversary hard to credit. Is it really possible that somebody so productive and disruptive, so loquaciously and outrageously alive, can now be that distant?

Jarman’s films – and later, his activism – were crucial points of reference in my generation’s struggles to endure and enjoy life. Even before I had the good fortune to meet him in person, I intuited that here was a true ally, fighting in much the same way as I and my friends and colleagues were to find a way through some very dark times. Looking back at that era across the space of 20 years, I am powerfully aware that it feels irrecoverably like another country. From 1976 to 1994 – from the lyrical obscenity of Jarman’s Sebastiane, say, to the hard-won serenity of his Blue – London was a harsh, vivid and violently homophobic place. The imagery and energy of Jarman’s work reflected that.

But now – ding dong, the witch is dead. Clause 28 is (mostly) forgotten, the flea markets are shiny with redevelopment, the derelict warehouses have all acquired penthouses, and Dave and Boris and the Evening Standard compete to see who can go the most moist-eyed with sincerity at the prospect of gay marriage. If you weren’t there at the time, it seems impossible that the city that produced those films ever existed. Indeed, it now sometimes feels as if the phantasmagoric rebellions of Jarman’s Super-8 universe can only ever have existed inside his own head. Death and time have conspired to rewrite his films, turning them into elegies for a lost world, one fast receding beyond the reach of memory.

But elegies are exactly what those films aren’t – or, at least, not in any straightforward sense. Of course, film is always an art of memory, always commemorating what vanishes in the moment that the frame is exposed, and Jarman’s productions did that gleefully, prioritising fragmentation and ruin and escape over the tidy consolations of story, character and resolution. But the fragments that he shored up against our collective ruin – of Shakespeare, Dee, Marlowe, Caravaggio, Britten, Wittgenstein – weren’t ever being simply hoarded or mourned. The films – like his garden on the shingle of Dungeness – were resolutely and relentlessly anti-nostalgic. He was urgently interested in the here and now; his costume dramas all happen in the present tense. No matter how angry or sad it is, his work is always positive.

And it wasn’t just the films. In 1989, I worked with Jarman to help him create an installation in the main gallery of the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow: it 1989 was the height of Aids mania, with headlines screaming daily about infected blood and proposals to quarantine the “victims” of the plague. Derek responded to an invitation to address this hysteria by lining the gallery with a set of tarred and feathered mattresses loaded with the traces of queer love-making and then framing them against wallpaper made from Xeroxed, blood-spattered front pages. In the middle of all this he then constructed a makeshift barbed-wire cage that imprisoned and protected a pair of apparently naked lovers – usually a pair of handsome, sleeping boys, but for one afternoon at least Tilda Swinton dropped by, just to make the point that the boys didn’t have an exclusive stake in or artistic rights to this crisis. Between the walls and the cage, the air of the gallery was thick with tension and hatred – sometimes literally so, as visitors to the gallery objected vociferously to what they were seeing. Several times, people demanded that the show be closed down by the police lest it be inadvertently witnessed by any passing families with children. Through all of this, Jarman remained a constant, cheerful presence, refusing to hide away backstage, and answering both attacks and questions with compassion, patience and dogged good manners. Later that night, he took everybody involved out to dinner, and then the gentlemanly patience dissolved into gossip, laughter and outrage as the dinner carried on loud and late into the night. Later, in his diaries, he wrote about how much that installation and the response to it cost him – but you would never have known it.

It would be so easy, after all these years, simply to wax nostalgic, lyrical even, about the good old bad old days, when we knew who our enemies were and all was radical and exciting. I’ve heard it done, and have even been asked in my capacity as innocent bystander and sometime participant in their struggles if I miss those days. Short answer: no – there were too many funerals. Longer answer: to look back with too much fondness would be to betray the dead and their achievements entirely. It would also be to misread how much the world has changed. The specific brutalities of the homophobic 80s and 90s may be behind us, but the new brutalities of recession are very much with us – and are being reflected in contemporary gay life. Look under the shiny surface of queer London and you will find dark undercurrents of hopelessness, rising HIV infection rates, and an often ignored but all-too-common refusal of social attitudes to fall in line with progressive legislation. What we all need to remember about Jarman is his capacity for work; his appetite for radical beauty, and his relentless energy and skill in improvising confrontation; his very English insistence that resistance is always possible, that laughter and anger are always wise, and that the best way to make a movie, an installation or an exhibition is probably not to work on your marketing strategy but to grab a camera, a bucket of paint and some friends.

Jarman took his first steps towards becoming an artist while studying at King’s College London, and this week sees his old haunt kicking off a year-long celebration of his life and work that is going to spread across the city under the banner Jarman2014. The list of events, conferences, talks, screening and exhibitions is testament to just how diverse an artist he was. Highlights include the most comprehensive ever UK season of screenings of his films at the BFI, the reissue of a long-unavailable book of poems, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth (Test Centre), and a rare chance to see inside Prospect Cottage, the lovingly constructed living and working space that was the heart of his famous garden. King’s itself is staging Pandemonium, an immersive exhibition that uses rarely seen Super-8s and Jarman’s exquisite private notebooks to chart his journey down the Thames from his student haunts to the pioneering warehouse homes he created in Bankside and Butler’s Wharf.

The college is also hosting Early Modern Jarman, a conference exploring links between his undergraduate studies and the creative uses to which he put his love of early English art and writing in the challenging political and sexual contexts of his later life. Like the man himself, the programme of events is almost bewildering, a switchback ride between punk and masque, nightlife and horticulture, outrage and Outrage.

My own contribution is a quiet one. King’s have asked me to create a memorial to their infamous ex-student, and on the night and day of 31 January (which would have been his 72nd birthday), I am taking over the college chapel for 24 hours and adding a temporary monument to the marble and stained-glass testaments to the great and the good that line its walls. The chapel at King’s is one of the hidden treasures of London, a glittering Gilbert Scott interior suspended half way between the Thames and the Strand in the very heart of the campus. It is a space that Derek must have known well as a 19-year-old student, and it seemed right that he should be honoured in a place that is at once so hidden and so public.

I am using some of Jarman’s favourite materials: dark, light, silence and film. For 24 hours the chapel will house a continuous, free, come-as-you-please screening of his 1985 film The Angelic Conversation. It is an introspective, even fragile, picture of his obsession with endangered love, made a year before his diagnosis with HIV, and he is on record saying that it was a personal favourite in his catalogue. I am sure some people will drop in on their way home after work and watch the whole thing; some people, I hope, will drift in in the early hours of the morning and see the chapel empty except for the flicker of Jarman’s haunting images and the echo of the film’s extraordinary soundtrack, which mixes Benjamin Britten and Coil with the inimitably intimate rasp of Shakespeare read by Judi Dench. I want the night to be a bit like that long-ago one in Glasgow – long, sexy and slightly disreputable. I am sure the silence of the chapel will assert itself too, reminding us that staying up all night, whether it is done on a heath or in a club or at a vigil, is always a kind of meditation.

Almost every piece of film or video he ever made is going to be screened; there are new books and chances to see previously unexhibited notebooks and designs. There will be conversations, conferences, lectures – and trips to his famous garden. After 20 years, it is time to celebrate what he did. And time, perhaps, to stay up late one night, and wonder where all that energy went, and where it might provoke or inspire us to go next.