Derek Jarman: Artist, Activist, Gardener, Writer, ‘Cock Sucking, Straight Acting Lesbian Man’

His first major survey since his death in 1994, ‘PROTEST!’ opens with added urgency in today’s political and environmental crises

Artist, activist, gardener, writer, ‘arse licking psychofag, perverted heterodemon, laddish nymphomaniac, cock sucking, straight acting lesbian man,’ (to quote his 1993 film Blue): Derek Jarman is the subject of a posthumous retrospective ‘PROTEST!’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.  

‘PROTEST!’ is the first survey exhibition since Jarman’s premature death in 1994 from an AIDS-related illness, bringing his multiple positions into a comprehensive single oeuvre. In our era of mainstream populism and heightened focus on climate catastrophe, Jarman’s retrospective opens with added urgency. The dystopic Thatcherite context in which much of his work was made is intently mirrored in today’s political and environmental crises.

Derek Jarman, Fuck Me Blind, 1993, oil on canvas, 2.5 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: Amanda Wilkinson Gallery

The retrospective’s surprising strength is in its chronological approach, anchoring Jarman’s work in existentialism and lyric form. Fraught with emotional outpouring yet often frivolous, his coded landscapes, queering of history, protest slogans and pop videos are suddenly all together on display. Together, they build a hot-headed political alchemy, something difficult to imagine prior to this survey, specifically with unexpected resonances between his painting practice and filmmaking.  

One question: why has this retrospective not yet happened in London? In 2008, Isaac Julien curated ‘Brutal Beauty’ at the Serpentine, a survey of Jarman’s work that nevertheless centred around a confusing 8mm multi-projector sculpture (by Julien) that overpowered the content of Jarman’s films. ‘Pandemonium’, curated by Mark Turner at King’s College London in 2014 was a brilliant, research-lead exhibition linking Jarman’s time at King’s to his output thereafter. But it seems the artist’s full trajectory has been too tricky to swallow whole until now. 

Derek Jarman, Flesh Tint, 1990, oil and mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: Amanda Wilkinson Gallery

Jarman was very much part of the establishment, from persuading Nicholas Logsdail to open a gallery in 1967 (what is now Lisson gallery) to giving multiple Oscar winning costume designer Sandy Powell her first break. And yet his insistence on autonomy, antagonizing activism, refusal to be categorized and unruly spurts of output (flitting from pop videos to painting) were an affront to the systems in place at that time. Seán Kissane’s impressive, sensitive curatorial work for ‘PROTEST!’ finally gives one of the most important British artists of the 20th century his due. 

Alongside ‘PROTEST!’, the Derry gallery Void is presenting a parallel programme of Jarman’s ‘GBH’ paintings (1983–84) and 1987 film The Last of England; and his feature films will be projected in their original format at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin in December. The show travels to Manchester Art Gallery in April 2020, where it will be rehung by punk chronicler Jon Savage.

Derek Jarman: ‘PROTEST!’ runs from 14 November 2019 to 23 February 2020. IMMA Dublin.  

Derek Jarman, Blue, 1993, film still, digital prores with sound. Courtesy: © Basilisk Communications; photograph: Liam Daniel 

Ian Wooldridge is an artist based in London, UK, and Zurich, Switzerland. 

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