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Gay Times March 08 - Issue 354

Issac Julien On Jarman

It's 14 years since Derek Jarman died of an Aids-related illness in 1994, and over 30 years since his debut feature film Sebastiane revolutionised British cinema with its celebration of male homosexuality. But what do we remember of Jarman now that he's gone? Has his work stood the test of time? Film-maker and friend Isaac Julien believes it has, and is curating a retrospective exhibition that aims to reposition Jarman at the heart of 20th-century culture.
"Everyone's heard of Andy Warhol, David Hockney and other artists of that generation," says Julien, "but there's a real danger that Derek Jarman is being forgotten. He was such a powerful, influential personality that, in a sense, the man overshadowed the work. One of the reasons why we felt compelled to do this exhibition was to re-evaluate Derek's artistic legacy, and introduce younger audiences to his work."
The exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery comprises paintings, installations, photography and film, centring on the UK premiere of Julien's new documentary, Derek. "Much of the film is him talking to camera. It's a bit like rubbing the lamp, and out pops the genie. We're also showing a lot of his personal Super 8 movies, which documented the life he was living in the 70s and 80s, fantastic footage of the gay culture of the time."
The world that Jarman recorded (the drag queens and punks, the be-quiffed gay boys and grand old artists who populate his movies) has largely disappeared, along with a whole way of working that Jarman represented. "In a way, Derek marks the end of the tradition of British art cinema," says Julien. "We've moved from an artisanal model, where people like Derek could thrive, to an industrial model, where a director like Terence Davies can't get his films made. The UK Film Council has a vision for British cinema that doesn't include dissentient voices. Derek had the charisma to attract financing and get his projects made, but he was the exception to the rule. It's impossible to imagine films like Sebastiane or Edward II getting made today. This exhibition holds up a mirror to what we're doing in Britain today, and what we've lost."
Jarman thrived on the margins of the film industry and relished his outsider status. He was deeply opposed to what he saw as "assimilationist" gay politics, and loathed any attempt to integrate queers into the social and political mainstream. He reserved particular contempt for Stonewall, and for Ian McKellen, whom he regarded as a political opportunist. Jarman allied himself to Peter Tatchell and OutRage!, and seemed perversely happy under the absurd oppressions of the Thatcher era. One wonders how he would have responded to the legal reforms achieved under New Labour, a party he would surely have hated.
"Derek came from an upper middle-class background, and was very well educated," says Julien. "He didn't feel the need to assimilate himself with mainstream culture in the way other artists might. His approach to politics was always that of the artist; he saw himself as an agitator, not as part of a political process. He was a very egotistical man, and I think he was happier as a lone voice, rather than allying himself to any particular movement."
Inevitably, it is for his work about HIV and Aids that Jarman will be largely remembered. Diagnosed in 1986, when HIV infection meant almost certain death and there were no antiretrovirals, Jarman expressed the rage and despair experienced by his generation. He became hugely prolific, turning out books, films and paintings at an incredible rate, and he left a lasting symbol of his hope for a better life in his celebrated seaside garden at Dungeness, Kent. "Derek was so much more than just an 'Aids Artist'," says Julien, "but he was certainly at the forefront of that experience, and he gave a voice to so many people. He was absolutely fearless and honest in his response to what was happening to him. That's a very important part of his legacy."
Now that Aids appears to be "manageable", at least in the short term, Thatcher and Section 28 are both on the scrap heap, and gay people enjoy greater equality than ever before, has Jarman's relevance waned? What impression will his work make on people too young to remember him? "I don't know," says Julien. "To me, the films still seem incredibly powerful, although I recognise that could be a generational thing. We've shown things like Sebastiane and Jubilee to younger audiences, and they get a very positive response, but I think Derek's lasting value is as a documentarian. Back in the 70s and 80s, he gave us a language to use in terms of film; now what seems to endure is his chronicling of the highs and lows of his life and his circle. He recorded everything, from fabulous drag parties in the 70s to going blind in his final illness, and he put all that into his art. It's a unique record of the period, and it's high time we re-examined it."

Derek Jarman, curated by Isaac Julien, is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from Feb 23rd-April 13th.

Words: Rupert Smith

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