At the risk of sounding like Golden Girl Sophia Petrillo…picture it. Glasgow, February 1992. A young (ish) media studies student is tasked with the assignment of writing a collection of pieces about the representation of a current topic in the media.
I chose how HIV and AIDS were being portrayed as EastEnders had just introduced soap’s first HIV positive character, Mark Fowler (played by Todd Carty). This caused headlines galore, reflecting the views of those who deemed it inappropriate family viewing and people worried that the show would trivialise an important issue.
At the time, the artist/director Derek Jarman was pretty much the only high-profile figure in the country who was open about his HIV status. Although I wasn’t overly familiar with him, my flatmate was a massive fan.
Oddly, I had already encountered Jarman the previous year at the Edinburgh Film Festival premiere of his latest film, Edward II. Due to a family bereavement, my flatmate couldn’t attend, so I went instead. Spotting Jarman in the foyer, I trooped over and explained my mate’s disappointment, hoping I might get a signed a napkin or something to take back. Jarman did way better than that, marching directly to the merchandise table, signing and then handing me a glossy book about the making of the movie. As a sidebar, I also loved the film.
Fast forward six months, and a retrospective exhibition of works by Jarman was being premiered at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow. This fit perfectly with my university project, so I pushed my luck a second time and, following a call to the gallery, I was allowed 10 minutes with the celebrated artist to conduct an interview for my project.
In all the years since completing my (now, frustratingly lost) course project, I hadn’t listened to the C60 cassette with the full Jarman interview. But, after looking round the new PROTEST! exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, I revisited the tape. Much of it still feels relevant today, so I’m going to weave some quotes from Jarman through my thoughts on the current retrospective.
PROTEST! features the range of Jarman’s practice as a painter, writer, filmmaker, set designer and political activist, covering his entire career from early self-portraits in the 1960s to his last works in the early 1990s. These later pieces reflect his hospital treatments and form the bulk of the 1992 exhibition, as Jarman told me back then: “The paintings deal with simple imagery like rings, thermometers, pillboxes, drips, prayer books. It’s like an archaeology site for illnesses.”
Jarman made explicitly political art and films against the backdrop of Section 28. Enacted in May 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, it stated that a local authority should not promote or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.
Jarman was extremely clear about how he saw his role. “I don’t want to come across as a mad do-gooder who only announces their HIV status to help other people. I did it primarily for myself because it’s not good to live your life in secrecy. I had no alternative than to cope with this.
“The other thing that happened to a certain extent was that I took on the role as a public spokesperson and, in a way, the battle to raise awareness became quite a life-affirming thing.”
He added: “Of course, as a privileged filmmaker, my life is very different and I’m in a much better position than, say, someone who is 18 and on assistance.”
PROTEST! includes booths where you can watch some of the music videos Jarman directed and his 1993 film Blue featuring voices, including that of regular collaborator Tilda Swinton, which describe his life and vision. The film was released just four months before Jarman’s death from AIDS-related complications.
After being diagnosed with HIV in December 1986, Jarman was hospitalised several times, but he remained open about every stage of his prognosis as well as incorporating his experiences into his art.
“Just admitting publicly that I have HIV and being seen to have survived for five years now, gives hope because, at first, people were told they had two years,” he told me. “Now it’s about eight and further down the line it might be longer still.”
He continued: “If someone’s ill, it’s the worst thing to ask how they’re feeling. Illness is such strange territory. When I was really ill with TB and all these killer diseases and felt just ghastly, it never entered my mind that it was going to kill me. I didn’t think I was dying. It was very odd.”
Jarman moved to Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent in the shadow of the infamous nuclear power station, where he created a unique garden. Not only does PROTEST! feature landscape paintings from the cottage, but Manchester Art Gallery will also be working with the LGBT Foundation and its Pride in Ageing initiative to develop an urban garden for the gallery, creating a much-needed new space for creativity and well-being in the city.
With UK countries feeling more splintered than ever, Jarman also had some interesting thoughts on devolution.
“I’m all for independence and not just for Scotland but also for Wales and if I could break Cornwall off, I’d do that too. Small is beautiful. What’s the point, as a European community, of being stuck with having to go down to Westminster? It’s geriatric. I also have to be a fan of Scotland because they didn’t vote for Thatcher. They seem much more switched on.”
At the preview of the exhibition on that evening so long ago, despite being surrounded by media and the art community, Jarman came over to catch up with me, but to also say hello to my dumbfounded flatmate and pose for pictures.
Later that year, I posted Jarman a copy of my completed university project (which received a distinction). A couple of months later, I received a postcard direct from Prospect Cottage congratulating me on the finished assignment. I still have it.
Today, this final quote from Jarman seems incredibly poignant. “I don’t believe in any form of afterlife. In fact, the idea of having to carry on is a nightmare. The idea of having to go through eternity is a horrible thought. I’m all for people making decisions about when they go.”
Main image: Derek Jarman, image taken by Drew Tosh in 1992.
PROTEST! a major retrospective of the work of Derek Jarman is on at Manchester Art Gallery until April 10, 2022. For more information, visit the website.
Jarman at HOME, a showing of all Jarman’s feature films and shorts, is on from January 30 to March 10, 2022.