in 2017, derek jarman’s artistic and political vision is more important than ever
The legendary artist and director knew a thing or two about the politics of truth, long before the so-called post-truth era.
Queen Elizabeth I travels in time into 70s to find that Britain has descended into violent anarchy. Her namesake heiress, Queen Elizabeth II, is killed in a mugging and her crown is worn casually by a ringleader of female punk gang. A version of Rule Britannia is performed, with crowd shouting Sieg Heil in the background. Police execute whoever they please just to be killed in a revenge attack. The only safe place is Dorset, which is run by communists, and surrounded by a wall with a fortified border.
These handful of scenes comes from Derek Jarman's 1978 film Jubilee, and almost 40 years on, they still sound artistically daring and downright shocking. Jubilee is frequently labeled a punk film, partly for its aesthetics and partly for the fact that it features appearances from figures prominent in the movement (like the stunning Jordan as the protagonist Amyl Nitrite, and Adam Ant as Kid, and a cameo from Siouxsie Sioux).
Jubilee is indeed a great documentation of a time when punk was still something viciously new and anti-establishment (instead of a cliche and cultural export) but it's also much bigger than that. Jubilee was a political film, it channeled the rage of a generation against the authorities, the establishment and the status quo. If we remove the film's dystopian veil, it's closer to today than one would think: police brutality and mass murders are in the news, and walls are being built around the world to separate the privileged from the rest. Conservatism is on the rise, and the political sentiment of the youth once again is best described as numb rage. Derek Jarman's vision of Britain seems more timely than ever - and so is his stance on being political both in art and life.
Jubilee was a political film, it channeled the rage of a generation against the authorities, the establishment and the status quo. If we remove the film's dystopian veil, it's closer to today than one would think.
Jarman had been a part of London's art scene since 60s. He studied at King's College and the Slade, partied with David Hockney and lived in a warehouse in Blackfriars (now gone) where he first started experimenting with Super8 camera. His first film, Sebastiane, the story of martyrdom of St Sebastian, was filmed in a run down part of Sardinia, with friends bringing props and costumes from London in their suitcases. Openly and excessively homoerotic, Sebastiane was released at the same time as LGBT rights marches were hitting the streets in London. Jubilee followed, taking on punk, anger and violence. Jarman himself described it as a study of violence and a case against its normalisation. "People are used to violence which is cosmeticised and made exciting, and in the Jubilee violence is genuinely unpleasant, and it seems therefore a more violent film," Jarman explained at the time. The film is not only violent but poetic, and at times disarmingly tender - and feminist, with female punk gang unapologetically taking the centre stage.
Jarman has always been outspoken about the struggle for LGBT rights. It was much needed in the era of Thatcherism with its conservative stance on morality and obsession with Victorian values. During an era when the government promoted wholesome families as an ideal, he spoke often of the trauma of social rejection which forced a lot of gay people of his generation into the closet or labeled them outcasts. In 1986, at the start of AIDS crisis, Jarman came out as HIV positive with no fear of social stigma. He frequented LGBT rights marches, and gay rights activist group OutRage! re-enacted one in his film Edward II.
"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," director and writer Neil Bartlett remembered in a piece he wrote for 20th anniversary of Jarman's death. "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 newspaper 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… 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."
In many ways, UK has changed a lot since Jarman died. But his struggle and creative output can't yet be filed away as ancient history yet, as the LGBT right struggle goes on.
Back then the nation's psyche was ruled by tabloids, and over two decades later it looks like it still is. The only difference is that now the scapegoats are no longer punks or homosexuals but immigrants and muslims. For Jarman hatred and mass paranoia have become unlikely artistic tools: he dismantled the venomous myths and rebuilt them into his own liberated and accepting universe. He knew a thing or two about the politics of truth as well, long before the so-called post-truth era. In Jubilee, Amyl Nitrite's favourite hobby was writing and rewriting history, and a poem in The Last of England has an homage to politicians' habitual lies: "What do you see in those heavy waters? Nothing but a bureaucrat from the ministry poisoning the buttercups with a new defoliant. What's that I hear? The sound of Gershwin on his ghetto blaster. What else? The atom splitting. And the whispering? Half-truths spilling from the minister's case wriggling in the sunlight. What are they saying? All's well, no comment. Some of them are silent."
In many ways, UK has changed a lot since Jarman died: same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014, post-Thatcher, we live in a much more equal and accepting place. But his struggle and creative output can't yet be filed away as ancient history yet, as the LGBT right struggle goes on, and with conservatives in power all that's won could be easily taken away. Jarman's work can still teach us a lot about the political role of an artist. His films were often described as arthouse, just another way of dismissing them as too arty, too niche and too personal. Yes they are highly personal works of art, experimental in form, but they shouldn't be treated as irrelevant in political resistance - they plant the seed of a necessary change in perspective. They are an example of a way that culture can shine a light through dark times. Undeniably something we need right now.
It goes hand in hand with Jarman's DIY ethos: we live in a time when less and less people can afford to study and make art, but this is exactly the time when we have to, express ourselves, especially outside the control of the mainstream. Even if all we have is Super8 film, some friends as actors who brought costumes brought to set in their suitcases, we can inspire.
Text Anastasiia Fedorova