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Will Ballantyne-Reid on Derek Jarman's THE GARDEN (1990)

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Still from ‘The Garden’, courtesy of Basilisk Communications

Derek Jarman’s The Garden (1990) is a film that unites central themes within his work: religion and mysticism, ecology, homosexuality, and a critique of ‘heterosoc’ as upheld and undersigned by state institutions such as the government, law enforcement, the Church, and marriage. Produced by James Mackay, who had met Jarman through the London Filmmakers’ Co-op in 1979, The Garden was created in response to Jarman’s personal experience of the AIDS epidemic. Following his diagnosis with HIV in 1986, Jarman had uprooted his life from London to Prospect Cottage in Dungeness and this landscape provides the backdrop for much of the film, which was shot on location with a budget of £380,000. In considering Jarman’s manipulation of formal elements, we may perceive how this film echoes and embodies the breakdown of boundaries, bodies, and identities so intrinsic to the impact of the crisis. HIV-AIDS is a virus that contradicts traditional notions of infection and disease; upon first entering the blood system, it is not perceived as a foreign body, and thus fails to be identified and attacked by one’s antibodies. Retroviruses, such as HIV, insert a DNA copy of their genome into the host cell in order to replicate, requiring the body to battle its own host cells, thus putting the body at war with itself. Nicoletta Vallorani has written that “the filmic equivalent of this contradiction is [...] a cinema fighting itself.” Approaching The Garden from this perspective, Jarman’s filmic doing and undoing – its destabilising composition, feverish tableaux, and rejection of cinematic conventions – creates an echo of this retroviral contradiction.

Still from ‘The Garden’, courtesy of Basilisk Communications

This is a film that battles narrative and subjective conventions. Whilst one narrative thread follows a young and handsome gay couple as their romantic relationship descends into persecution and punishment – arrest, torture, and eventual execution – the film is also non-linear, intercut throughout by episodic visions based on Jarman’s own kaleidoscopic reference material and the hysterical reaction of media and state bodies to the AIDS crisis. The narrative core of the film is seemingly besieged, and we might say compromised, by an endless stream of visions; feverish and discombobulating, and beyond the viewer’s control. From religious imagery and political marches, through to popular culture and camp, intermixed with Jarman’s own archive footage of the apocalyptic landscape in Dungeness, The Garden was described in a contemporary review for the New York Times as a “virtually wordless 90-minute assemblage of turbulent images [..] a peculiar blend of reflectiveness and fury [..] of far-reaching decay.” Throughout the film characters interact without dialogue, and besides identification based on Biblical (or mystical) reference – a set of Adam and Eve figures, a wandering prophet, a rabble of malicious Santa Clauses, and a Biblical serpent writhing towards the camera in S&M gear – the characters remain mostly nameless. This can be perceived as another disruption of filmic conventions, a breakdown of subjecthood, and a depersonalising device; all of which speaks to the experience of the Person With Aids (PWA).

Still from ‘The Garden’, courtesy of Basilisk Communications

Recognisable throughout, of course, is Jarman himself – appearing in a mode between actor and auteur, Super 8 camera in hand or sat stoically at his writing desk. His presence is at once confrontational and spectral, shown gardening in the same landscape (his landscape) where moments earlier we see mystical scenes played out, or at work behind the camera whilst being simultaneously on-screen. In some ways, this echoes the specific tensions of the AIDS sufferer; the conflict of a body that seeks to declare its presence and representation whilst enacting its own absence and disintegration. Jarman’s presence throughout the film appears as a breaking of the fourth wall, cutting through the fantastical tableaux to remind the viewer of not only his artistic hand, but of his body politic, of his place in the landscape, and of the film’s deeply personal propulsive vision. The film opens in darkness, with ambient sound composed by Simon Fisher Turner intermixed with the voices of a crew on-set. We hear directions, actions, rehearsal notes, the clacking of the clapperboard. In other words, the film’s opening puts the audience directly on the set of the film itself, clearly stating its medium and disrupting the suspended disbelief that we are usually coaxed into by the sonic development of opening credits. Jarman speaks directly to the audience through the voice of Michael Gough; “I want to share this emptiness with you.” In his final film Blue, made three years later, Jarman would re-use these words – again emphasising himself as auteur across multiple works. This opening notion – that of sharing emptiness – immediately calls into question the artistic act and Jarman’s own authorship, whilst directly implicating the audience in an exchange. In the context of an artwork – and indeed, a feature film – this voiding of subjecthood again speaks to the negotiation of presence and absence so inherent in the dying body.

Still from ‘The Garden’, courtesy of Basilisk Communications

The film’s use of assemblage places the viewer not only on the set of the film itself, but into the editing suite – the frenetic sequencing and abrupt shifts in imagery again reminding us of Jarman’s cinematic and artistic hand in the work. The film cuts to a last supper formation of babushka women playing glasses against a sweeping backdrop of the sea. The apparent use of a blue screen (chroma key) again creates an awareness of the filmic manipulations at hand, and the playing of glasses itself becomes interwoven with the ongoing ambient sound of the film’s score – shifting our awareness of sound elements from the background to the foreground. The film is filled with these sonic interventions – experimental and episodic – existing as interludes that again warp filmic conventions by disrupting the narrative arc, amplifying the staged elements of the work, and expanding Jarman’s own artistic world into popular culture and contemporary society.

In all these ways, The Garden speaks to Jarman’s physical artwork – specifically a series of assemblage paintings he created from Prospect Cottage by embedding found objects in black tar. Tony Peake writes of Jarman’s struggle “to make on celluloid the sort of statement about AIDS he had been making with paint [..] two things had defeated him: the impossibility of visualising an unseen virus and the difficulty of avoiding sentimentality, almost inevitable in any realistic or semi-realistic treatment of the subject.” Much like his use of Super 8, these assemblage pieces allowed Jarman channel his “reflectiveness and fury” in a way that feels spontaneous, immediate, and vital. The use of tar as an enclosure and embrace – swallowing and suffocating the objects into a glossy, toxic darkness at once slick, sensual, and ominous – conjures his own overwhelmedness at not only the prospect of death but of the complicating force of a sexual body turning on itself. Through the heavy black tar, we receive in glimpses many of the same symbols and objects embedded into the visual landscape of The Garden. Biblical references abound (the crucifix, a gold-leaf Bible), as do the camp object-captures from popular culture (a toy-version of The Hulk, travel souvenirs, items of modern clothing), and the artist’s dark comedy (one work asks “T.B. or not T.B.? That is the question”).

The Boy Who Drowned in Holy Water, 1989. Image courtesy of Amanda Wilkinson Gallery

In The Boy Who Drowned In Holy Water, an assemblage work created in 1989 – one year before The Garden’s official release, but during its development – Jarman mixes tar with feathers. This same reference to the public torture of tarring and feathering in feudal Europe repeats in The Garden as an act of persecution and punishment towards the young gay couple. In the film, much as in the painting, the act (and the visual of it) creates an immediate and visceral sense of unease. In the work, the feathers are broken up by a blackened and inverted egg shape (a symbol of resurrection and eternal life), whilst a clock face sits suspended below, a classical reference to death (memento mori). In the film, this is a punishment performed by maniacal, vampiric male figures in suits – perhaps a reference to the capitalist institutions Jarman so publicly loathed, for speaking of a deeper culture of corporate repression and ‘heterosoc’. The assemblage’s title similarly evokes the repressions and ceremonies of institution – in this case, the Catholic church. The scene is immediately followed by the cries of a punk rocker, at once menacing and entertaining, intercut with footage of a nameless Tilda Swinton plucking the feathers of a bird.

Both in his film and his assemblage works, Jarman’s hand covers as much as it uncovers – doing and undoing. His presence in the film, at once spectral and unmissable, forces us to consider the body – his body – and the complication of AIDS and its disintegrating force: night sweats, vision(s) lost, public stigma, spiralling furies, and waves of condemnation. The (dis)embodiment at play is at once intoxicating and toxic, an archive of this moment in queer time bound both in celluloid and black tar. The viewer’s instinct to ‘make sense’ battles against a film that disintegrates before our eyes, descending into a feverish state akin to that described by Jarman in his diaries. As the artist’s legacy continues to evolve and mutate, we must consider this destabilising mode within his late work as connected to his own self-documentation – frenetic and frantic – in the face of death. To invoke his own assessment of his book At Your Own Risk (1992), the work becomes “a series of introductions to matters and agendas unfinished. Like memory, it has gaps, amnesia, fragments of past, fractured present.”

Will Ballantyne-Reid is a writer and curator, currently completing a LAHP-funded PhD at UCL on Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage archive at Tate. He is a regular contributor to i-D, and has previously worked with Cromwell Place, Studio Voltaire, Ashish, Christie’s, Harlesden High Street, Abu Dhabi Art, Vivienne Westwood, Block336, the Royal Academy of Arts, SHOWstudio, and the Royal College of Art