I was fortunate enough to catch the very last day of Pandemonium – an exhibition at Somerset House celebrating the work of visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. In this anniversary year, some twenty years since his untimely death in 1994, a number of events commemorating his life and work are taking place.
Amongst the highlights the BFI are staging a major retrospective of all of Derek Jarman’s features including special screening events that include rarely seen super 8 films and recently discovered ‘lost’ fims. There are talks and symposia taking place across the city and to mark the occasion Test Centre Press have published a facsimile edition of Derek Jarman’s sole and extremely rare book of poetry A Finger in the Fishes Mouth.
I made my way across London on a fine March day full of expectation; I have waited a long time for an exhibition such as this, it is a rare thing indeed. I wasn’t to be disappointed.
‘Death Dance’ (1973) Super 8 digitally scanned
This is the exhibition I would have curated given the chance; curator and King’s College Professor Mark Turner must be congratulated, he has found absolutely the right the focus. The exhibition centres very much on Jarman’s scholarship (he was a student of King’s in the early 1960s); and his use of literary, historical and symbolic allegory, that flows throughout all his work particularly the Super 8s he made in the 1970s. Jarman’s connections to a lost London and the Thames are re-examined with special attention given to the warehouse studios of Bankside and Butler’s Wharf where he lived and worked and where many of these early films were made. In addition there are paintings, assemblages and of course his exquisite sketchbooks.
As we entered we were given a pair of headphones to put on in preparation to enter the darkened space; leaving the material world and its pretensions of grandeur in this former Royal Palace, to enter another realm entirely. Leaving my companions, and with a sense of anticipation akin to entering the tomb of a long dead Pharaoh (what treasures may lay within?) I entered.
‘Studio Bankside’ (1970-72) Super 8 digitally scanned
The music, sounds and texts that accompany you on this journey are all sourced from the many Jarman collaborators over the years; Simon Fisher Turner, Coil, Cyclobe; all drifting in as your eyes adjust to the half light.
The first thing you became aware of is the slow burning flicker emanating from the Garden of Luxor (1973) projected larger than life across the central wall – the ritual is enticing; rich with exoticism, the smoking mouth, the sinister figure cracking the whip, the fixed gaze of the sphinx. The wall opposite displays a selection of small paintings, with titles such as Egyptian Landscape (1966) oil on board, and the later GBH series. Many of these paintings have never been seen together in public before; here they are on loan from the friends that they were given to, Derek Jarman was notoriously generous with his work.
One of Derek Jarman’s many sketchbooks
In an even darker space as you enter an annexe room, a number of Jarman’s weighty sketchbooks are displayed behind glass, lit from above like sacred texts. Sebastiane, The Art of Mirrors, the original manuscript that would be published as Dancing Ledge, all here. What I would give to leaf through these precious volumes. In the same room on the opposite side are three framed assemblage/collages; working drawings Jarman was asked to produce when he won his first major commission to produce set designs for Sir Frederick Ashton and the Royal Ballet.
Stage designs for Ashton’s Jazz Calendar (1968)
The next room finds another large scale projection this time the rapid inter-cutting of Jarman’s first film on super 8; Studio Bankside. The film documents objects, precious artefacts and the comings and goings of the Bankside studio now long since destroyed. The long lost skyline of the Thames South Bank is clearly visible against the silhouette of the jerking movements of the first cranes, heralding the coming the new age. There are fascinating papers, handwritten notes, exchanges and newspaper clippings charting the battle to keep this artistic enclave and way of life going, a desperate battle to keep the developers and speculators out. Jarman and his contemporaries including painter Tony Fry and brothers Peter and Andrew Logan (the latter artist, sculptor and creator of the Alternative Miss World Contest), were pioneers of ‘loft living’ – around them a whole artistic community thrived with film screenings, performances and parties a regular feature. The prophetic headlines read ‘The Battle of Butler’s Wharf’.
Unfortunately the malignant forces that would go on to engulf the entire city would win out; a few mysterious fires later and it was all gone forever.
Nearby, framed behind a pane of glass, stares a crumpled mask. Fashioned from a brown paper bag; it’s crudely painted features somehow familiar from a number of these early films; how sinisterly it is transformed on celluloid.
Encased in glass below there lie further relics of Jarman’s Super 8 filmmaking; a Super 8 camera, a Nizo of course one of many Jarman used this one etched in his own indelible hand ‘Modern Light’. The lens cap, hood and leather case laid out like the reliquary of a saint. By its side a sketchbook, bursting with black and white photographs open at a page displaying the preparations for the shoot for the film Death Dance; naked boys, a death’s head, the black of the studio wall shored against Tower Bridge in the near distance.
One of Derek Jarman’s Super 8 cameras
At the end of the central passage there glows a bright slab of light; a contemporary shot of the garden at Dungeness back projected onto a vertical screen. Eerily silent the image is static with the Dungeness B nuclear power plant still ever present and operational across the shingle.
The Garden at Dungeness as it is today
The final room and a sense of inevitability. It has all been leading here The Last of England (1987) Derek Jarman’s finest film now expanded for this exhibition into a furious, unrelenting, continuous multi-screen installation; each projection relaying separate sections of the film. The effect is hypnotic, the original film achieves this effect and this has been amplified in it’s new configuration. It is very hard to look away it is so overwhelming.
The crescendo – Tilda Swinton taking the shears to her wedding dress in ecstatic rage is still as compelling and unsettling as it ever was. The rising cacophony and unearthly shriek of Diamanda Galas’ voice raging up the scales still sends a shiver down the spine.
As I feared our time was up and the gallery assistant began to make her presence known I resigned to rejoin my companions back at the entrance where we had come in. I paused for a moment to take in what I had seen. The lady next to me said it had been meditative, perhaps even a transformative experience, I agreed, indeed it had. A pilgrimage of sorts? The physicality of the artefacts on display, the remnants of a life lived and a presence perhaps it could be thought of as a reliquary? “Oh I wouldn’t go that far”, she replied.
The Last of England (installation view)
So back to ‘reality’. Derek Jarman’s life and work is a true inspiration, his is a powerful legacy whose importance is only just being acknowledged by the mainstream.
A saint? Well, Derek has already achieved that status, remember he was canonised on the beach at Dungeness by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence way back in 1991.
Further details of events celebrating Jarman 2014 can be found here.