Art

Basking in Derek Jarman’s Private Utopia

A recreation of the cottage where Jarman spent his final days, an exhibition at the Garden Museum creates a response to HIV that is at once personal and political, shining a light on wider issues of institutional homophobia.

Derek Jarman’s Cottage in Dungeness (all images courtesy the Garden Museum, unless otherwise stated; photo by Howard Sooley)

LONDON — Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s home in Dungeness, England, has had a very good 2020. A campaign to save it from being sold off to a private owner managed to raise over £3 million. The new exhibition at the Garden Museum, My garden’s boundaries are the horizon, offers a recreation of the cottage itself, complete with artifacts from its interior in Dungeness. This installation, along with other pieces of visual art by Jarman, come together in order to create a response to HIV that is at once personal — rooted specifically in Jarman’s own diagnosis— and political, shining a light on wider issues of institutional homophobia.

Installation view of My garden’s boundaries are the horizon at the Garden Museum, London (photo by Graham Lacdao)

Jarman’s best-known response to his diagnosis is his experimental masterpiece, Blue (1993), but the visual art on display here possesses a unique and haunting ability to trace the physical disintegration brought on by the artist’s illness. A series of small, abstract landscape paintings adorn one of the walls in the recreated cottage; all bear titles like “Prospect” or “Landscape,” and offer an intensely felt response to the landscape in which Jarman embedded himself for much of his later life. Rather than representing the garden itself, these works focus only on its colors, eschewing recognizable forms. They’re striking not only in their abstraction, but also for the ways in which they reflect Jarman’s own relationship with the landscape, which seemed to serve as a kind of utopia for him. The loss of this utopia in the wake of his HIV diagnosis is heartbreakingly rendered in “Ego et in Arcadia (Aids Memoir Prospect Cottage)” from 1992. This painting is a variation on Jarman’s brighter, more utopian landscapes — abstract, color-driven responses to the landscape and garden — but its tones are  darker, and more morbid. The bright greens and yellows of earlier landscapes are replaced with blacks and reds; life itself seems to have been drained from the garden, replaced with a dark vision of Jarman’s own fate. Even the title of the piece — a reference to an eponymous painting by Nicolas Poussin — casts the shadow of death over Jarman’s home.

Installation view of My garden’s boundaries are the horizon at the Garden Museum, London (photo by Graham Lacdao)
Derek Jarman, “Oh Zone” (1992) (image courtesy Amanda Wilkinson Gallery)

This installation illustrates how personal Prospect Cottage was to Jarman, and imbues the experience of walking through the exhibition with a kind of ghostly quality; knowing that this is a recreation of a building on the other side of the country is an uncanny feeling — one that enhances both the feeling of a connection with Jarman, and the ways in which his art reckons with the idea of loss. A pair of large paintings, “Oh zone” and “Acid Rain” (both from 1992) approach this loss from a wider perspective, featuring text on minimal, abstract backgrounds, which serves as an environmentalist political statement.

It’s impossible to look at Jarman’s visual art as being only personal; it’s impossible to separate this work from the wider political concerns of his time, seen in the ways it considers the wider discriminations that queer men dealt with then, and continue to deal with today. Jarman’s film The Garden (1990) explores these concerns most explicitly. Filmed at Prospect Cottage, it offsets the sanctuary of his home with the political struggles of gay men — from homophobic violence, to an oncoming environmental catastrophe — serving as a counterpoint to work like “Oh zone.”

Derek Jarman in Dungeness (photo by Howard Sooley)

Offering a singular vision of Jarman’s creative life, my garden’s boundaries are the horizon illustrates how the artist saw the world, even as his sight was fading. His works are uncompromising, presented in a space that’s at once haunted and transcendent, indicating that the world, for all of its problems — and there are a lot of them — is always worth fighting for.

Derek Jarman: My garden’s boundaries are the horizon continues through September 20 at the Garden Museum (5 Lambeth Palace Road, London). The exhibition was curated by Emma House and the cottage was designed by Jeremy Herbert. 

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