Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Derek Jarman: Pandemonium

Fighting with London's sluggish traffic and ever-so-unaccommodating weather, I met up with my friend Bev to take in this exhibit wedged somewhere between King's College's Strand campus and Somerset House.

Descending the elegant spiral staircase, I felt like I'd been invited to one of the ambassador's parties, as we arrived at the exhibit doors. In we swept, depositing our mink stoles---Oh, sorry. No, actually, we picked up some cards and I tried out the MP3 player that is offered to visitors, containing "music from Derek Jarman". Not music to accompany the silent Super 8 films, but music that has some connection to Derek Jarman. I think it was used in some of his other films, but certainly an odd choice.

Perhaps the curator felt contemporary visitors couldn't bear to watch films in silence. It's not as if they are especially long films, and I found that every time I popped on my headphones, Bev had some illuminating comment to make about the films, and so I kept removing my headphones to listen to her. Some of the music was by Simon Fisher Turner, I know, but I didn't hear enough to really form an impression as to whether it added to my experience of the films.

Since Bev is both a Super 8 filmmaker and dedicated modernist, I thought she would be an ideal companion, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing Jarman's preference for "urban ruination", which is also something we feel has vacated London in recent years, as the glass boxes have proliferated and the scruffy elements have been swept under the carpet or pushed out of the gentrifying districts.

This was especially apparent as we watched Jarman's films shot in his loft in Butler's Wharf in the 1970s. Has there been any area more tarted up than the Docklands? A view on to the Thames allowed him a panorama of bridges, buildings, swooping seagulls and the lapping water, as well as the attractions within his own walls, seen in such films as Jubilee.

The works on show, which include some paintings and some influential books (including volumes by Ginsberg and Shakespeare) are mainly from Jarman's early years, pointing the way to his later features and a life cut short by HIV. There is also something of a vanished London in it, making it both celebration and memorial.