Turning to Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman in his garden at Prospect Cottage

Today sees the publication of Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, a collection of essays by the outstanding writer and critic Olivia Laing. Talking with Laing for AnOther Magazine, Jack Moss asks her about the guiding principle of this new book, the idea taken from literary critic and theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick that there are, as Laing puts it, “two ways of reading the world.” One is paranoia, a heightening of awareness of present dangers that, ultimately, can only take us so far. The other is reparative, a harnessing of the urge to create in response to a crisis, or more simply, making the most of what we’ve got, however much or little.

For Laing, the most inspiring example of the reparative is the garden that filmmaker Derek Jarman planted in 1986 at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, a headland on the southeast coast of England, and tended until his death in 1994 at the age of fifty-two. “He made it during the AIDS era, shortly after he’d received what was then an almost-certain death sentence, as his friends and community were dying around him,” says Laing. “The garden is an expression of hope, a flamboyant manifestation of fertility and love in the midst of grief and despair. It’s not a substitute for activism, or a way of evading reality. It’s an act of survival in its own right.”

AnOther has posted an excerpt from Funny Weather in which Laing writes: “The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.”

On March 31, thanks to a campaign led by Tilda Swinton (whose film career was launched in 1986 when Jarman cast her in Caravaggio), painter David Hockney, artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean, and costume designer Sandy Powell, Prospect Cottage was saved and will house artists taking part in a residency program. Jarman, a prolific painter who also designed sets for theatrical productions and films (such as Ken Russell’s The Devils), directed eleven features and dozens of shorts and music videos, and kept gorgeous sketchbooks as well, began writing a diary at the Cottage that was first published in 1991 as Modern Nature. “I always bang on about Modern Nature,” says Laing, “but it’s literally about surviving a plague, so it feels more timely than ever.”

Rebecca Mead has been reading Modern Nature and wrote for the New Yorker earlier this week that she’s found it to be “a tonic, and intensely moving, journey into Jarman’s consciousness and habits of observation.” And “reading Jarman at this moment is also strangely consoling.” As the book necessarily moves from the restorative gardens at the Cottage to the emergency ward, Jarman “gives expression to the experience of the fearful and the unknown.”

When Modern Nature was reissued in 2018, Laing, writing for the Guardian and declaring that there is “no book I love more,” pulled a quote: “‘I had foolishly wished film to be home, to contain all the intimacies,’ Jarman writes. But bringing his vision necessitated endless compromise and frustration. It was the giddy delight of the shoot he loved—the improvised, gorgeously costumed chaos, flying by the seat of his boiler suit, restaging images snatched from dreams.” In his darker hours, Jarman “fretted over global warming, the greenhouse effect, the hole in the ozone layer,” writes Laing. “Would there be a future? Was the past irreparably destroyed? What to do? Don’t waste time. Plant rosemary, red-hot poker, santolina, alchemize terror into art.”

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