Derek Jarman retrospective: Protest!


Alan Dearling takes us on a tour of Manchester City Art Gallery

The Derek Jarman exhibition is an ‘experience’. A mixed-media one at that. Uncomfortable, bitty, a bit all over the shop – samples of early drawings and later art-works; designs for film and theatre sets; his off-beat and frequently uncompromising  film works (some in Super 8 and 16mm); pop videos for the likes of The Smiths and unconventional mixed mash-ups of sound and vision: poetry/music/artistic imagery; artworks and his own ‘Acts of Life’. These are the basis of Derek Jarman’s life. He lived many lives – an agent provocateur and rebel (with many causes) for much of it. An outrageous ‘Outsider’, a political, social activist: a rule breaker. An art saboteur – illusionist – an escapologist, perhaps, always breaking off the shackles of traditional ‘norms’. His works and life were always original creations – his AIDS campaigning through to his home at an old fisherman’s hut, Prospect Cottage and sculpture garden on Dungeness beach. 

The Protest! Show was originally presented at IMMA, Dublin from November 2019 to February 2020. Curated by Seán Kissane, the exhibition is re-presented at Manchester Art Gallery by curators, Fiona Corridan, Manchester Art Gallery and author and film-maker, Jon Savage

The Arena feature on Derek Jarman has also been used to publicise and illustrate the life(ves) of Derek Jarman. His ‘fizz’ – his personal motivations of anger and many more complex emotions.

Manchester’s Art Gallery is an appropriate setting for the Derek Jarman ‘Protest!’ retrospective, which runs until 10th April 2022. The Gallery and its curators take pride in visitor-involvement. Signs throughout the imposing city centre building challenge the public to engage with the exhibits and offer their opinions. It is far from static and it is being continuously re-organised to elicit questions about the place, location and social, political and economic significance of ‘art-works’. It suggested to me art-sabotage. Getting the public to think of art as about creation and destruction, ever-challenging. In fact, an allegory of life itself, with twist, turns, creativity and doldrums, outbreaks of hopeful optimism and dismal depression, decay, horrors and death. The Gallery calls this process: ‘Re-imagining’. Manchester Art Gallery:

Art works at the Gallery are now often being interposed with provocative signs and comments. Some works have been re-located and interposed with contrasting and jarring images. It’s a strange experience. It is proactively designed to jilt the members of the public out of any complacency. Viewing art in Manchester is an ‘active’ process.

And so, returning to Derek Jarman.

All sorts of works are on show, from tiny, cryptic pieces to bold, loud canvases. Plus photos of Jarman as a trans-sexualised pin-up and his Dungeness garden home.

Derek Jarman always wanted to disturb his audiences. Unsettle them. The exhibition shares that spirit. You rarely ‘like’ Derek Jarman’s works. They evoke a response. They contain a visceral power, sensations of darkness, excess, sometimes crudity, sexual explicitness, high-end theatre and art, but also sumptuousness and splendour. It’s no coincidence that he worked with film-director, Ken Russell, on the set design for ‘The Devils.

He also caught the emotional destructiveness of punk in his film, ‘Jubilee’ (1977), which is a testament to nihilism, tower-block kids, theatricality, experimentalism, as much as it is a social document of punk music featuring some of its icons such as Toyah Willcox, Adam Ant, Jordan and Wayne County. Remember, this film juxtaposed Queen Elizabeth 1 (Actress Jenny Runacre joyfully playing around with Shakespeare and with Dr John Dee) into the Silver Jubilee Year of Queen Elizabeth 2. However, two of the most beguiling musical montages are sung in reality by Suzi Pinns (but it is devilishly hard to find out who she is! Jordan/Pamela Rooke, or, not?): firstly, as the supposed UK entry to the Eurovision Song Contest: ‘Rule Britannia’ and a punkish/impish version of ‘Jerusalem’. Fab stuff, in my view, or, disgusting and disgraceful, in the view of outraged Britain!  Here are the tracks with a montage of pics from the film:

In many ways he was a traditionalist too. He shared a strange ‘old-worlde’ love of poetry, the subtle power and textures of words and sounds, which he often blended into his own art-sound collages with fellow art-crusaders such as Brian Eno. Jarman’s final film, ‘Blue’, is on show at the Manchester Gallery. It’s haunting fare. Towards the end of his life, Jarman had partially lost his sight and was often only seeing a world of blue…the film which is entirely a static visual canvas of blue…is a sound collage. The script for ‘Blue’ was recited by actors and by Jarman himself. It’s fascinating, alternating poetry and prose, often memories from Jarman’s life enmeshed in shades and gradations of the meaning of the colour blue. The sky, water and eternity are blended into the soundscape created by Jarman’s character called ‘Blue’. The soundtrack was created by Simon Fisher-Turner. It intersperses choral singing, ticking clocks, chimes and gongs, as well as music by Brian Eno, Coil and Erik Satie among others. Harrowing as well as life-affirming.

The film, ‘Blue’:

‘Glitterbug’ (1994) is a posthumous collection of Jarman’s Super 8 and video works, assembled by some of his friends. A snippet of Jarman muse, Tilda Swinton:

And, the ‘Modern Nature’ radio broadcast:

This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Derek Jarman retrospective: Protest!

    1. Great to have all these links and a first hand account of the exhibition Alan. Thank you.

      Comment by Rupert on 1 February, 2022 at 3:08 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.