Review: Modern Nature by Derek Jarman

British artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman discovered he was HIV positive in 1986. At the beginning of 1989, aged 47, he started a diary, knowing that it would become a book, documenting particularly his work on his garden at Dungeness in the very south of England. When he tells a friend about it, she says “Oh, you’ve finally discovered nature, Derek.” Jarman hesitates, imagining sentimental 19th century romantic landscapes, and the friend clarifies, “You’ve discovered modern nature.”

The “Ness” is a harsh environment, a promontory of shingle created by the confluence of currents. It is barren and rocky, more like the arid edge of the Mediterranean than the typical image of lush, green Britain. Jarman notes unseasonable warmth, “the greenhouse effect takes hold, winter evaporates”. In the background looms a nuclear power plant, “a twentieth century Babylon, a great glittering liner beached in the wilderness”. Jarman’s diary captures a slice of Anthropocene nature, both when our impact has become impossible to ignore, and when our relationship has become uncanny and complicated. Things are out of sync. It is a haunted landscape, an apocalyptic setting. Although Jarman takes a light touch with its resonances for his prognosis, it can’t help but infuse his writing.

It’s here that Jarman tends his cottage garden, collecting local seeds and strewing them in the shingle. He constructs art of found objects, tarring driftwood and making stone circles that commemorate friends who have died. The garden is constantly under threat: from frost, drought, and above all the salty winds, but mostly he leaves it to survive or not on its own. He catalogues the flora in the garden and in the landscape:

sorrel, woodsage, hawkweed, poppy, yellow-horned poppy, valerian — this fading fast, sea campion, ragwort — covered with orange and black cinnabar caterpillars, bugloss — the most spectacular flower of the Ness, cinquefoil, sedum, bacon-and-eggs, meliot, thistle, scarlet pimpernel, willowherb, marsh mallow, toadflax, agrimony, dog rose, curled dock, Nottingham catchfly.

Those wonderful, evocative names: Jarman recites them like a spell, manifesting their power. He conjures beauty from unlikely sources, such as the gorse with its thorny thickets covered in brilliant yellow, “deep inside, a golden light and a heady perfume. The bushes seem ancient — serpentine gnarled trunks, as if wrung ferociously in an easterly gale”. Early in the diary particularly Jarman delves in the history of the plants and their medicinal properties. Of the dog rose, he describes how Pliny thought it was so numerous in Britain that that was why the land was called Albion, for the plant’s white flowers. He recounts how he came to the garden after discovering his sero-positivity: “I plant my herbal garden as a panacea, read up on all the aches and pains the plants will cure — and know they are not going to help. The garden as pharmocopoeia has failed”. Later, when he falls ill, he’ll have a different spell to recite: “AZT, Ritafer, Pyroxidine, Methamine, Folinic Acid, Triludan, Sulphadiazine, Carbamazepine”. “Yet there is,” he writes, “a thrill in watching the plants spring up that gives me hope”.

While working on the garden, Jarman continues his prolific practice, working on films, being part of the British art world. Because this is diary, you don’t always know who or what he’s writing about — “Tilda” is of course Tilda Swinton; “HB”, the Hinney Beast, is his beautiful young friend Keith Collins, but there are so many Davids, one of them Hockney, and Pauls and Lawrences it’s hard to keep track of them (a very relatable dilemma in gay society). It’s a who’s-who of British society, and the effect is of having a rather delicious perve on a society we’re not normally privy to; Jarman understands the impulse for gossip, trading in scuttlebutt and bitchy faginess. Kenneth Branagh, he writes in a hilariously savage put down, “has not had an original theatrical thought”; on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe: “I never understood his fame”; on Andy Warhol’s factory: “It was boring watching boring films”. He reflects on his upbringing, and discovering gay London in the 1960s. Politically, he rails against Thatcher, homophobia, the underfunding of the NHS, and visits newly free Poland to meet with film students. And it’s sexy too, as he recounts cruising (“the alfresco fuck is the original fuck”), hooking up and the delights of sexual freedom, and renegotiating those freedoms during the pandemic. “I thought myself dead butch,” he writes of the sixties:

It was not until the end of the decade – shortly after the first meeting of the Gay Liberation Front at the London School of Economics – that I turned over and got fucked … no words will describe how exciting that was.

There’s a feeling a wholeness, even if it is elliptical. Whole histories, personal and national, conveyed in a single, glancing sentence. Tiny scenes are so arresting they steal the breath: “In the evening the boys lit a bonfire on the beach, and chased hedge hogs under the moon”; “A hallucinatory dusk, washed with colours to drive Monet to suicide”. Towards the middle of the diary he describes his vision for an exhibit:

The walls of the gallery will have several beds, mattresses, sheets, discarded clothes, all tarred and feathered. In the beads could be bibles, condoms, the clothes — jeans and sweatshirts, sports clothes; uniforms — a fireman’s or policeman’s. Quotations from the newspapers, photos of loved ones and family, found photos, alarm clocks, a telephone, a tarred and feathered TV.

In the centre of the gallery an oasis: a bed with two young men surrounded by barbed wire; on the wire, press cuttings, as if blown by the wind; and a tarred and feathered skeleton wearing a concentration camp uniform, spreadeagled as if shot trying to enter the space.

Modern Nature is a complicated, tough investigation of life and death, but I think it is guided by this impulse to create, this faith that art creates a space where we might gather, for respite and to foment.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer people, themes and sex.

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