Dead Souls Whisper

We are pleased to feature a text by Pascal Lièvre on a recent exhibition of paintings by Derek Jarman, held at the Crédec, Sep. 25–Dec. 19, 2021. Audiences in Japan may be familiar with Jarman’s films through his association with Uplink. There have been, however, few opportunities to see Jarman’s other works in Japan.

“The virus is rampant. Today, all my friends are dead or dying. As if a blue frost had seized them. At work, at the movies, on walks, on beaches. In churches, kneeling, running, suddenly silent or screaming their anger.”

Derek Jarman, Chroma, June 1993

In 2021, in France, the most singular, the most political and by far the most moving artistic event will certainly have been the exhibition dedicated to the last visual works of the artist Derek Jarman dating from 1986, when he was diagnosed HIV positive, until his death, presented against his Super 8 films produced in the mid 70s, at the CRÉDAC, in Ivry-sur-Seine. 

The exhibition that has just ended opened with the presentation of his last series of Queer paintings from 1992 and the film made in 1973, Death Dance

In this blue-chromatic film, four naked young men are dancing with small mirrors when a figure draped with a skull appears. When in contact with him, they fall to the ground, each as if dead.

The Seventeen Paintings constitute a series executed by three people: Derek Jarman, already very weakened by the disease, assisted by Piers Clemett and Peter Fillingham.

They shout their anger in the face of how media treated and covered AIDS, and before a rampant and ambient homophobia. It is a cry of revolt, as one rarely hears. Jarman is not about metaphors, his words are directly scribbled by hand on collages of newspapers on the canvas, the painting becomes an activist material. With Jarman, intimacy and art are more than ever political, activist and radical.

Curator Claire Le Restiff’s installation is almost identical to Jarman’s in 1992, that is to say that the large vertical paintings are not hung on the wall but presented in pairs on floor-to-ceiling brackets so that we can turn around them. Our bodies are invited to look differently, as if we were summoned to an activist demonstration where the bodies of those who were demonstrating were no longer there, death having seized most of them, in the manner of the four young men in the film Death Dance presented in the same room. The exhibition space is conceived here as a decimated political demonstration where other bodies are invited to take over. 

This room is striking because it reminds us to what extent AIDS was an extraordinary opportunity for the heterosexual society of the time, the religious, the conservatives and a very large part of the population to express its homophobia with a level of violence rarely heard, making the majority of young men feel guilty, often dying in atrocious conditions. This exhibition also reminds us of the key role of the media in the manipulation of the masses and the exploitation of ignorance for extreme conservative ends. While the Internet was mouthing his first words,  Jarman attacked tabloid press head on, as pronounced its “truths”, its ideological and murderous conspiracy speeches.

In the other two rooms, the Black paintings are presented, real assemblages where objects found or bought by the artist cohabit, caught in a thick layer of tar. Like an oil slick seizes everything it touches, the tar petrifies these everyday objects, not leaving anything intact in its path.

In each room, following to the same strategy, a film is shown in direct relation to the works on the wall. Sloane Square: A Room of One’s Own (1974/1976) shows Jarman’s daily life in a friend’s apartment where he works. Initially in black and white, the film turns to color and towards its end shows the apartment emptied, phrases spray-painted on the walls and a final party where the apartment is vandalized, the artist having received an eviction order from the owners. 

In the other room, the paintings and sculptures are related to At Low Tide (The Siren and the Sailor, 1972) a dreamlike tale with three characters: a drowned sailor, a mermaid and a masked deity. Despite the hopes of the mermaid who seems to want to revive the sailor, he does not open his eyes. The deity then embraces the mermaid and they disappear before the tide returns.

Finally, in the projection room of the art center, the film Blue is projected, which Jarman made in 1993 when he was almost blind, where on a blue background, for 74 minutes, is read the diary of his disease and his blindness.

In 2021, LGBITQIA+phobia, serophobia and populism are still very present, they are expressed in a society that has been trying for a long time to historicize AIDS, placing it in the distant past so as not to have to talk about it anymore, preferring to ignore it while it is still very present. 

According to UNAIDS, in 2020 1.5 million people became newly infected with HIV, 680,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses. The risk of contracting HIV is: 35 times higher for people who inject drugs, 34 times higher for transgender women, 26 times higher for sex workers and 25 times higher for men who have sex with men. Once again, the same populations, once again the same victims, once again the majority of the population complicit for 40 years in this planetary massacre.

Thank you CRÉDAC, for having made all this possible. Thank you to the whole team, for having finally been able to make us hear the voice of Derek Jarman in France, as we have not been able to hear that of David Wojnarovicz and so many other artists who still aren’t of interest to the French art scene.

Through this history of AIDS and art, through what silence can tell us, and what we can make silence say, we can see what remains to be reinvented: a politics of forms that would dare to ask for everything.

Antoine Idier, Purity and impurity of the art Michel Journiac and the AIDS, Editions sombres torrents

Review by Pascal Lièvre

Photos by Le Crédac, France

Pascal Lièvre will take part in our upcoming show Red and Black: A Mirror along the Main Road (Feb. 17-19, 2022 | Shinjuku Sumitomo Bld.).


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