Updated: Nov 5, 2022
What to do? Don’t waste time. Plant rosemary, red-hot poker, santolina; alchemise terror into art. (Laing 91)
During the first Covid-19 lockdown, I became aware of a campaign to preserve artist Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness. Adjacent to his Prospect Cottage residence, the garden was
planted by Jarman following an HIV diagnosis in 1986. The seeds he pressed into the earth, memorialising queer lovers and friends who lived with and died from AIDS, continue to grow today. Unsurprisingly, to many, Derek Jarman is an iconic British artist. As one of only few well-known figures to make their HIV status public, when diagnosis was all but a death sentence, Jarman's influence is far-reaching: “a testament, blazing, blatant, to possibility” (Laing 86-7). Indeed, immersing myself in Jarman’s garden through his accompanying diary entries has made an entirely unreachable queer past accessible to me.
Jarman dislocates normative conceptions of ecology to sow queer memories into his garden and diary, an act of living preservation politically necessary due to Thatcherite indifference to queer loss. Averting the complete loss of his lovers by planting them in these texts, Jarman aims to bring the past continually into the live present. His practice of gardening, and the garden’s ongoing growth, can then be approached as a queer ecological performance memorialising HIV/AIDS loss. Jarman's ritual emphasises that even as audiences/readers/visitors of his work, we are responsible for also gardening/tending to/sustaining queer experiences and histories in climates of Conservative forgetting.
My analysis focuses on two texts produced by Jarman whilst at Prospect Cottage. The first is Modern Nature (1994); a collection of diary entries written between 1989 and 1990. Assembling memories and contemplations, the diary provides extraordinary insight into Jarman’s life and work. My second text is the Prospect Cottage garden itself, which various critics have explored as a text in its own right (O’Quinn; Mortimer-Sandilands; Ellis). Textually, the garden is expansive and unnerving; a live work of art constantly in progress. Physically and conceptually, there is “no obvious point where the garden ends; it simply trails off, gradually blending into the shingle” (Ellis 175). Charting hospital trips, meetings, and mundane encounters, Modern Nature is itself “a sort of queer garden” (Mortimer-
Sandilands 351). Jarman’s practices of writing and gardening are analogous (O'Quinn 125), meaning that the diary might help make the garden readable, and the garden will inform any reading of the diary.
This piece of writing draws extensively on the field of queer ecologies, especially the work of Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson in Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (2010). Queer ecologies, a subfield in the queer theories, contends that
understandings of nature always inform discourses of sexuality and that understandings of sexuality always inform discourses of nature (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 3). Queer, in this work, is used as a noun and a verb regarding those “ecological knowledges, spaces and
politics that place central attention on challenging hetero-ecologies from the perspective of
non-normative sexual and gender positions” (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 22). I also
work considerably with HIV/AIDS performance studies, especially David Román’s Acts of
Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS (1998). Román notes that “the definitions
that govern our understanding of the theatre, like the definitions that govern our understanding of AIDS, are neither neutral nor inevitable. Both systems are political and arbitrary” (148). Román compels me to broaden my understanding of what HIV/AIDS performance looks like, moving outside the theatre and towards the street, the picket, and the allotment.
This piece intervenes in existing methods by crafting a novel intersection between queer
ecologies and HIV/AIDS performance studies. My aim is to create the conditions in which
these two can be stretched and twisted into one another in surprising ways, paving the way
for future engagement between the fields. The first section explores how Jarman queers ecology to immortalise his homoerotic encounters, building an archive of queer experience in both the garden and diary. The second section highlights how Jarman erodes binaries between past and present, resisting the productive logic of Thatcherite society. Borrowing Heather Love’s phrase, I argue that this “turn backward” (5) makes queer histories accessible to visitors of the diary and garden. In my final chapter, I approach Jarman’s gardening as performance art, exploring how an awareness of the “active participation of the audience” (Coogan 15) can advance critical and ethical responses to Prospect Cottage as a memorial.
As a young bisexual person, I often desire to locate myself within a queer history which feels
inaccessible in its aspects of shame and horror. In the UK, the continuing inadequacy of LGBTQ+ sexual health lessons have deprived generations of a vocabulary to approach the catastrophe of HIV/AIDS. In the rare occasions the epidemic is approached in the classroom, conversations proceed staunchly in the past tense. Confining the terrors of HIV/AIDS to history may alleviate anxiety, but it is untruthful and dangerous. The virus defies straight, clean understandings of time. Live performance, from ACT UP street activism to acclaimed play Angels In America (1991), has long been employed by queer communities to resist confinement. Always bringing the past into the embodied present, performance generates a sense of liveness, a physical link to others, and therefore ethical responsibility across normative temporal markers. I see analysing HIV/AIDS performance, as varied and colourful a field as the individuals who lived with and lost to the disease, as a space in which I might learn to discuss the loss of queer histories and people in my own life.
The ethical relationship between past and present cultivated by Jarman represents, to me, a
new dimension of engaging with the loss of both people and histories. The Covid-19 pandemic, though different to HIV/AIDS in numerous and major ways, repeatedly requires
communities to process loss swiftly and return to work. This piece emphasises the potential of queer ecological performance to disrupt hetero-capitalist imperatives asking us to move on. It highlights the necessity of taking an active, observable role in caring for histories which have been neglected. Opening himself to me in his diary and garden, Jarman requests a conversation between past and present rather than a static examination of the past from the present. So, again I follow the path of David Román, who notes that “criticism can also be a cooperative endeavor and a collaborative engagement with a larger social mission” (xxvi). This writing is a sharing of myself as much as an analysis of Derek Jarman’s remarkable work at Prospect Cottage.
Speaking at a fundraising event for the preservation of Prospect Cottage, actress Tilda
Swinton notes that “this is a vision not of taking, but of giving” (ArtFundUK). The project’s team plan to create residencies for artists, writers, gardeners, and activists, opening the cottage up to more visitors. This reminds me of the beginning of Modern Nature, and Jarman’s reflection that this “garden’s boundaries are the horizon” (3). The garden, and the gardening work that Jarman performed, is space and work for all of us. Swinton continues, “Art is generated everywhere. This idea flicks a beautiful switch in my view. It de-exoticises and brings closer the idea of artists’ work, rubs it into the landscape of regular, lived human life” (ArtFundUK). Crossing demarcations of past, present, and future, Prospect Cottage is an image of energy and hope for artists. It has reminded me that performance as a means to render lost histories present is brave and politically necessary.
This writing has argued that one purpose of art is to record and care for queer histories amid conservative climates. Jarman notes that “I’m a witness. I wouldn’t say I’m an activist
particularly. Some people might think I am just by doing what I do. I’m very well aware of what has been happening because it has been happening to my friends” (Grundmann 26). The performance which Jarman undertakes at Prospect Cottage, planting memories of his friends and experiences, is viewed by the artist as an act of spectatorship. This witnessing, subtle and poetic, is imperative within conservative climates which forget queer histories.
As I have dug into Jarman’s texts, I have considered my own archive of queer experiences. How do I tend to queer memories and friends in my own life? How do I keep them safe within a political and personal climate which willingly, if not maliciously, forgets they ever occurred? And how do I perform this witnessing publicly and politically? These are complex questions and clearly evade immediate answers. However, Jarman’s work has reaffirmed that performance can powerfully bring this queer past into the present. Following Jack Halberstam in The Queer Art of Failure, I suggest that Prospect Cottage uncovers “a queer temporality and a queer spatiality that... makes art about limitation, about the narrowness of the future, the weightiness of the past, and the urgency of the present” (106). Guarding queer histories in performance, of gardening or anything else, is essential to our ability to face up to present, ongoing indifference.
There are broader stakes to performing our role as witness to neglected histories. As I write,
Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Culture, is using his allotment in The Telegraph to denounce taking an active, critical approach towards Britain’s past. Publishing his opinions in a major newspaper, Dowden explains that heritage organisations should be “free from
government meddling”, but that “the people who run them also need the courage to stand up to the political fads and noisy movements of the moment”. Superficially, Dowden agrees with Jarman’s approach to memorialisation. He notes that “history is a dynamic, living subject, and it’s right that we reassess and reinterpret events as our understanding evolves”. However, the caveat quickly follows: “any account of the past should start from a commitment to telling a balanced, nuanced and academically rigorous story – one that doesn’t automatically start from a position of guilt and shame or the denigration of this country’s past”. To this, I can imagine Jarman laughing. If history is “living”, then the aspects of guilt and shame recognised by Dowden are the soil from which our present grows. These aspects must be continually tended to, not neglected under the pretence of "rigour". The Culture Secretary advocates for “more statues erected, more chapters added to our national narrative”. Again, if Dowden believes that history is “living”, the permanence of statues renders them constantly out of date. Solid memorials confine the past to the past, admonishing our responsibility to encounter it in the present.
Performance, on the other hand, makes things present. In his, Jarman teaches how to grieve unrecognised loss. Today, we are not only losing people and experiences to a new virus, but we are losing the safety of our histories to a government keen to normalise these losses. Ecological performance work, with its embodied liveness and transcendent growth, can hold lost people and histories in the present. It can create space for remembrance and political action. Lastly, I am aware that my analysis of Prospect Cottage in many ways effaces the global, ongoing impact of HIV as well as the numerous, fascinating examples of HIV/AIDS theatre and performance globally. Often, I have reinforced performance as a white, middle-class, western pastime. There is much, much more to do here.
There is a Facebook page entitled “The AIDS Memorial”. On this site, personal testimonies of friends and lovers of individuals who were lost to AIDS are shared alongside the tag
#whatisrememberedlives. Jarman would likely have detested the location of this memorial,
though perhaps Facebook’s shadow is not dissimilar from that of the Dungeness power plant. Regardless, I feel the page memorialises like Jarman did. On the site, a collection of individual stories and photos grows daily. It memorialises both those who died 40 years ago and those who died yesterday: “these are the times that we live in. This is the way we live now, still” (Román 223). The site expands. It warps across space and time with each story of loss. Beneath, visitors leave comments and situate themselves within the community. I believe passionately in this memorial and have thought about it often during this project.
What is remembered lives.