my garden’s boundaries are the horizon: Derek Jarman at the Garden Museum

On the hostile coastal shingles of Dungeness, overlooked by a nuclear power station, and existing entirely at the whim of the shore’s ravaging storms, resides an unassuming yet unbounded garden started by film director and artist Derek Jarman. Unlike a traditional English garden, Jarman’s is green only in clusters, is punctuated by hunks of washed-up driftwood rather than trees, and the space has no hedges to limit it; rather, its boundaries are the horizon, according to the title of a recent exhibition at London’s Garden Museum, which was open sporadically due to the Covid-19 lockdowns, and closed permanently in December 2020.

The show focuses on the garden as a meditative and regenerative space; a site of emotional healing that Jarman bought and tended to after his HIV diagnosis in 1986, equipped with his late father’s tool collection and a magnitude of books and notepads, up until his untimely death in 1994. It also considers the garden as a kind of artwork in its own right, by providing an exhibitionary assemblage where film, painting, and installation cohabit with artifacts, personal letters and diary entries. Rife with text and texture (my favourite catchy phrase to describe Jarman’s work), the exhibition reflects the eclecticism of his practice, where gardening, painting, politics, queer culture, and pop culture are as entangled as matted weeds.

ACID RAIN (1992)

Jarman’s approach to painted works addresses nature and climate change but rejects any straight-forward depictions of these things; no landscapes, neither barren nor abundant. In the two paintings on display, the phrases ‘ACID RAIN’ and ‘OH ZONE’ are viscerally written on dense layers of impasto paint, evoking ecological concepts that are both disruptive and difficult to pinpoint or represent with any clarity. Completed in the thick of his illness in 1992, there is something evocative in how such masses of recklessly-applied paint can evoke absence, sparsity, and loss, all themes associated more with a kind of settled quietness. They are as emotive as they are violent; his consideration of his own sickness and that of the planet are concurrent. Smaller sculptural works, residing inside the life-size recreation of Jarman’s cottage within the exhibition, embeds the landscape, and objects found on meandering coastal walks, into his visual thought directly, drawing parallels between his body of work and his daily life in Dungeness.

Jarman’s garden and the Dungeness shingles — recreated for the exhibition.

As sickness, like everything else, becomes defined by the contours of capitalism, the boundlessness of Jarman’s garden that is referred to in the exhibition title evokes a rejection of restriction, notions of private property, and also a regeneration of the body. It opens up ideas of gardening as an enforced slowness, lingering outside of rigid capitalist time, and acts of care and tending become artistic acts. There is something otherworldly about the landscape that finds itself embedded in Jarman’s artwork, films, and thought. From the persistent blinking lights of the distant nuclear power station, to the stormy and antagonistic landscape of the coast itself, everything is granted meaning and significance on a small, unspoken scale. Jarman’s garden becomes a subversive space, a queer landscape, resistant to the economy of space and art, and rejecting the boundaries of private land.

art writer, oxford & liverpool