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Interview with Professor Mark Turner, curator of Derek Jarman: Pandemonium

8 January 2014 Charlie Kenber

"It's important to remember Jarman's bold queer activism...we must never forget that kind of bravery in the context of the AIDS epidemic."

We spoke to Mark Turner, Professor of English at King's College London and curator of a new exhibition about Derek Jarman, opening this month...

London Calling: Where did the idea for the exhibition and accompanying events come from?

Mark Turner: Derek Jarman was a student at King's College London in the early '60s, so it was somehow natural that we would remember him on the 20th anniversary of his death. Also, a number of us (tutors and research students) in the English Department at King's are interested in Jarman's work in our own research, and we were keen to promote Jarman's varied work and life more widely.

LC: What was the most important thing you kept in mind when curating the exhibition?

MT: I was particularly keen to think about two things: 1) The ways Jarman's studying at King's might have impacted on his later work and thinking, particularly his deep immersion in Medieval and Renaisance literature and history, which is a lifelong passion of his and which informs much of his work. 2) Jarman's deep connection with London, and particularly the Thames. He studied at King's on the Strand, and later lived at warehouses on the South Bank, where he created some of his most interesting and compelling work, the Super 8 films made in the 1970s.

LC: Why is it important that we celebrate Derek Jarman’s life today?

MT: In our overly slick, commercialized contemporary art world, it is worth remembering someone like Jarman who produced such strong and diverse art works, mostly outside of conventional institutions and without extensive budgets. His outsider status was frustrating some of the time, but also quite liberating much of the time. Also, I think it's important to remember Jarman's bold queer activism at a time when there were very few out gay public spokespeople representing radical views and arguing against essentially conservative policies. We must never forget that kind of bravery in the context of the AIDS epidemic.

LC: How does the exhibition balance Derek’s role as a creative practitioner with his work as an activist?

MT: The exhibition isn't a retrospective, so it doesn't attempt to 'cover' his entire life. Artistically, the exhibition ends in 1987 and 'The Last of England', which represents a kind of endpoint in Jarman's uses of warehouses and docks along the river in his artistic practice. It's also about the time he began to be increasingly more vocal about homophobia in the context of AIDS. But what I hope the exhibition demonstrates is the way a queer perspective -- not simply 'gay', but queer in the sense of challenging norms and conventions -- is a part of his work from the very beginning. We see this in his notebooks and sketchbooks, in his Super 8 films and feature films, and of course in his many autobiographical writings.

LC: Clearly Derek Jarman was intimately connected with London. Was this an important factor for you when planning the exhibition?

MT: Very important, as noted above. London was important for many reasons -- it was of course where he lived for most of his life, but it is also a city whose rich history Jarman explores variously in his films. Think of Jubilee, which has characters like John Dee and Queen Elizabeth I as central characters. Jarman tended to use the spaces around him, so much of his work in the Super 8s of the 1970s are shot in the streets in and around the warehouses where he lived, at Bankside and Butler's Wharf. Close ups of the River Thames, often in slow motion, recur in a number of his films.

LC: Who do you think the exhibition will appeal to?

MT: I hope it will appeal to a lot of people! King's students who can explore the work of a university alumnus; contemporary Londoners who can learn more about one of London's most distinguished artists; contemporary artists and filmmakers; gardening enthusiasts who know Jarman only through his famous garden at Dungeness; queer youth who might learn something about an important kindred spirit. Jarman worked widely across various media -- painting, film, literature, music video, set design -- so I think there are many different groups of people who might find the show interesting.

Derek Jarman: Pandemonium is presented by the Cultural Institute at King’s at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, London from 23rd January until 9th March. The exhibition is open daily 12.00-18.00, and until 8pm on Thursdays. Admission is free.

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