“I am a heterodemon” – Keely Macarow

I am a cock sucking
Straight acting
Lesbian man
With ball crushing bad manners
Laddish nymphomaniac politics
Spunky sexist desires
Of incestuous inversion and
Incorrect terminology
I am a Not Gay ( Blue , Jarman; 1995: 119).

111.jpgIn offering this extract from Derek Jarman’s film Blue , (England, 1993) I have established an expectation that this paper’s concern is with the sexual body of East End boot stomping, ball crushing queens. However, whilst this sequence has caught our imagination, my interest also lies in the analysis of the cinematic representation of the diseased and medicalised body of the artist affected by HIV/AIDS.

However, in the film Blue, we see neither the diseased nor disappearing body of the filmmaker who has AIDS. Jarman’s body is embodied sonically rather than visually in the film, to counter retrogressive depictions of people living with HIV. Thus, Jarman’s depiction of the diseased body in Blue is inferred rather than seen. [1] This representation of the body may appear to be at odds with AIDS activist discourse, which has advocated at length for positive images of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) [2] since the 1980s. [3] However, Derek Jarman’s strategy to challenge and derail the notion of visibility was also aligned with an impulse to visually represent his loss of optical vision due to HIV related illness.  The strategy to deny the viewer a visual image of the person with AIDS was effectively a counterpoint to the saturation of images that was prevalent in early 1990s post modern culture. [4]

The intersection between queer activist politics and post modernist culture was important to the practice of many western artists working around issues associated with HIV/AIDS from the 1980s. In hindsight, it appears that the early 1990s (and especially the period around 1993-1994) was a pivotal time in which artists transgressed normative understanding of issues connected with cultural and racial identity, sexuality, gender and illness to represent the lived and physical experiences of people affected by HIV/AIDS.

Thus, my discussion of Derek Jarman’s film Blue , aims to contexualise the politics of representation and identity that informed much of the discourse around the cultural construction of the AIDS epidemic at this time. This discourse is bound in trajectories that inform the representation and politics of sexuality and desire, which is implicit in much artwork produced during this period. Artists affected by HIV, like other artists working around issues of identity, produced work exploring their sexuality, desire, race, age, socio-economic status and class. The depiction of one’s own body was common to this articulation, and crucial to artists combining discussion around issues connected with health. Thus, the representation of the diseased body, by artists affected by HIV/AIDS was as informed by their own experience of health, as it was by the politics governing desire, sexuality and identity.

In this essay, I will examine the disembodied corporeality represented in Jarman’s film Blue as a means of exploring issues related to the sexual, diseased and medicalised body. The absence of visual images of the body in Jarman’s project conceptualized the fragility of his corporeality, and exploded traditional narrative cinema’s preference for a montage of visual images. The visual imaging of the virus and those affected by it had, in Jarman’s view, for the most part over-determined and problematised issues associated with the lived experience of HIV/AIDS (Jarman: 1993: 15). I am therefore focusing this paper around a film, which at first glance and hearing merely contains one image (a blue leader) and a multi-layered soundtrack. The film, consisting of a vocal and sonic representation of words published in Jarman’s 1995 book Chroma , is accompanied by the singular and uncompromising monochromatic image of the colour blue. Blue not only offers a lament and analysis of the colour, but documents and makes visual, the deterioration of Jarman’s eyesight from ). Thus, as a metaphor for the diseased body, Blue fluidly traverses through the lived experience of one who is losing their ocular vision. Importantly, Blue imagines and offers an extensive visual and sonic vista for the body (and the body politic) affected by HIV/AIDS.

5663.jpgDystopic images of the disappearing body and the body in distress, whilst central to activist discourse and art referencing the lived experience of HIV/AIDS, was by no means the only referent to the lives of people living with the virus. Continuing on from the discourse and activism that underscored 1970s gay liberation movements, the notion of a queer identity and same-sex desire also fuelled much of the didacticism and work around HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s and early1990s. The sexual body of the person living with HIV/AIDS was thus given currency by AIDS activists who advocated for safe sex practices to curb the transmission of HIV. In addition, homosex was profiled in the artwork of AIDS activist artists, such as the late US artist, David Wojnarowicz, and the Australian artist, Jamie Dunbar to contest homophobic fears of the infectious body of gay men affected by HIV/AIDS, and to claim and celebrate same sex desire. [5]

As a self-proclaimed  “perverted heterodemon” who crossed “purpose with death” (Jarman: 1995; 119), Derek Jarman traversed and combined queer activism with a prolific and experimental art practice. His extensive oeuvre made its mark on Western creative and political culture from the 1960s, when he commenced painting. As an art director for opera, filmmaker, sculptor, writer, and gardener,  Jarman’s eclectic and prolific practice was fuelled by a love for aesthetics and his unwavering transgression of homophobic and AIDS-phobic culture (Wollen; 1996).

Derek Jarman’s filmmaking and art practice outed British homophobia from the proverbial closet with films such as Caravaggio (1986), and Edward 11 (1991), celebrating the queer life of major cultural, political and aristocratic figures. Although I acknowledge the ongoing influence of Jarman’s films, such as The Last of England (1987) and The Garden (1990), on British filmmaking and art practice, [6] my major concern is with the analysis of artworks and texts, which focus on the diseased and medicalised body.

From the mid 1980s, Jarman was not only out as a gay man, but was vocal about being HIV positive . [7] Hence, my interest in Jarman’s film Blue, which documents his lived and cultural experience with HIV/AIDS. [8] It is important to note that the performative, gesturing body is absent from the visual impulse that accompanies, Blue. Whether the performative body is represented in self-reflexive artworks, or depicted by actors in narrative films such as Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (US, 1993) and Gregg Araki’s The Living End , (US, 1993), the body has been central to the visual imaging of the person with HIV/AIDS. However, in Blue , the performative body is only represented in the soundtrack of the film, and the viewer’s reception of the work. As discussed in the introduction of the paper, the film consists of a non-linear soundtrack accompanied by blue celluloid. The diseased and medicalised body is primarily depicted through the soundtrack, although the projection of blue light also represents the deterioration of Jarman’s eyesight. In viewing this sole chromatic image for 75 minutes, the viewer is drawn into the visual field of the visually impaired. Thus, the image of blue embodies Jarman’s disembodiment. It represents his loss of sight and movement towards death (Griffin; 2000).

Derek Jarman died in 1994. [9] As Gabriele Griffin has observed, an uncanny knowledge is attached to a post 1994 screening of the film Blue (Griffin: 2000: 23-28). A post Jarman viewing of Blue locates the deceased filmmaker’s voice in the year before he died, and takes the viewer on a journey through the time and lived experience of a man not only contemplating his life but also his imminent death.

Thus Blue demands a high level of concentration. Like many post modernist and experimental films, Blue is underscored by elliptical jumps between time and space. However, in a plain where there are no images to help navigate the sonic terrain, the viewer/listener is sutured into the ethereal landscape of the soundtrack [10] and hypnotised by the intensity of the blue visual field. The audience’s experience of Blue is thus heightened by the layering of the sound, and the inclusion of sonic sequences which infer the presence of human bodies, the buzzing and whirring of biomedical equipment, the hum of city traffic, barking dogs, and the synthesised beat of 1970s disco.

Vocal sequences by Derek Jarman and his English friends and colleagues, John Quentin, Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton, collide with a layered audio collage, which contains a cacophony of diegetic and non diegetic sound effects, including industrial electronica by Coil and ambient offerings from Brian Eno amongst others. The soundtrack engages the senses in a sonic montage that is both explosive and spare with its use of audio, yet also highly cerebral and cathartic. Hearing the laments, observations, anecdotes, insights and musings that are characterized in the vocal offerings in Blue , against the viewing of the monochromatic image, is to participate in a cinema of contemplation and meditation. For this reason, Blue is a highly cerebral and hypnotic contract between the filmmaker and the viewer/listener.

The colour blue is not only present in the visual field, but is explored in the soundtrack at intervals throughout the film. Close to the beginning of the film, when one is accustomed to the repetition and hypnotic glow of the projected blue light, Derek Jarman introduces the colour blue as a metaphoric and metonymic means of losing his eyesight and reconciling the journey between life and death. The colour blue is used cinematically to enter the lexicon of visual culture, and as the authorial voice of a man whose eyesight is dwindling . Jarman’s work situates the colour blue as the visual signifier of his ailing, corporeal body.

In Blue , the diseased body of the filmmaker affected by HIV/AIDS is located in hospital wards, gardens and nightclubs. The body of the artist is thus subject to the everyday, with excursions to cafes and the reading of poetry. At the beginning of the film, to the sounds of a bike bell and an expletive, the authorial voice of Jarman explained how “I step off a kerb and a cyclist nearly knocks me down. Flying in from the dark he nearly parted my hair” (Jarman; 1995: 107).

The deterioration of the artist’s eyesight ensured that accidents like this were unsurprising. However, one may surmise whether impatience for another’s difference, a slower gait for instance, led to such an incident. This sentiment is echoed throughout Blue , and references are made to the political and cultural climate of the times. Mention is given to the Bosnian refugees who serve in the café that Jarman frequents. He thus notes the genocide of the Bosnian people, and juxtaposes this with a discussion with a woman from Edinburgh who has visited her ill son in hospital. The mother’s love for her child – a son with AIDS-related illness or a child killed in war – does not escape Jarman (Jarman; 1995: 111-112). This point may merely be humanist in origin, or directly refer to the notion that the AIDS epidemic is equivalent to genocide.

Blue juxtaposes the personal with the political, the poetic with the industrial and the body with the machine. The medicalised body is allied with biomedical machinery, medical imaging and hospital drips. It is subjected to traumatic and painful treatments, to keep total blindness and death at bay. We hear the clicking and whirring of the machines, as voices discuss Jarman’s medical treatments. 

Look left
Look down
Look up
Look right.
The camera flash
Atomic bright
Photos
The CMV – a green moon then the world turns magenta.
My retina
Is a distant planet
A red mars
From a Boy’s Own comic
With yellow infection
Bubbling at the corner.
I said this looks like a planet
The doctor says – ‘Oh, I think
It looks like a pizza (Jarman; 1995: 108 –109).

Blue conjures up images of sparkling sunny days, beautiful flora and generous love, alongside gritty anecdotes of a medicalised and pathologised body in the throes of virulent illness. Blue imagines the life of one that is in the midst of losing sight, but sees blue. The inclusion of the monochromatic visual field in the film disrupts cinema’s traditional allegiance for a visual montage aligned with a synchrocnised soundtrack. This strategy not only ruptures our understanding of cinematic visual pleasure, but also denotes the disruption that HIV has on the body of the filmmaker affected by the virus. [11]
The materialist lexicon of Blue is informed by the visual literacy of painters such as Cezanne and Yves Klein (Jarman; 1995: 104), the cinematic history of projected light, and the material and alchemical properties of celluloid .

Whilst Jarman was reticent to label Blue an experimental film, it is by his own admission, an experiment of sorts that is positioned at the margins of mainstream narrative cinema. Thus, is important to note how the Structuralist Materialist films of artists and theorists such as Malcolm le Grice, Kurt Kren and Stan Brakage contextualise the visual language of Jarman’s cinematic practice. Although it may be accurate to suggest that no other film had been produced like Blue , a shorter version of this conceptual enterprise exists in the form of the French filmmaker, Maurice Lemaitre’s homage to Hollywood Western films, A Song for Rio Jim (France, 1978, 16mm, 6 min) . Lemaitre’s 1978 film comprises of a black visual field (instead of blue) and an eclectic soundtrack of music and sound effects, which suggest images of mid west America, as characterized in westerns such as John Ford’s film, Stagecoach (US, 1939) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (US, 1952).

Another French filmmaker, Yann Beauvais, evoked a similar materialist sensibility in his1992 film, AIDS A SIDA (France, 1992, 5 1/2 min). A silent film, AIDS A SIDA uses text to survey the AIDS crisis in France from 1982 – 1992, and to probe the relationship between the body and the state. The lack of sound in this film operates as a political signifier of the neglect of people living with HIV/AIDS in France, as well as a referent of the AIDS activist adage silence = death . Beauvais’ filmic essay thus employs didactic methodologies to examine political trajectories connected with HIV/AIDS. By using black and white text and visual backgrounds, and at irregular intervals the flashing of text to emphasize a point, AIDS A SIDA works within a similar materialist ethos as Blue , but engages didactically, rather than poetically, with its audience. Statistics also figure in Beauvais’ film to denote the rate of death of people with AIDS in a given year. However, the combination of this text with the aesthetic impulse of the film renders the viewer into a state of oblivion; it is as if we have been hit over the head with a sledgehammer. Whether such didacticism motivates audiences to act upon such information is another question altogether.

The absent body is a lonely concept. Where there once was a person, now there is only the trace of corporeality. The absence of the corporeal body in Blue allows for multiple readings of the film and our understanding of Derek Jarman’s experience with HIV/AIDS. This strategy liberates the imagination from being overtaken by visceral images of a body in crisis. It allows for a holistic understanding of the lived experience of the filmmaker who has AIDS; he is someone who eats, shits, has drops in his eyes, and is subjected to medical treatments. But he is also someone who gardens, reads, writes, remembers, politics, and lives out his desires. Derek Jarman allows the viewer no reason to assume that the life of a person with AIDS is merely subjected to the medical gaze and procedures of hospital staff. Because of its cinematic effect, Blue resists a dystopic reading of the life of the person with HIV/AIDS.

Based around the singular image of blue, we cannot forget the unrelenting and hypnotic power of this colour, a metaphor for anxiety and distress, but in the case of Jarman’s film, the colour is compelling and seductive. It allows the viewer/listener to be absorbed into a cinematic vortex where the sonic tract provides an excursion into Jarman’s life, and the blue visual field gives the viewer/listener space for contemplation. The artist’s documentation of his ill body, for artistic and public consumption, is a brave and generous act.
Since 1996, combination therapies have allowed many people living with HIV/AIDS in resource rich countries to manage the impact the virus has had on their body.  Thus, HIV has for some people, shifted from a terminal to a chronic illness. One can only imagine the anger and desperation that people must feel who live in resource poor countries, and have been denied anti retroviral drugs due to a myriad of trans-global political and economic reasons. The tragedy for Derek Jarman, however, is that anti retroviral drugs were available too late to prevent his death. [12]

I want to end on a quote by the American writer and lecturer, Thomas E. Yingling, who died in 1992 due to an AIDS related illness. The quote is cited from an essay published in Yingling’s posthumous book, AIDS and the National Body (1997), but carries no date: ” So it is not desire that is in question, but identity: the whole problem of a disappearing body, of a body quite literally shitting itself away. That is AIDS”. [13]

 

Notes

[1] Derek Jarman, in conversation with John Cartwright. See Cartwright, J 1993, There we are John: Derek Jarman interviewed by John Cartwright , UK, video, 30 min.

[2] PLWHA is an acronym for a person living with HIV/AIDS. PWA is also used to denote a person with AIDS. At the time of writing, these acronyms are frequently used in activist organizations and biomedical and cultural discourse. The terms are the result of AIDS activism, which sought to give a personal face and positive countenance to people living with HIV/AIDS as the term ‘AIDS victim’, was perceived to have negative and disempowering connotations.

[3] Issues connected with the visibility of people affected by HIV are discussed throughout the chapter, and continue to be a central concern of activists working around issues connected with HIV/AIDS. See Crimp, D 2002, Melancholia and Moralism . Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics , Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, The MIT Press and Crimp, D.(Ed) 1988, AIDS: cultural analysis, cultural activism , MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass, for essays regarding the cultural construction of HIV/AIDS and visibility of people living with the virus.

[4] Whist post modernism is generally attributed to arts and cultural practices that fused and appropriated tenets of high and popular culture from the 1980s onwards, it arguably has its roots in the pop art practices of artists working in the 1960s and 1970s such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

[5] I am not suggesting here that HIV/AIDS is limited to the experience of gay men and lesbians. HIV impacts on the lives of people from a wide range of sexual, socio economic, racial, cultural, gendered, religious backgrounds and ages.  The experience of HIV in resource rich countries such as the United States, Britain, Australia and France from the 1980s to the mid 1990s, was however, ostensibly bound in trajectories which focused on the lives of gay men due to their activism as a community to combat the AIDS crisis, and their lived experience with HIV/AIDS. 

[6] Derek Jarman’s penchant for experimentation with image, text, allegory and sound, and the commitment to exposing and challenging institutionalised homophobia is evident in both his cinematic and arts practice.

[ 7] Jarman, D 1993, At Your Own Risk, London: Vintage, p121 & 123

[8] Jarman’s film The Garden references HIV/AIDS, but will not be discussed in this chapter.  Jarman also addressed HIV/AIDS in paintings such as Blood, (1992), Infection, (1993) and Fuck Me Blind (1993).  Jarman wrote that “The paintings are social realism – they show the collision between the unreality of the popular press and the state of mind of someone with AIDS.”  (Jarman: 2000: 248). Derek Jarman’s lived experience with HIV/AIDS was also documented in the books, Jarman, D 1993, At Your Own Risk , London: Vintage and Jarman, D & Collins, K (Ed) 2000, Smiling in Slow Motion , London: Century. Unless otherwise noted, textual references from Blue have been cited directly from Chroma , rather than Blue , to ensure accuracy in my transcription. The transcript of the film Blue , is included in Derek Jarman’s book Chroma See Jarman, D 1995, Chroma, London: Vintage. Some extracts from Jarman’s diaries are also included in the book, Chroma and the film, Blue .

[9] Derek Jarman died on 19 February 1994. See Wollen, R (Exhibition Researcher) 1996, Derek Jarman: A Portrait , London: Thames and Hudson, p 171.

[11] I thank Lenore Manderson for drawing my attention to this point.

[12] The availability of treatments for people with HIV in resource poor nations has been affected by international trade rules which have prohibited generic versions of more expensive patented medicine to be exported to poor countries. However, in late 2003, the World Trade Organisation agreed to allow generic drugs to be exported to countries such as South Africa who need to import generic anti retroviral drugs to treat people with HIV. (See Elizabeth Becker 2003, “WTO agrees to cheap drugs pact.” in The Age, 1 September 2003, p13 for further discussion).

[13] Yingling, T. E 1997, AIDS and the National Body , Edited and with an introduction by Robyn Wiegman, Duke University Press: Durham and London, p 16. Thomas E. Yingling died in 1992 due to an AIDS related illness. Yingling’s essays published in this volume, for most part, do not carry dates.

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Fraser, A 1999, ‘Talking to Art Matters’ In Wallis, B, Weems, M & Yenawine, P (Ed.s) 1999, Art Matters. How the Culture Wars Changed America, New York University Press: New York & London
Gott, T, (Ed) 1994, Don’t Leave Me This way. Art in the Age of AIDS, National Gallery of Australia: Canberra
————1994, ‘Grief and the Gay Community’, in Artlink , Vol 14, No 4, pp16-21
Griffin, G 2000, Representations of HIV and AIDS. Visibility blue/s, Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press
Jarman, D & Collins, K (Ed) 2000, Smiling in Slow Motion, London: Century
Jarman, D 1995, Chroma, London: Vintage
————1993, At Your Own Risk, London: Vintage
Jones, A 1998, Body Art. Performing the Subject, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis & London
Kroker, A & M (Eds) 1988, Body Invaders. Sexuality and the Postmodern Condition , Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Education Ltd
Le Grice, M 2001, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, British Film Institute: London
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Film and Videography

Beauvais, Y 1992, AIDS A SIDA , film, France, 51/2 min
Bordowitz, G 1993, Fast Trip, Long Drip, US, video, 56 min
Cartwright, J 1993, There we are John: Derek Jarman interviewed by John Cartwright , UK, video, 30 min.
Demme, J 1993, Philadelphia , film, US, 155 min
Goldin, N & Coulthand, E 1996 I’ll be your Mirror, video, US, 52 min
Haynes, T 1996, Safe , film, US, 118 min
Hoolboom, M 1998, Panic Bodies, film, Canada, 70 min
Jarman, D 1994, Blue , film, UK, 75 min
Riggs, M 1991, Anthem , video, USA, 10min
Spottiswoode, R , And The Band Played On, USA, film, 140min
Tartaglia, J 1989, Eco Homo , USA, video, 7 min
————1988, A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. , USA, video, 6 min
Thew, A 1993, Cling Film, UK, film/video, 20min
Thomas, I 1992, The Dreaming, UK, video, 13 min
————1992, The Fading, UK, video, 5 min
Von Trier, L 1987 Epidemic , Denmark, film, 105 min

Author Biography

Keely Macarow has published, exhibited and screened media arts projects in
Australia, The UK and Europe. Keely is currently Coordinator, Collaborative
practice, Media Arts Department, RMIT University, Melbourne, and is researching
her doctoral dissertation in the areas of theories and representations of
HIV, AIDS, and cancer in time based media practices.