The Queer Ecology of Derek Jarman’s Garden

– François Olivier

Derek Jarman was an independent filmmaker in Britain during a period which stretched from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. His films express a decidedly queer sensibility and depict homoeroticism on screen during a period marked by the homophobia of Thatcherite politics. In a review of one of his films, the noted film critic, B. Ruby Rich, fondly describes Jarman as the “King of Queer” and explains that “as an artist and activist, Jarman has a life history that seems to encompass the very development of modern gay culture” (49). In 1986, Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive, and discussed his condition in public. His illness prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage, Dungeness in Kent, near the nuclear power station. In 1994, he died of an AIDS-related illness in London, aged 52.

With the humble Prospect cottage as the central feature, Jarman filled his garden with drought-resistant native plants, rusted and weathered debris found around the shingle beach, and traditional English flora (which include an impressive number of rose variations). In his garden, flotsam and jetsam compliment the forms and shapes of the exquisite plant life, and vice versa. Michael Charlesworth describes Jarman’s found objects as “things that most people would see no beauty in, or would see their value exhausted. They bring a connotation of collage, of art brut or arte povera, of a garden made by an ‘Outsider’” (136).

Recently two ecocritics have written about Jarman, and the garden he created at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. In a recent anthology of essays on “Queer Ecologies,” Mortimer-Sandilands chooses Jarman alongside Zita Grover to demonstrate a queer ecological approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands sees the relation between Jarman’s gardening, his sexual politics and the mourning of friends lost to AIDS as an example or a template for a radically alternative approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands reworks Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholia and she describes certain forms of ecotourism and present-day wildlife documentaries as “nature spectacles” that phantasmagorically preserve the ‘lost’ object of ‘Nature’ in the present to avert its complete destruction. For Mortimer this melancholic process hinders any real engagement with the environmental crisis, thus environmentalists “exist in … a condition of melancholia, a state of suspended mourning in which the object of loss is very real but psychically “ungrievable” within the confines of a society that cannot acknowledge nonhuman beings, natural environments, and ecological processes as appropriate objects for genuine grief (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 332).

She proposes that Jarman’s journal is an alternative model of mourning to the melancholia outlined above. She claims that Jarman “write[s] about and act[s] in nature in ways that develop exactly the kind of political, embodied understanding of death and mourning that is missing from the romantic portrayals of loss and salvation emphasized in contemporary environmental spectacle” (334). Mortimer-Sandilands argues that key to Jarman’s melancholic art is that he stages “intense and direct conversations between landscape and death, between environment and AIDS, between places and bodies,” and that his “natures are not saved wildernesses; they are wrecks, barrens, cutovers, nuclear power plants: unlikely refuges and impossible gardens. But they are also sites for extraordinary reflection on life, beauty, and community” (343).

In a recent online essay, Greg Garrard responds to Mortimer-Sandilands’ claims and critiques her reading Jarman’s journal as a radical queer ecological text. He reads Jarman as a “sexual radical” on the one hand, and on the other, “a conservative defender of a vanishing England.” Garrard sees Jarman’s gardening and philosophy as a type of “queer georgic” (Garrard). Furthermore, he points out that “Jarman’s queer rejection of ‘heterosoc’ (Jarman’s term for heteronormative society) and his “radically conservative” love of England were supplemented rather that displaced by the patient, attentive, constructive work of gardening” (Garrard). Garrard sees Jarman not only as a queer activist and but also as conservative atavist. He argues that despite Mortimer-Sandilands’ “eloquent advocacy … [he] cannot agree that Jarman’s Modern Nature is a profoundly radical text that “politicizes remembering by insisting on the queerness of writing and gardening as parallel memorial practices” (Garrard). Garrard points out that Jarman “never relinquished gay pastoral as a nostalgic ideal, even at times a redemptive hope” and that “he continued to align himself imaginatively with a radical conservative tradition with which modern environmentalism – and Ecocriticism in particular – has lost touch with.” Garrard makes a valid point here. In his journal, Jarman situates himself as part of a particular artistic history when he states that

Whitman, Carpenter, Gill and, nearer in time, Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Berger seem all to have set off on that old straight track pioneered by Mr and Mrs William Blake playing Adan and Eve nude in their London Garden. Blake and William Morris… all of them look backward over their shoulders – to a Paradise on earth. And all of them at odds with the world around them. I feel strongly, chose a ‘novelty’ medium – film – in which to search’. (25)

My reading of Jarman’s journal and his garden tends to agree with Mortimer-Sandilands’s argument that Modern Nature was “a particular textual-botanical memorial to the queer past, to his generation, and indeed to himself” (354). And that “Jarman held on to his beloveds (individually, collectively, culturally) by bringing them into nature, as Jarman’s “politicized memorial planting of queer sexual histories in his garden” demonstrates (354). My argument regarding Jarman concurs with Mortimer-Sandilands point that “Jarman’s emotionally charged practice of melancholic remembering took [him] from a gay-focussed experience of AIDS to a distinctly queer appreciation of nature” (355).

In one of the chapters of my master’s thesis, entitled, “A Queer (Re)Turn To Nature? Sexuality, Environment and Cinema”, I read Jarman’s closely associated film, The Garden (1990), in light of the progression of ideas described by Mortimer-Sandilands. His garden takes on new, even contradictory, meanings as the film muses on several kinds of losses and provides elegy as a mode that reflects these losses. The elegiac elements of the film do not bring the mourning process to an end but instead it celebrates and lingers on in melancholic remembering. There are no “sweet conclusions” in The Garden and the film’s hopeful ending belies the melancholic waters the audience are left in regarding the losses signalled by the film. It is my opinion that these diverse elegies in the film are useful models, for resisting any easy consumption (which media-driven capitalism so often necessitates) of images of environmental degradation or disappearing nature spaces.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” Bodies That Matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. London: Routledge, 1993. 223-284. Print.

Charlesworth, Michael. Derek Jarman. Reaktion Books, 2011. Kindle Edition.

Garrard, Greg. “Derek Jarman’s Queer Georgic.” 9 May 2012. Web. 15 Jan. 2013. <;.

Jarman, Derek. Modern Nature. London: Vintage, 1992. Print.

Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona and Bruce Erickson, Queer Ecologies Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010. Print.

Peake, Tony. Derek Jarman: A Biography. 2011. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print.

Rich, B. Ruby. New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. Duke University Press, 2013. Print.



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