Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Curse of the Curator

To the Serpentine with Don on a grey windswept afternoon to check out Derek Jarman curated by Issac Julien. Just the sort of dramatic weather that lends itself to Jarmanesque thoughts of sweeping English shingle, lonely power stations and beds on beaches surrounded by boys with flaming occult torches. No? Oh OK, just me then.

Oddly, I have been revisiting Jarman-world in recent times, prompted in no small way by TG's presentation of the super-8's at the Tate last year. In recent weeks I've dug out the old VHS's and re-read Dancing Ledge, The Last of England and At Your Own Risk. I also bought Chroma, Jarman's sensitive book on colour which was duly devoured in an excitable two hours while cursing myself for not buying it back in the day. I dug out my old cache of letters and cards from the great man himself. God, no wonder my parents were beside themselves. Worrying enough that I should be hanging out in the East End with Messrs Gilbert & George, worse still that I was in active prolonged correspondence with the bent maker of Sebastiane and Jubilee when I should have been out riding my bike. So in terms of my artistic exploration the show couldn't have arrived at a better time.

The highpoint is the very beginning. The first things the viewer sees on entering the gallery are the stunning, knock-out triptych of wall mounted beds, leaden with tar and twisted sheets like darkly sexual Rauchenberg combines. There is also a similarly impressive side-wall of a number of Jarman's small icon-like embedded-tar pieces, with their smashed glass, pendulums and scrawling texts on mirrored black, like multiple scrying mirrors paused in mid-reveal. I've always felt that of his painted work these small assemblage pieces were the most successful; a summing up of the underpinning that fuelled Derek's art. His Catholic concerns, anger at the injustices of the world and of his own mortality and his aching Middle Classness all cemented into gloopy tar tablets. A joy to see then, but this wall of small works should have been spread out around a big room rather than crowded together. It's difficult to see them properly.

Then one notices Issac Julien's lightboxes, decorative and unnecessary. They look like magazine spreads. Quite what these back-lit stunts are supposed to achieve I cannot think. And the curator's hand starts to loom over the show like a bad smell. Julien should be letting Jarman's work speak for itself not adding in 'a flavour of Jarman', with silly bits of Dungeness driftwood and rusty metal photographed against country cottage pine.

The exhibition continues with Derek's big, messy aids work: interesting, but so of it's time they almost need a specially curated show of their own to be meaningful. I'm thinking big blow-up pics of Outrage! snog-ins and earnest boys with flat-tops wearing t-shirts saying 'Criminal'... Then, rightfully given a room of its own, we walk straight into Blue, which fares somewhat better as an installation you can move around in rather than a film viewed in the traditional sense.

Following Blue is a large room of varying screens showing the Super-8's. They are Derek's best work and for such a hallowed legacy to be crowded in so that you only ever see snippets of the whole feels like a dumbing down or a sacrilege.

Finally the exhibition concludes with a further room given over to Issac Julien's documentary film Derek, featuring Tilda Swinton and already shown on TV and it has no place here. It is a TV film, made for TV or a cinema screening if you're feeling generous. It is a wasted room. In any event, I cannot bear Tilda Swinton's over enunciated reading voice. I accept she is a significant part of the Jarman story but I cannot bear to listen to the woman or her badly drafted observations (in fact, Burroughs night at Patti Smith's Meltdown was ruined for me by Swinton's singularly awful reading).

I left feeling disappointed. This show should have been a retrospective of Derek Jarman's paintings (he was celebrated as a painter long before he became known for his films). With the exception of Blue, which works, the filmic work should have showed at an accompanying cinema where it belongs and the Issac Julien TV film safely relegated to the telly. I wondered if the show would have been more effective curated by jobbing gallery staff then by someone with a public profile to maintain.

Now, where's my mallet!? I want to do some lightbox smashing in the name of Derek's ghost who in my minds eye I see whirling around the outer walls of the Serpentine in a fury, unable to bear the backlit horror of Issac's advertising spreads.


There's an interesting gallery of Derek's paintings can be found on the queer cultural centre site