‘Gardening on Borrowed Time’ is a multidisciplinary group exhibition presented by STUDIO WEST inspired by Derek Jarman’s Garden at Prospect Cottage.
Almost 30 years after the legendary artist, activist and filmmaker’s untimely death from AIDS-related illness, the exhibition celebrates an aspect of the eternal legacy of a trailblazing talent taken too soon: a vivacious garden cultivated against all odds in the harsh desert-land of Romney Marsh in Dungeness, Kent.
There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape, the silence is only broken by the wind, and the gulls squabbling round the fishermen bringing in the afternoon catch.– Derek Jarman, Modern Nature, January 1989, p.3.
Each artist featured in the exhibition has visited Prospect Cottage, retracing Jarman’s footsteps across the crunching shingle. They have also immersed themselves in his diverse oeuvre: reading his lyrical journals, watching his ground-breaking films and poring over Howard Sooley’s photographs of the garden as it grew. The profound personal connections they have found with his interminable legacy have directly inspired their works for ‘Gardening on Borrowed Time’.
In the case of Camilla Bliss, Charlie Boothright and Xaoichi Dong, the garden has planted itself firmly in their imaginations. A noteworthy young sculptor, Bliss has created futuristic, almost floral forms that speak to the idiosyncratic, dystopic and otherworldly qualities of Romney Marsh. Responding to a quote from ‘Modern Nature’, “I brewed my nuclear tea”, she sees these works as “flowers at the edge of the world”. They echo the uncanny strangeness of witnessing Jarman’s sacred garden blooming beneath the mammoth monstrousness of the power station.
For Charlie Boothright, an abstract painter, the visceral textures of the unlikely paradise have inspired a series of rugged crimson works on paper forming a large-scale collaged canvas. Intense and immense, her expressive painting speaks to her elemental emotional response to the landscape. Her discovery of Jarman’s 1993 film ‘Blue’, created towards the end of his life as his eyesight declined, prompted the inclusion of her electrifying cobalt drawings.
Xaochi Dong meanwhile, a long-time lover of gardens, found quiet reprieve and restoration at Prospect Cottage. He has produced muted and elusive paintings, using volcanic clay as pigment, inspired by a moment of serenity amongst the stone circles – in his own words, “I experienced a gentle wind that felt like a delicate brush caressing the landscape, leaving behind its mark in the most enchanting way”.
Both painter Alfie Rouy and sculptor Nic Sanderson have been entranced by the magic and mystery that permeates Jarman’s coastal refuge. There is an intrinsic connection between Jarman and Rouy, both equally fuelled by a ceaseless desire to create from deep within and an interest in the esoteric. Through automatic drawings and cryptic paintings, Rouy attempts to materialise “the flow of versatile, fluid-like energies, frequencies and vibrations that intertwine the mind with the Earth’s current phase of existence”. Taking the peculiar sculptural forms balanced precariously upon the shingle as his starting point, Rouy’s painting reflects the singular wonder of Jarman’s creative vision. As Jarman’s health declined and in the face of dwindling hope, he became fascinated with paganism; he began to explore the pagan notion that apertures in naturally occurring objects offer a view into the afterlife.
Many of his sculptures feature holes, the starting point for Nic Sanderson’s works which foreground the experience of looking through to the other-side, while tackling themes of grief, loss and memory.
For filmmaker and photographer Billy Sassi, Jarman’s experimental Super 8mm films were a natural starting point. Sassi drew specific inspiration from “their colourful nature; sense of immediacy; layering of images; and gesturing figures” when choreographing his film for the exhibition. Layering a projected silent film, featuring a lone figure trying on and posing with an oversized Pulcinella mask, onto photographic images of the same, Sassi explores notions of image veracity, theatricality and the requests images and spectators make of one another. For him, the piece “explores contact with the imaged body, and the invented and real tensions that emerge from presence and stillness”. Like Jarman, Sassi’s process is intuitive, he creates complex sets, props and costumes through hand-made processes that foreground the immediacy of the creator’s hand. Mirroring the surreal qualities of Jarman’s 1991 film ‘The Garden’, Sassi foregoes narrative structure, instead placing the viewer deep within a phantasmagorical land of make-believe.
In an interview broadcast on BBC 2’s film programme ‘Moving Pictures’, aired in the Autumn of 1990, Derek Jarman said “the garden is an anchor…it’s about anchoring myself somewhere”. Many years after his passing, this reads like a prophecy; the garden he left behind has eternally tethered a part of him to our world. This enchanted and indescribable remnant forms the basis of STUDIO WEST’s exhibition, ‘Gardening on Borrowed Time’. Featuring predominant new works by six young London-based artists, complimented by a living installation and lyrical quotes from Jarman’s evocative writings, the exhibition is a holistic ode to the garden at Prospect Cottage – the sacred bequeathment of an era-defining creative talent.
Gardening on Borrowed Time, 21st September – 20th October, Featuring: Camilla Bliss, Charlie Boothright, Xiaochi Dong, Alfie Rouy, Nic Sanderson & Billy Sassi, STUDIO WEST
About Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman (31 January 1942 – 19 February 1994) remains an iconic figure in the realms of art, film, design, and activism. This English polymath was not only a visionary filmmaker and artist but also an influential costume and stage designer, a prolific writer, an avid gardener, and a prominent advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.
Born at the Royal Victoria Nursing Home in Northwood, Middlesex, England, Derek Jarman was the son of Elizabeth Evelyn (née Puttock) and Lancelot Elworthy Jarman. His father, originally from New Zealand, served as a Royal Air Force officer. Jarman’s educational journey began at Hordle House School, followed by boarding at Canford School in Dorset. Later, in 1960, he pursued higher education at King’s College London before embarking on a four-year artistic odyssey at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London (UCL) in 1963. During the 1970s, his creative sanctuary was at Butler’s Wharf, London.
Derek Jarman boldly championed gay rights and openly shared his personal battle with AIDS after being diagnosed as HIV positive on 22 December 1986. This transformative experience prompted him to seek solace at Prospect Cottage, located near the Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent, where he ultimately succumbed to an AIDS-related illness in 1994 at the age of 52. An atheist by belief, Jarman found his final resting place in the St Clement’s Church graveyard in Old Romney, Kent.
During his twilight years, Jarman found steadfast companionship in Keith Collins, a young man he met in 1987. Although not romantic partners, their friendship became a source of profound support for both. Jarman’s legacy lives on, symbolized by a blue plaque unveiled at Butler’s Wharf in London on 19 February 2019, commemorating the 25th anniversary of his passing. Derek Jarman’s multifaceted contributions continue to inspire and resonate across various artistic and activist spheres.
See more on Derek Jarman on FAD: HERE