Saturday, May 1, 2010

Day 23: Derek Jarman’s Garden

Painter, theatre designer, filmmaker, often controversial figure and gardener, Derek Jarman, created his own “garden-paradise in an environment that many might think was more of a hell than a heaven - in the flat, bleak, often desolate expanse of shingle that faces the nuclear power station in Dungeness, Kent.”

So reads the inside flap of the book that is Derek Jarman’s own record of how that garden evolved, published in 1995, not long after he died.

I know not what drew me to pick up this book, those 15 years ago: Derek Jarman and I have little in common really: he made “artistic” films, was a gay rights activist and was he was outré. But perhaps I do know what drew me in.

On flicking through the pages of this book, that (if you can find a copy) you must buy, beg, borrow or whatever, I was not so much drawn by the beauty of the garden that he had created but by the marriage of a creation so natural, cheek-by-jowl with something (the nuclear power station) so at odds with nature. My creative sensibility is often drawn to unlikely marriages of this kind: the old butting up against the new, the elegant amongst the squalid.

For me, it’s one of Paris’s most attractive qualities, the Parisian's do this well. I think that the very sci-fi pyramid outside the Louvre should sit amidst buildings of the 1500’s and 1600’s is wonderful. I like the fact that if you stand in the Place Charles de Gaulle, under the Arc de Triomphe and look north -west, directly along the axis that is the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, your eye will hit the “modern city” of La Défense, in the distance, and it’s main feature: La Grande Arche. This younger version of the arch sits, signaling to it’s older relative across a few kilometres of geographical space and more than a hundred years of time.

Derek Jarman’s garden, winks across Dungeness’s beach of shingle at the power station nearby.

Maybe it's the fact that I was born in Kent, perhaps something deep and primal at work? Gravesend, at the mouth of the Thames Estuary, is where I came into this world (ironic name for a birthplace), not far from where the convict Magwitch rose from the misty marshes in Great Expectations to frighten the life out of, and befriend, Pip Gargery.

But for all this talk of creativity, art and wotnot, my biggest debt of gratitude to this book of Derek Jarman’s, is that it inspired me to get gardening - one of the three fundamental forms of creativity.

I have a small, but cherished terrace, where I live and I, like Derek, have gradually populated it with lost and found objets: a green wooden bench (with a red heart painted on it) from friends in Palm Beach, two bougainvillaea from other friends in Newcastle. A desert rose exiled from an apartment in Redfern, an unwanted orchid (also from Redfern) now flowering when it’s happily in the mood.

The view from my terrace is staggering. I look over to the city of Sydney and what I see, that I love most, is the juxtaposition of Wardell’s 19th-century St.Mary’s Cathedral and the architectural anomaly that is Centrepoint Tower.

The ashes of my long-lost cat Yoda are sprinkled in plant pots on my terrace too, she, now a guardian spirit watching over this haven of nature, just like the late Derek Jarman watches over that patch of unease on Kent's coastline.

Day #23 Tip: Find Four Brushstroke, Your Métier
Those queer alliances - old and new, natural and man-made - obviously interest me, a recurring theme that I find myself musing on and over.

In artists, writers and filmmakers that I return to, again and again, I can see the themes, motifs and ideas that occupy their thoughts and work. It’s not a case of “read one Dickens and you’re read the lot” but there were perennial pre-occupations that he returned to, across almost his entire canon.

Woody Allen, in his great period of filmmaking, spent hours and hours, film after film examining the nature of relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, lovers and lovers as they covered every sidewalk, mused in every art gallery and browsed every second-hand bookshop in Manhattan.

British filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, never stray far from the fertile ground that they’ve sewn and harvested for so many years. Martin Scorsese, is at the top of his game when he’s documenting that Italian-Anglo-American thing that he and his muse Robert De Niro have done in films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

What I don’t do, is I don’t look for what draws me back, again and again. Instead, I look back over the work that I’ve down - short film scripts, feature film scripts, ideas scribbled down in Moleksin notebooks - and ask the work to show me, to tell me if there’s a common thread that the work is shot through with? Am I telling the same story again and again? In many ways, I hope that I am.

It surprises me when I think I have a hold on this slippery concept. I’ve always though that I’m romantically (in the artistic movement sense of the word) compelled to write dark, tragic, brooding works of despair and loss. But that’s not the case. I come back to my favourite genre - the detective story - wherein, a man (often a man) tries to make a “bad” world “good”. He may have to dabble in the dark arts to get there, and he might fail, but it’s a noble and optimistic quest.

If I wanted to be really dark, I’d write a love story. Check out a few classics, like I did, and this is what you’ll find: “he dies, she lives, their love endures”, or a version of??!!

Mine your work for your ideas, go panning for the gold that’s there, right under your nose, just like Derek Jarman did in his final home - Prospect Cottage - surrounded by his garden of all-things-good.

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