(David Zwirner Books, 2023)
“The virus rages fierce. I have no friends now who are not dead or dying. Like a blue frost it caught them. At work, at the cinema, on marches and beaches. In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest.” This voice, one of four narrators (including Derek Jarman, John Quentin, Tilda Swinton, and Nigel Terry), speaks over a field of pure blue in Jarman’s 1993 film. It is also an excerpt from Blue, the exact text of the film published as part of David Zwirner Books’ “Ekphrasis” series, marking the thirtieth anniversary of Jarman’s final creative endeavor before succumbing to his AIDS-related death in 1994.
In the film, Jarman fills the screen with blue—still and unyielding for an hour and fifteen minutes. This radically experimental gesture places something rather simple (a color) where something grand should be (a narrative film), rather like Gustave Courbet presenting a common funeral at the grand scale of history painting in his 1849–1850 canvas A Burial At Ornans. Jarman’s eyesight was deteriorating from the virus and experimental medication (DHPG): “My vision will never come back. The retina is destroyed, though when the bleeding stops what is left of my sight might improve. I have to come to terms with sightlessness.” Jarman’s decision to simplify the image to static color and to give the active role to sound via the spoken word and score could be his way of inviting the viewer into his sightlessness. Whereas the text (or screenplay) of a film may more traditionally seem like the lesser part of a greater whole, this publication accentuates the power of voice and language within film and publishing, specifically here of Jarman’s sightless ruminations as he faces his own mortality.
The book includes an essay by Michael Charlesworth, in which he writes that Jarman “used notebooks rather than storyboards, treatments, and scripts” and that he “famously disliked narrative and tried to shun it as an approach to filmmaking.” This insight into Jarman’s process made me wish there were more reproductions of his notebooks in this book, and led me to question how this reproduction of the film’s spoken element in book form could be more than just a script. Ultimately, as an extension of the film, this book prioritizes the spoken and written word; Jarman’s text is not competing with visuals (albeit minimal ones) and is given its space as poetry. Reading, and not just hearing certain lines, had a deeper impact, such as,
The smell of him / Dead good looking / In beauty’s summer / His blue jeans / Around his ankles / Bliss in my ghostly eye / Kiss me / On the lips / On the eyes.
Jarman once recalled being arrested for unknowingly bathing in a sacred site in Greece, writing “We learned that we had committed sacrilege. We had swum in the sacred well of Apollo, where the Pythian Priestess spoke her oracle. I have always believed this was my real baptism for the well brought the gifts of dreams, prophecy. The ancients believed it was the fount of poetry.” Blue is Jarman’s baptism and death: a dream, a prophecy, poetry. He writes and speaks: “Blue is the universal love in which man bathes—it is the terrestrial paradise.”
Charlesworth also writes that Blue was broadcast over the radio at the precise time it was shown on television in 1994. This intrigued me, and finding a complete version of the film online, I listened to the spoken word of the film as I read the book’s text. Marking the film’s thirty-year anniversary, media is shared and consumed much differently in 2023 compared to 1993. In 1993, one would access Jarman’s film by tuning in to television or radio at a precise time or by going to a screening at a theater. In 2023, Blue (as a film and a book) presents a suspension rather than a moment or happening. Regardless of format (screen or bound paper), it is now more like an endless performance contained by a book or the available film online that one can step into at any moment.
Throughout art history, blue has appeared as precious lapis lazuli in the tiles of ancient gateways, the robe of the Blessed Virgin, the (costly) Renaissance pigment creating an endless night sky dotted with golden stars, and as a namesake hue of one modernist. This historical context was at the foreground of Jarman’s mind when making Blue, the script of which is nearly identical to his essay “Into the Blue” included in his final book, Chroma, published posthumously in 1995. Chroma provides a greater understanding of Jarman’s exacting knowledge of art history. Jarman writes on red, yellow, and gray, and artists and thinkers such as Leonardo, Marsilio Ficino, and Isaac Newton. Of blue, he writes in Chroma, “The arrival of indigo in Europe caused consternation. Woad was under threat in 1577 Germany. A decree prohibited ‘the newly invented pernicious and deceitful, eating and corrosive dye called Devil’s Dye.’ In France dyers were required to take oaths not to use indigo. For two centuries indigo was hedged with legislation.” In Chroma and Blue, Jarman is delving into history, carving his own use of blue into the canon.
“In the pandemonium of image / I present you with the universal Blue / Blue an open door to soul / an infinite possibility / Becoming tangible.” Jarman is interested in reifying the ultimate questions of human existence through this one color. Blue—and all color for that matter—is essentially an abstraction, the wavelength of light reflected from a surface or through a prism which the retina receives, sending signals to the brain that results in our perception. Blue has one of the shortest wavelengths visible to the human eye, which reminds us there are colors we are incapable of seeing, such as ultraviolet and infrared. Blue in 2023 makes visible those colors or wavelengths that surround us but have been rendered invisible. The endless and still dying are invoked, present, just as the aural becomes visual in this book. “I fill this room with the echo of many voices / Who passed time in here / Voices unlocked from the blue of the long dried paint.” In 2023, these voices are always echoing somewhere online and on the page.