Tag Archives: “Blue”

“Cc…: CCC,” part 7

Dear all:

Perhaps Jack and Zackie could outline more of the circumstances of their tea party with Nelson this last Sunday – which sounds like it just might shake the world, or at the very least rattle the President’s china.  Photos of the tea service, please!  Menu tidbits:  you said he drank mint tea with honey, but the biscuits?

Because Jack’s right – what could be more about right now, more about acting right now, more in the present tense, more about hope, than Zackie having tea with Nelson, while Jack shoots every sip and crumb?  Now there’s some activism as performance art that would make Derek & Co. purr!

John

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While we await details of the historic tea party….  I just had my first opportunity to see Gregg’s powerful video, Habit, which borrows footage from Jack’s work to great effect, and features Zackie, speaking on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign in July 2000, making the point that well-meaning volunteers who might want to contribute to current efforts on the ground in South Africa “should have the humility not to arrive in the morning and try to rule the country by lunchtime.”  For me, this resonates powerfully not only with the images of Gregg’s calendar pillbox, helpfully dividing the days for those who have access to the most effective therapies at this stage, but also with the red thread of our conversation to this point.

For the record, I also want to impart two further points that John raised in his response to reading the manuscript of The Brevity of Life.  The first has to do with an argument made by Andrew Sullivan, writing in the New York Times Magazine to the effect that (I’m quoting John) “the AIDS cultural debate is ‘dated,’ ‘old-fashioned,’ ‘nineties’… the art world has moved on, and artists have followed suit, almost no one is making AIDS work any more – these are all oft-repeated commonplaces that seem to need some unpacking…partly because these assumptions go right to the ugly heart of who actually decrees suitable subject matter, and trends, and practices.”

John’s other observation also has to do with material practices:  “I kept thinking about the time it takes to make work, when you’re running out of time.  Felix chose to expedite – his pieces took almost NO time – go to the department store and buy two clocks.

With Blue, Derek had no shoot – he called the lab and said give me ninety minutes of blue.  Manufactured solutions replacing the labour of the artist’s hand….

And then there’s Stephen – faced with the ticking clock, he dreams up excruciating, labour-intensive projects which replicate industrial processes which could be accomplished in minutes by a phone call:  scan this, blow this up.

Faced with a deadline (what’s the origin of that word, anyway?), these five made radically different choices about how to spend their time.”

Again, my thanks,

Deborah

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 10)

It is fitting, then, that the final sequence of “Untitled” (2000-2001), subtitled “the future” (deliberately rendered in the lower case), should take the form of a multiply-mediated citation of Derek Jarman:  a series of blue frames traversed by the scan lines that Andrews produced by videotaping a vacant television screen, photographing the resulting tape as it appeared in turn on his monitor, then photocopying and transferring the frames onto the mylar strips.  The last part of “Untitled” is thus readable in part as a homage to Jarman, as Blue itself is readable in part as a homage to the work of Yves Klein.  More specifically, Andrews’ photocopy transfers stand as so many mute (or “still”) commemorations of the eloquent testimony in the voiced soundtrack of Jarman’s final film, which is pointedly not reproduced, but rather entrusted to the viewer’s fallible memory and unpredictable sense of responsibility.  Attesting to the distance, the mortal difference between Blue‘s provenance and its own – “Untitled” (2000-2001) is of a time that Jarman did not live to see – Andrews work proffers a series of afterimages of what is itself an afterimage:  “the future” figured, poignantly, as “a short sequel of sorts.”

In the context of this blog’s trajectory of readings, Andrews’ inexact visual quotation may also evoke one of Seneca’s own citations in “De brevitate vitae,” enlisted to substantiate his claim that life, whatever its duration, “is long if you know how to use it”:  “so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets:  ‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time” (Seneca, trans. Costa, 60)  [adeo ut quod apud maximum poetarum more oraculi dictum est, verum esse non dubitem:  “Exigua pars est vitae, qua vivmus.”  Ceterem quidem omne spatium non vita sed tempus est].  Because, as the philosopher’s English-language editors and translators acknowledge, “The quotation has not been identified,” what Seneca bequeaths to us is but a “prose rendering of an unknown poet” (Seneca, ed. Costa, 117 n4).  The erstwhile “greatest of poets,” relegated by time to the rank of unknown, lies degraded in the compost of cultural memory, surviving in and as a prosaic paraphrase of a brief remark, partaking of the shared fate that Andrews’ work never lets us forget.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 11)

Neither does Blue spare us the related task of accounting for the other crucial incommensurability it renders:  that between the time of its recorded testimony and the time of the experience to which it testifies, with which it cannot coincide.  Blue‘s blind address to the blind summons us to hear the difference as the spoken soundtrack reverts to the past tense:

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.  It started with sweats in the night and swollen glands.  Then the black cancers spread across their faces – as they fought for breath TB and pneumonia hammered at the lungs, and Toxo at the brain.  Reflexes scrambled – sweat poured through hair matted like lianas in the tropical forest.  Voices slurred – and then were lost forever.  My pen chased this story across the page tossed this way and that in the storm. [Blue, 7-8]

It calls us as well to register the prophetic cadences of the outraged witness:

How did my friends cross the cobalt river, with what did they pay the ferryman?  As they set out for the indigo shore under this jet-black sky – some died on their feet with a backward glance – did they see Death with the hell hounds pulling a dark chariot, bruised blue-black, growing dark in the absence of light, did they hear the blast of trumpets?  David ran home panicked on the train from Waterloo, brought back exhausted and unconscious to die that night.  Terry who mumbled incoherently into his incontinent tears.  Others faded like flowers cut by the scythe of the Blue Bearded Reaper, parched as the waters of life receded.  Howard turned slowly to stone, petrified day by day, his mind imprisoned in a concrete fortress until all we could hear were his groans on the telephone circling the globe. [Blue, 16]

Or again,

We all contemplated suicide

We hoped for euthanasia

We were lulled into believing

Morphine dispelled pain

Rather than making it tangible

Like a mad Disney cartoon

Transforming itself into

Every conceivable nightmare  [Blue, 17]

In a journal entry dated August 1993, written contemporaneously with preparations for the release of Blue, Jarman alludes to the temporal asymmetry between perception and attestation in experiential rather than conceptual terms:  “The stinging eyedrops are in, the reading chart which has a flaw – as if you read with your good eye first you can remember the letters, to whose benefit?  My illusions…. Eleven o’clock and still waiting for the dragging minutes to pass…. I feel less and less like fighting, giving up, giving in.  Writing blind now…. Yawning void”  (Smiling, 224).  For the blinded Jarman, of course, visual perception belongs to recollection, as the editor’s preface to the posthumously published Smiling in Slow Motion confirms:  “In the final diary he wrote without vision, his semi-legible scrawl only possible from his memory of the scratch of nib on paper” (Smiling, np). 

(In his Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida poses “a thoughtful question:  what would a journal of the blind be like?  A newspaper or daily of the blind?  Or else the more personal kind of journal, a diary or day-book?  And what about the day, then, the rhythms of the days and nights without day or light, the dates and calendars that scan memories and memoirs?  How would the memoirs of the blind be written?” [33].  Smiling in Slow Motion answers Derrida’s questions by and for example, in chronicling the rhythms of Jarman’s final days and nights without day or light.)

In his journal of the blind, as in his film without images, Jarman attests that he has finally seen enough.  “The blind man thus becomes the best witness, a chosen witness.  In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind.  Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception.  The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time, and the interest of the attestation, like that of the testament, stems from this dissociation.  No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable witness sees, or rather, has seen and now keeps in memory” (Memoirs of the Blind, 104).  Nearing the end of his journey without direction, with no prospect of an afterlife beyond the horizon, Jarman finds that no image can show in the present what he has seen and now keeps in memory.  In place of the “pandemonium of image,” he bequeaths to his viewers an imageless archive:  one that preserves a time that was “all awry,” along with its own fundamental incommensurability, as testimony, with the awful devastation of AIDS.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 10)

Because, as Jarman attests, “we don’t lack images – just good ones,” because “The image is a prison of the soul, your heredity, your education, your vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world” (Blue, 15), Blue forgoes visual imagery, presenting its viewers instead with a blue after-image sustained beyond its ephemeral lifespan for seventy-seven minutes:

In the pandemonium of image

I present you with the universal Blue

Blue an open door to soul

An infinite possibility

Becoming tangible  [Blue, 11]

The supplanting of image by the “infinite possibility” of Blue is further linked to Jarman’s own history, and specifically to his ambivalent sense that (like Yves Klein’s) it is drawing to a premature close:  “Some part of me dares this blindness to progress, it says I’ve seen enough” (Smiling, 230).  It is perhaps the same part of him that seeks relief from the “cacophony,” the “pandemonium of image”:

Over the mountains is the shrine to Rita, where all at the end of the line call.  Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause.  The saint of all who are at their wit’s end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world.  The facts, detached from cause, trapped the Blue Eyed Boy in a system of unreality.  Would all these blurred facts that deceive dissolve in his last breath?  For accustomed to believing in  image, an absolute idea of value, his world had forgotten the command of essence:  Thou Shall Not Create Unto Thyself Any Graven Image, although you know the task is to fill the empty page.  From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.  [Blue, 15]

Saturating the screen with “the universal Blue,” Jarman releases his viewers from image as an affront to sore eyes, but not from the obligation to read.  His caveat to the commandment invokes the ongoing “task” of writing, and with it the inevitable, invisible images in the language enlisted “to fill the empty page” and destined for our ears:  the images we hear rather than see in Blue.  As Derrida reminds us in his Memoirs of the Blind,

One must always remember that the word, the vocable, is heard and understood, the sonorous phenomenon remaining invisible as such.  Taking up time rather than space in us, it is addressed not only from the blind to the blind, like a code for nonseeing, but speaks to us, in truth, all the time of the blindness that constitutes it.  Language is spoken, it speaks to itself, which is to say from / of blindness.  It always speaks to us from / of the blindness that constitutes it.  [Memoirs of the Blind, 3]

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 9)

In a proposal dated May 1991, Jarman contemplates a scenario for Blue in which the only trace of “the original Klein idea” would be a “sea of time, presented as a blue void.”  The relationship between the “blue void” and the “sea of time” it is meant to present is not so much metaphorical as allegorical, unfolding over time:  in the event, not ninety but seventy-seven minutes of a feature film that translates the devastation to which Jarman has been witness.  To the extent that Blue succeeds not so much in surmounting the obstacle of incommensurability (“No ninety minutes of cinema could deal with the eight years HIV takes to get its host”) as in rendering the predicament itself on film, the difficulty and the responsibility to address it become the viewer’s own.  If the “blue void” that is the sole visual content of this film without images figures (among other things) a “sea of time,” how do we, erstwhile survivors of the pandemic, read this time, which subsumes the multiple temporalities inscribed in the passage in which “The drip ticks out the seconds, the source of a stream along which the minutes flow, to join the river of hours, the sea of years and the timeless ocean” (Blue, 18)?  How do we read what in Blue is more and other than a theme:  the possibly illegible signature of Jarman’s last film?

One hypothesis might be ventured based on the film’s association of blue with the telling phenomenon of the after-image:  “The shattering bright light of the eye specialist’s camera leaves that empty sky blue after-image.  Did I really see green the first time?  The after-image dissolves in a second” (Blue, 27).  Jarman’s final film is of a time after the time of images, in several possible senses.  One of these, perhaps the most readily legible, is a function of its position in his trajectory of filmmaking:  It completes the notional trilogy whose earlier components, The Last of England and The Garden, partake of his characteristic image montages that configure past (e.g., in their incorporation of Jarman’s earlier Super-8 films and his father’s home movies), present (e.g., in their depiction of the Thatcher era in Britain), and future (in their respective prophetic elements), conjugating these three tenses as they unfold over their feature length.  Blue concludes the Dantesque sequence in which “The first film represented the underworld, the second the real world, Bliss paradise” (Peake, 475).  In this sense, its serene colour field comes after the time of images in the context of Jarman’s filmography.

It does so, too, insofar as the “age of AIDS” conceived as a historicist periodization follows an era characterized by the project of gay liberation and its vaunting of “positive images,” a nomenclature that arguably failed to stand the test of time from one decade to the next.  As Jarman attests in Smiling in Slow Motion, “The concept of positive images was born out of gay liberation in the 1970s…. There was a disgraceful review of my films by the [Gay Times] positive image ‘film critic’ Steven Bourne.  Positive images are an illusion, like commercials – they are not the stuff of art” (Smiling, 168).  What he deplores in a reliance on such images is the failure to engage with the graphic realities of homophobia in a tactic that seeks to counter bigotry through a mimicry of the acceptable, youth and health being constitutive components of the putatively positive.  For Jarman, the political and historical matter of “positive images” was inseparable from the filmmaker’s ever-present pragmatic dilemma, as he noted in preparing to shoot Wittgenstein:  “How do you make images resonate?  They can’t be illustrative, there’s not much point in making a film ‘about’ something” (Smiling, 133).  (It was also at times difficult to disentangle from the problematic “visual illiteracy” he deplored in the London passersby [Smiling, 177]).

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 8)

Waves of icy sulphadiazine breaking on the farther shores after we have crossed over in a blizzard of pills, a rainbow-coloured confetti of serpent poisons, sharp-toothed as the adder.  Words, no longer strung out on the lines of narrative, escape and hang round corners waiting to jump out of the dictionary, restore primal disorder.  The emerald apple sits on my bedside table, its perfection disordered in my mind’s eye…. Apple of my eye.

Someone else says losing your sight must be frightening.  Not so, as long as you have a safe harbour in the sea of shadows.  Just inconvenient.  If you woke on a dark day, had only the mind’s eye with which to see your way, would you turn back?

My drip ticks away a long afternoon.  The sulphadiazine battles with the cysts to bring me second sight.  By tea time the migraine takes over.  They play the ‘theme tune’ from Death in Venice as I enter the brain scan….

My eyes are back, I can read.  Though the grey shadows circle at the periphery, and the drugs make me dizzy and disorientated…. I could be out by Saturday.  I’m stronger, have put my weight back on; but feel like an invalid.  I can’t believe I’ll ever be well again.  The drugs have brought on a rash.  I’ll be on them for life, and how long will that be?

The lilies Lynn sent me have lasted eight days.

A woman leads a blind child slowly down the stairs.

In the vision field you gaze for an eternity at small bright lights and press a buzzer each time lights flash on and off.  It is confusing and my eyes, heavy with antihistamine, fall asleep.  An eye for an eye.  I return to the waiting room….

I wish I had brought a video and recorded these last weeks here….

What the eye doesn’t see the mind doesn’t grieve for….

The day of our death is sealed up.  I do not wish to die…yet.  I would love to see my garden through several summers….

I view the world through drunken eyes….

The horizon has closed in….

X-rays take an age.  I hate this waiting room…. A sign says Come Early, Save Time.  [Modern Nature, 304 ff]

The language of these journal entries and others like them affords an opportunity – and imposes a certain obligation – to read Jarman reading, as it links the threat of blindness posed by HIV not merely with a de rigueur clock-watching “during the long hours” in hospital waiting rooms and wards, but with an imperative to read the time even as he continues to record “across the empty page” a time that is “all awry” (“My weakness is my inability to grasp that literate and intelligent people could do anything but agree that this time is all awry” [Smiling, 111]).  And the responsibility to read the time is not Jarman’s alone.  Indeed, its urgency is not confined to those already suffering the incalculable effects of the virus, among them the foreclosing of life’s horizon.  The journal’s intermittently apostrophic mode – here, “If you woke on a dark day, had only the mind’s eye with which to see your way, would you turn back?” – directs the imperative not only to its eventual readers, but more generally to all persons of voice:  first, second and third.  By way of a question that, once again, is neither simply rhetorical nor strictly hypothetical, the prospect of blindness evokes the perhaps compensatory and certainly allegorical figuration of a supplementary “vision” (the “mind’s eye,” “second sight,” an “eye for an eye”), allowing for the possibility that “blindness may be a blessing, even the gift of poetic and political clairvoyance, the chance for prophecy” (Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, 1993, 128).  All as the drip delivers the drugs that Jarman will be on “for life, and how long will that be?”, even as it “ticks away a long afternoon.”  Appearing three years later, his last film will allude (again apostrophically) to the long duration of the brief time remaining:  “This illness knocks you for six / Just as you start to forget it / A bullet in the back of the head / Might be easier / You know, you can take longer than / The second world war to get to the grave”  (Blue, 26).

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 7)

But in Blue, crucially, the IV drip is also more and other than a medical technology, for “The drip ticks out the seconds, the source of a stream along which the minutes flow, to join the river of hours, the sea of years and the timeless ocean” (Blue, 18).  It functions here as a kind of prosthetic timepiece that measures or marks the time remaining, on the order of a watch, a clock (at this stage, the soundtrack reproduces the differential ticking of multiple clocks), and eventually a calendar.  [In 1991, Jarman published Today and Tomorrow, a perpetual calendar that featured reproductions of a number of his paintings.  Cf. Blue:  “The darkness comes in with the tide / The year slips on the calendar” (20).]  Indeed, the passage recalls a series of journal entries dating from July 1990, when “I was taken into hospital…for an emergency brain scan, which picked up the toxoplasmosis that had destroyed my sight in the previous days” (Modern Nature, 304).  Modern Nature records an early stage in Jarman’s gradual loss of vision under the assault of successive opportunistic infections, chronicled further in Smiling in Slow Motion and both thematized and figured in Blue.  In part because the language of the journals informs so much of the artist’s subsequent writing, painting and film, it warrants citation at some length.

No books to read, no newspapers.  So, what did I think about during the long hours?

I watched the clock.

On the first day its face was a fuzzy halo, the digits telescoped and disappeared.

On the second day I could see the red second hand move in a jumble of black.

On the third day I paused, looked and looked again and read the time.

On the fourth day I could read the numbers round the dial….

Beware of very hot water reads the sign above the basin.  The number 13 in the corridor slowly came into focus.  It’s 11:25, I have written three pages.  My writing is illegible.  It is remarkably easy to lose your sight:  a bad headache on a Friday evening and words slide off the pages.  Within a few days they disappear altogether.

In the waiting room of the West London Eye Hospital I was barely aware of the drip sticking in my arm watched by curious children.  I read the flashing dot in the machines and longed to get back into my bed….

I feel I should be able to record more than I have or more deeply and find I cannot….

My symptoms are a first.  I will be written up in the BMJ….

I see the blue sky veiled with shadows….

The nurse said today that this must be a frightening experience.  It isn’t, just aggravating – so silly to lose your eyes.  I can write clearly and in straight lines across the gloomy page.  How many aftershocks must I endure until my body, broken, desiccated and drained of colour, fails to respond.  I live in a permanent hangover, after years of good health.  A little green light flashes in the drip, the cool poison runs into my arm….

Blind as a bat he took to finding his way with sonar, flitting this way and that across the empty page, the starchy whiteness of a page of St. Mary’s foolscap.  Silent as the salt lakes, dazzling, blinding white to the horizon.  [Modern Nature, 304 ff]

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