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The Absence of the Past is a Terror [1]

User AvatarPosted by at 26/02/2021 15:04:51

For this year’s LGBTQ+ History Month Charlie, one of our Museum Assistants, has written a blog reflecting on Derek Jarman’s ‘Studio Door for Robin Noscoe’ and what it means to them.

Please note: this post contains mentions of HIV and the AIDs crisis.  

Most days I try to avoid the spot in our museum where Derek Jarman's door is on display. Most days I try not to look at it. 

This isn't just because I was meant to hand in a draft for a new object label a year ago (...sorry, boss). This is because if I allow it, the door will capture the whole of my attention. 

I like it, you see. I like the tranquillity of the door, its austere nature. Its lines and textures remind me of Jarman's early focus on landscapes and nature. It feels severe and playful at the same time, like the burnt-clean lines of the desert. I like it because of my own obsession with the idea of liminal space. To take a door abandoned on a bombsite, to decorate it with Chaucer and to give it a new life as a study door of a trusted friend; that is a beautiful statement. A reclamation, a transformation; palimpsest-like with meaning. Take as little or as much from it as you please. 

Knowing that the door was for Jarman's art teacher reminds me of my own art teacher, someone who knew more about my adolescent life than my own parents; who gave me space to breathe. 

Ultimately though, looking at the door makes me think of Jarman himself, of his hands working and painting and creating. 

This is where it gets difficult. 

I think of Derek Jarman's hands. I think of my own, able to feel my friends' ribs as he shook himself apart in my arms. His t-shirt is sweat soft and he tells me he's been diagnosed with HIV. But I didn't know what HIV was. At that point I had no idea about the AIDS epidemic, or how it had robbed us of a whole generation of LGBTQ elders. 

Derek Jarman was open about his HIV+ status. He was absolutely scathing about the attitudes of the press and the British authorities. Two of my favourite paintings by Jarman, 'Queer' (1992) and 'Morphine' (1992) brim with rage and defiance. They feel like holding something scalding clenched in your fist, ready for violence – ready to explode. 

The reason I didn't know about the AIDs epidemic, about Derek Jarman, about my own community – the reason that I grew up without words to describe myself or my feelings, lonely and wounded, was because of Section 28. Its effects haven't diminished with time. Maybe, if Section 28 hadn't existed, if we had been taught our own history, then, maybe – 

Maybe we would have seen the signs earlier. Maybe I would have recognised my friend's symptoms earlier, got him to the doctor earlier, known how to care for him with more compassion, known which resources to draw on. 


Maybe not. 

I'll never know. 

Jarman's later paintings are the smouldering coal of rage that I carry around day-to-day and try not to think about. His writing is my joyous hope that future generations will not have to grow up the way I did. Mostly though? Mostly, I just like the door; constantly in the corner of my eye throughout the work day. Tranquil. Austere. A curl of a joke hidden in the flick of Chaucer's quoted words. Disarticulated from its context. Liminal. 

Mostly, I like the door. 

Mostly, I try not to look at it. 



1. This title is a quote taken from Jarman’s book At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament (1992, Penguin). 

2. Section 28 was passed in 1988 and not repealed until 2003. It stopped councils and schools from ‘promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship’. Realistically this meant there was no support or information available for LGBTQ+ students, and the effects of this are still being felt today. 


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