– Flo Maak: “Monochrome Realities”

· Realism! Online Magazine – table of contents


Monochrome Realities

german version

England, 1993. The screen shows blue, no sound from the TV. On the radio images are evoked. The sounds of rooms and humans illustrate the stories told by different voices. Again and again the ‘scenes’ trail away to lyric images, recounting a dwindling of eyesight, the transition to a monochromatic blue coloring.

This was a co-operation between British TV and Radio: The former aired for 79 minutes without changing the blue image, the latter supplied the belonging sound. Merging the two sources resulted in BLUE, a movie by the British filmmaker and painter Derek Jarman.[1] Ill with AIDS his eyesight slowly dissipated during his last years of life. He lost many friends to the disease; he knew about his own coming death and spoke out publicly as one of very few about the mass dying. Jarman got involved against the double stigmatization in a homophobic society – to be gay and mortally ill meant lacking support by the health care system and the refusal of spaces of dignified dying and mourning.

In English language the word blue does not only refer to a color, but also means sad and is used as a codeword for gay. When the names of the dead are enumerated or when chapters from Jarman’s diary, telling about the pain and blindness, are quoted, then the narration of the movie explores this spectrum of meaning. All in all the text is characterized by a subjective perspective. The blue of the sky and night as well as the one of the sea and other things are included, but those meditations are always in a tense relation with the blue of the blindness and other incidents, which are explicitly mentioned. If there is any contemplation in the film at all, then it is a short and precarious one.

Even with the story being very personal, Jarman desired his film to be as universally blue as Yves Klein’s paintings and objects are. He was fascinated by Klein’s work and shared with him an interest in the meaning of color in general and that of ultramarine in particular. Besides gold it is the most valuable painting material in the history of art as it could originally only be extracted from the rare lapis lazuli; probably also due to this it was for a long time only used to picture the godly sphere, insofar as it means a transcendence of material reality in occidental cultural history. This connotation can be traced in the blue pieces of both artists. Klein’s monochromes show the materiality of the paint and due to the prominence of the pigment they emphasize its haptic quality; to this extent the paintings seem to be targeted against the illusion of a pictorial space. At the same time the intensity of the color creates the illusion of indefinite spatial depth and thus has the effect of exceeding the material towards the spiritual.

Peter Wollen, the filmmaker, -theorist and companion of Jarman, said, that he got unintentionally close to what Klein aimed at with his monochromes- to see the realm of the color – in Jarman’s case due to going blind.[2] About what reality are we talking here? Is Jarman’s notion of reality, i.e. speaking of his blindness and the deadly ignorance of the homophobic society, the same as it occurs in the contemplation of the “International Klein Blue?” Klein was a co-founder of the group Nouveau Réalisme, they announced in their founding protocol: “The ‘Nouveaux Réalistes’ became aware of their collective singularity. Nouveau Réalisme = new ways of perceiving the real.“[3] The followers of Nouveau Réalisme acted artistically heterogeneous; nevertheless a mutual goal was to approach the real by challenging the sublime status of art. Their means included object- and action art. In the case of Klein the aspired real was to be achieved in circumvention of abstract realism on the one hand and figurative realism on the other hand.

Inherent to his monochromes: the aforementioned double movement towards immediate presence of the pigment and the transcendence of the material painting already determined to some degree their relationship to reality. The object is focused in its historically unbound condition, thus reality here is conceived phenomenologically. According to this view, things are supposed to hold the opportunity for gaining knowledge through their pure appearance. Klein’s use of fire and water as “painting media” in other pieces seems to reinforce this approach since they are as basic elements part of the discourse about the anthropologically given.

The reality, which reciprocates in Jarman’s BLUE is on the other hand historically defined; not only AIDS, which occurred at a certain late point in the history of humans; but more so the reaction of society to the epidemic is articulated in specific political decisions or their refusal – this Jarman discusses in the audio track. But how does the blue relate to the narration, which – as the separated broadcast through the radio suggests – functions autonomously from the screening? Is BLUE then a minimalist audio play? Are we dealing with a film at all or rather a frozen image? – Concerning those questions BLUE is also a reflection of the apparatus, which makes it perceivable. “Jarman’s BLUE […] symbolizes the end of the projection of the filmic images. Its blue brings the blue light of a video projector in stand-by mode to mind.”[4] Regarded within the cinematic dispositive it is a move away from film and a return to painting, as Jarman said; or perhaps it is rather a turning towards photography or even further towards the digital.[5] The chronological progression becomes disconnected and on the visual level of the film its sphere of time will be absent. This exit is also the entry for a – here undecided between messianic or apocalyptic oscillating – time after time. This time is characterized by the coexistence of the narratives, thus we see different things in one image, whereby they don’t have to be put in a chronological order. In the case of BLUE this is fortified with the identity of every pixel or grain, the equality of every image with every previous and following one. The first and last images are exceptions that limit this experience, hence open and close the blue wicket. In the case of the TV premiere the blue monochrome suddenly invaded the British living rooms. Since this event you have to decide to watch it and now the image is tied to the act of projection. In the days of the work’s premiere Jarman felt the urgency to intervene in the public discourse about AIDS, because his own death was approaching and many died under bad, but avoidable circumstances. Jarman didn’t make an agitation video clip for a television advert break, but engaged the blue monotony to interrupt the stream of images. The blue image gave all freedom to the viewers’ projections only through the radio did it become a visual reference for a datable reality, an accomplice for the written word without coinciding with it. Why did Jarman decide against the use of descriptive imagery? “I was always stuck with images. I could have made the film with actors, I suppose, but there’s always the question of whether the audience will identify with them. You’d have to get past that hurdle before you ever got close to the experience.”[6] Instead of offering images for identification, the blue screen creates a predestined space for projections, since it is used to create a pictorial space, which no camera would be able to capture. The actors move in front of a blue wall, which later is replaced by whatever scenery the director wishes. Jarman ignores this last step, instead the audio narration gives us instructions to see what otherwise could be filled with meaning arbitrarily. Therefore BLUE seems to invert the blue screen effect: it is no longer a space of the possible but reality – we hear what is to be seen and see no space, no persons, no things, but only the appeal to insert something; however this possibility is taken away, the blue is reserved for blindness. There is no contemplation leading toward purity even though Jarman makes this idea of the monochrome productive. “Derek Jarman’s Blue seeks […] to restore monochrome to life, to history and meaning. His film is not simply pure monochrome. It is also a critique of the very idea of purity.”[7] BLUE criticizes the immediate, “real” experience of the color, which Klein suggested, as well as the idea of the immediacy as such. Here the question of the indirectness and mediacy of discourse and visibility is enforced. It is to this extent that the end of the projection of filmic images within the projection room could make the question of participation in the real space of political decision-making experienced as a conflict of visibility. Visibility isn’t meant here to concern only the entering of the political stage, because this would imply an institutionally bound notion of politics, which is actually challenged here. Much more visibility is tied to the intelligible; Jarman’s BLUE as an intervention in public discourse (which the first broadcast in TV and Radio was) can’t be repeated; nevertheless this movie can tell us a lot about the state of society in the days of the premiere. Viewed from this perspective BLUE does not represent an intervention, but an example of an aesthetic critique of reality in recent history. Thus its (formal) means aren’t simply transferable to our days, but have to be defined specifically for our own space and time.

Flo Maak


[1] Also shown prior and subsequently in cinemas. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Jarman

[2] Vgl. Peter Wollen, “Blue,” in: New Left Review, No. 6, 2000, p. 125.

[4] Dennis Göttel, „Technik und Ästhetik der Fläche. Spuren des kinematografischen Apparats in Experimentalfilm und Blockbusterkino,“ (unveröffentlichter Vortrag, gehalten im Rahmen des 22. Film- und fernsehwissenschaftlichen Kolloquiums in Weimar am 17.03.2008), p. 7. [own translation]

[5] See the aforementioned text by Dennis Göttel.

[6] Derek Jarman quoted by Peter Wollen, p. 125.

[7] Peter Wollen, p. 132.

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