Derek Jarman @Tate Britain: ‘Ataxia – AIDS is Fun’
This large canvas is made up of thick streaks of colourful oil paint – in particular blue, yellow and green – which have been dripped, poured and smudged over a red ground in a seemingly frenzied manner. Four lines of text – ‘BLIND FAIL’, ‘ATAXIA’, ‘AIDS IS FUN’ and ‘LETS FUCK’ – have been inscribed into the wet paint surface by hand. The disorderly composition of the painting, and the fact that the words are written into the paint, rather than rendered in a different colour, make them hard to distinguish from the saturated backdrop, although the letters of the two central phrases, which make up the title, are larger and more prominently inscribed.
The slogans included in Ataxia – Aids is Fun reflect the openness, irony and defiance that characterised British artist and film-maker Derek Jarman’s public statements after he was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986. Ataxia is a neurological condition that causes loss of balance and co-ordination. In his diary entry for 12 June 1993, the month in which he completed this painting, Jarman wrote, ‘I have acquired a new disability, ataxia, which I call “wobble” – the HIV is attacking my nervous system so my wobble is in fact a bit of a stagger’ (Jarman 2001, p.360). At this time Jarman was also suffering from reduced eyesight and his body continued to deteriorate until he finally succumbed to an AIDS-related illness in February 1994. For Jarman, raising awareness of the realities of his condition and maintaining a degree of dark humour about it were important political gestures in light of the homophobic stigma surrounding AIDS in contemporary society.
Although Jarman maintained a studio at his cottage in Dungeness in Kent, where he lived between 1987 and 1994, Ataxia – Aids is Fun was made in the studios owned by his dealer Richard Salmon in Kensington, London. Jarman’s working methods in the final years of his life were particularly intense, as he painted very quickly (and with the help of a small team of assistants), before his ill health necessitated periods of recovery.
Jarman trained as a painter at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1963–7) and continued to paint throughout his life, although from the 1970s onwards he devoted the majority of his attention to film-making. After a period in the mid-1980s in which he mainly composed collages, he returned to painting in 1989. Between 1990 and 1992 he completed a series titled Queer, which consists of forty-four paintings that examine the representation of homosexuality and AIDS in the media.
Ataxia – Aids is Fun is one of seventeen paintings completed in 1993 that contain confrontational and comic statements inscribed into colourful patterns of paint (see, for example, Arse Injected Death Syndrome 1993 and Dead Sexy 1993). Discussing these works with the writer Ken Butler in 1993, Jarman remarked, ‘I want to release some of the anger which everyone with HIV feels … The actual physicality of painting will release the violence in me’ (quoted in Whitworth Art Gallery 1994, pp.12–14). As the art critic Stuart Morgan later observed, ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these paintings is their incongruity. Despite the proximity to death, a frantic party atmosphere is conjured up’ (Stuart Morgan, ‘Borrowed Time’, in Wollen 1996, p.119).
The diverse range of colours that feature in Jarman’s last paintings can be contrasted with his final feature film Blue, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in June 1993. In Blue a single frame of deep blue inspired by the hue patented by the French artist Yves Klein (see IKB 791959, Tate T01513) is projected onto the screen while a series of actors recite a poetic text exploring Jarman’s medical condition, and his failing eyesight in particular.
The first work by Jarman to be acquired by Tate, Ataxia – Aids is Fun was presented in memory of Adrian Ward-Jackson (1950–91), a former art dealer and governor at the Royal Ballet in London who died of AIDS, and whose brother, Nicholas Ward-Jackson, co-wrote the script for Jarman’s film Caravaggio (1986). During a lunch held at the Tate Gallery on 16 November 1993 to mark the acquisition of this work, the artist Richard Hamilton took a series of Polaroid photographs of Jarman standing in front of Ataxia – Aids is Fun. These photographs formed the basis of Hamilton’s painted portrait Derek Jarman 1994. Tate holds Hamilton’s digital print Derek Jarman 1996–7 (Tate P78013), which also stems from this event.
Ataxia – Aids is Fun was first displayed at the Tate Gallery in 1994 to mark Jarman’s death.