Derek Jarman’s nuclear garden


I am a believer in mother nature solving many a psychological problem, so i was struck by the delayed closure of Dungeness power station B recently, as being a part of a new realization, contrary to everything i  hold dear, that synthetic power could possibly heal the human psyche. A metaphor to this nuclear proposal is a plot of land under the imposing reactor where an artist, Derek Jarman, designed his garden.

The ageing power station, on the south Kent coast, had been due to decommission in 2018 but will now remain until 2028 as a result of £150m extra investment. Work on building Dungeness B began in 1965 and it began generating electricity in 1983. It employs 550 people plus 200 contract staff and six apprentices a year. The plant had initially been scheduled to close in 2008, but its then operator, British Energy, extended its life by 10 years.

The re-emergence of nuclear power and the continued use of the reactor, perhaps re-affirmed Jarman’s Lilliputian scheme to build a garden under its gigantic shadow. Almost defining the term ‘juxtaposition’, we can see a vision of nuclear power and nature co-existing – perhaps in order to heal Jarman’s ghostly presence; and secondly, to re-energize the Dungeness wasteland.

What was Derek Jarman’s motive for producing a garden on this gaunt peninsula?  And why have a garden so desolate and isolated; with very little organic matter and soil? Was it to harness the ‘naturalistic intelligence’ of the nuclear reactor? Beneath it, adopting the jetsam from the sea, Jarman would view the reactor as it looked down upon the garden. In this way, using powerful forces, he would pay homage to the power station. By doing so he would use an ‘unnatural fusion’ like an alchemist seeking the Mysterium Coniunctionis between Mother Nature and Father Reactor.

For this film-maker, painter, gardener, the pale, deathly landscape was an inspiration, leading to him write about his journey in his inspiring book ‘Modern Nature’. A title that, as we say, juxtaposes two opposing forces in life: suggesting nature – ancient and wise – had returned to her youth. This, however, was never a possibility and this scorched his soul; the garden would never be a healing ‘fountain of youth’ for his illness.

On moving to Prospect College in 1996, Jarman began to dig. With the HIV diagnosis a primary motivator, the task was to produce offspring, an elixir, of image and colour but with some distancing from the archetypal designs in horticulture. He threw seeds in to salty winds; and they would land where they may; allowing nature to sow her own design.

With his creative interplay of image, art and time, he could have chosen a lively, optimistic landscape. And yet he chose desolation. He knew there were dark forces in the moon-like terrain. There was no luscious organic matter, just driftwood and the hardiest of perennials. Choosing to invigorate almost a desert in this way, displayed perhaps, his last hope in a struggle to transform decay into immortality.

Be this as it may, I have come to see this garden as his impulse to re-affirm his life: writ in stone. The mandala circles of flotsam and hand-picked wood and flint were to form creative edifices to entice the Gods home – to Prospect Cottage. A yellow and black vessel, a home with its interior rarely seen. He chose this environment to explore the potential in Thanatos; where the heathen Gods might yet give him extra time if he could bleed new life from the nuclear, windswept sands.

In these Elysian Fields of the afterlife, we see how Jarman’s mandala reveal the healing potential in design, particularly with nature’s plants. But under the towering force of a nuclear reactor, we see how its toxicity was never wasted. Moreover, perhaps the nuclear reactor was a parental figure to oversee the harvest he grew: a father imposing a benign authority.

In nature nothing goes un-used. And the process of individuation requires ‘shadow’, the black arts of the soul – nigredo, mortido – to heal Jarman’s illness. Was the garden a last attempt to salvage his healing potential in such a deathly place? As they say: Choosing the path of traumatic growth leads to thriving in one’s life. In Jarman’s case, the thriving has taken place after his death in the life of his garden. And perhaps his garden has now given new life to Father power station itself?

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