Rudi, art and the matter of life and death: Derek Jarman, the film-maker and writer, himself HIV positive, lives and works in the milieu of Aids. How does an artist respond to that?

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The Independent Online
Rudolf Nureyev's death is a personal loss, not an artistic tragedy. He had done everything he could have done with his talent and life. What I find more tragic about Aids is that it's not about famous people dying, it's about people next door - younger people, who were just starting off - dying. Like a young man I knew, starting at the Slade, bright as a button, who could have made a great contribution but is now dead at 24.

One interesting thing about the reporting of Rudi's death was that, 10 years into the epidemic, there is still that element of unreality about it. The BBC Six O'Clock News said he died of a wasting disease. People don't die of wasting illnesses, they die of something with a name. Only later in the evening was it said that it was heart failure caused by an Aids-related illness.

The denial of the reality by the BBC, who may have been waiting for confirmation, made me feel uncomfortable. It seemed to me that it was already very open that he had Aids. It is important to know these things; then the parameters of the whole epidemic will be known by more people, understood by people who are coping with Aids and those who are caring for loved ones.

Of course, by being open you risk a slightly ghoulish interest. Someone said to me this morning: 'You survived Nureyev, Derek, we didn't think you would.' Sadly, I don't find myself surprised by his death. The edge has been taken off by 10 years of Aids. You just cope now. Before Aids, death happened, like it did always, like it still does. But it wasn't a situation when a whole generation was reaching old age in middle age. I know now precisely how an 80-year-old who has lost all his friends feels. And I think that the growing used to it is very worrying because there is still a huge way to go to get people to change their perception and stop this epidemic spreading.

But I don't know how to touch on it in my work. I look back on those shock-horror films of the Fifties about cancer and feel I don't want to do that. It's partly because fiction leads to sentimentality, and I don't feel sentimental about Aids. The best films are still documentaries. I haven't seen a single book, play or anything that fictionalises Aids satisfactorily. I think people have been struggling to find ways of describing it.

Of course, you can read metaphors in Fatal Attraction or Dracula of Aids. Any interesting piece of art can have things read into it, though frankly I wouldn't be too happy to think my experience was mirrored by Dracula. The work doesn't necessarily have to be contemporary. Gericault's Raft of the Medusa seems to me an excellent metaphor for HIV: a group of people cast adrift. Aids is not just now, it's syphilis, or Black Death. Philip Ziegler's book on the Black Death is so similar to the past 10 years.

I wrote in my diary the other week that the thing about HIV is that it can take longer than the Second World War to get you, which is difficult to condense satisfactorily into a 90-minute film. It's very difficult to address it in film because the commercial restraints mean it is difficult to do it properly. I can't see myself going to the cinema for an evening of HIV-related film - it's not much fun for someone in my situation.

Having said all that, after six years I'm making a bash at it. I'm making a film about Aids at the moment. It is very abstract, conceptual and will have no images whatsoever in it. But in the end, maybe I'm the last person who should be dealing with Aids artistically, because I'm so short-sighted. I'm right in the thick of it, not objective enough. But then I can't think of anyone who has looked at it from the outside.

It's very complicated. People ask why didn't Nureyev use the fact that he was HIV-positive to do something positive? My answer would be it is impossible. Nobody wants their life taken over by a virus, one has to keep a balance, that's what I try to do.

It's very problematic, what do you do? You either do a Bruce Chatwin and don't tell anyone, or if you tell anyone, then the whole world knows. Once one has been open, one becomes a spokesman: one is always relating everything to one's own experience, which is not everyone else's. But if you see my post- bag, you will see it gives people a chance to talk. I haven't had one negative letter. They say: 'Thank you for talking about it, it enabled us to talk about it.' And I think that's value.

In the end, I don't think there will be any satisfactory artistic response to the Aids epidemic until it is over. But then anything could happen, someone might do something remarkable. What I don't want is for it to be in the realms of banality. You need Beethoven's Ninth to deal with Aids adequately, not auctions of Keith Haring tea towels.

(Photographs omitted)

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