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Susan Derges: "The whole night became my dark room ..."

A portrait by Alistair Hicks

Stream, 1996
Sammlung Deutsche Bank, London

The most popular of the 3000 works of art in Deutsche Bank London lies at the end of a corridor on the ground floor in Winchester House. It is of a good human height and two foot wide. It is blue and entitled Stream, 1996. It is not by any of the famous British names in the collection. Indeed a majority of those visiting the building have not heard of the artist, yet Susan Derges is very much a rising star. Those on art tours are not only struck by the instant impact of the photogram, but are intrigued by the way it is made and the ideas behind it.

Derges is following the traditional route to artistic success in Britain, being recognised abroad first. She had several solo exhibitions in Berlin, Japan and Poland before her first one-person show in Britain. She is a genuine radical, but her fundamental questioning of the way we respond to the world around us took time to emerge. After studying at Chelsea and the Slade in London and going on a DAAD scholarship to Berlin, she went to live in Japan for five years. The Japanese influence is still unfolding fifteen years later.

Susan Derges, Selbstportrait

Susan Derges, Selbstportrait

On her return to England, Derges settled in Devon. She started teaching art at Exeter at part of the University of Plymouth, but by the mid-1990s was feeling "very uncomfortable in having to deliver work in a prescribed media arts course style. I became very critical of the shackling of people's creativity. There were far too few models to encourage people to develop neglected areas of thinking. All this cerebral mental activity caused a huge rift. I was living in this beautiful place (Dartmoor), in this extraordinary environment, and yet being forced to live in my head. I used to walk along the river Taw (with my border collie dogs Tessa and her mother Badger)."

It was the river Taw that gave Derges the idea that transformed her work. "I was fed up with being the wrong side of the camera. The lens was in the way. I was stuck behind it and the subject was in front. I wanted to get closer to the subject. I had longed liked the idea of the river as a metaphor for memory. The river being a conscious thing containing memories all the things it carries with it such as rocks, pebbles, shale. It is nature's circulatory system. I was interested in the science of complexity mathematical descriptions, information and stimuli, which are supplanted when a more ordered group of descriptions, information and stimuli come in. I was also working with beehives at the time as a model - seeing a connection between how human beings operate and how nature operates studying the bees was a way of looking at human structures."

River Taw 19 January 1999

River Taw, 1997

Though it was a big leap the idea was essentially simple. "Walking along the river I realised that if I worked outside in the dark with something that was real, if I worked at night then the whole night became my dark room and the river was my long transparency. I was able to work directly with the subject no intermediaries no lens between us."

Derges' first few steps into photograms (photographs made without a camera) must have been nerve-wracking. "Going out the first time I did not quite know what I was doing." She literally armed herself with rolls of photographic paper and walked out into the dark. The idea was to suspend the paper in the water and expose it to a microsecond of hand held flashlight. The first piece of paper floated off. Somewhere out there is the very first, very battered and overexposed Susan Derges photogram! After several nights out alone she began to devise a technique (read the eyestorm-article on this subject). She made an aluminium slide to hold the paper, which she submerged just below the water"s surface.

After being exposed to the flashlight she had "prints of the flow of the river." She had discovered a way to directly involve herself with her subject matter. "The river offered the opportunity of immersion, as opposed to conceptualisation."

It took time to develop the demanding practical side of production. "The process of making the prints was hard. Quite early on I saw this amazing beautiful image emerge on the paper. Then I over-exposed it and it went black. It took me a long time to get a similar image to the one that disappeared in front of me."

Not long ago Derges might well have been burnt as a witch. Her time in Japan made her very keen to make art on a human scale. "I started making work about my size." She soon discovered that the river needed around five to six feet to complete its flow patterns. "The paper I was using was 2ft wide. I was happy with this width and it is very difficult to cut in the dark." So the light boxes she built to carry the paper looked very like coffins. What did the local villagers think when she strode off night after night onto the moor carrying coffins?

It was working with a waterfall that Derges realised how fully involved she was with her subject matter. When unrolling a print of a waterfall, she was mystified to discover that there were two columns of information recorded. "What was going on?" she asked herself, then she realised that the second column was actually her fingertips, which had been holding the print in place. No less than Jackson Pollock, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, she found herself in the arena of her work, actually part of it. "In making the waterfall prints I could not help being part of them. The prints were giving me information about how I was behaving as well as the waterfall. It was like a conversation between the waterfall and me."

Derges' working relationship with the River Taw naturally culminated near the mouth of the river. The Bank is lucky enough to have one of her largest Shoreline pictures. "They were the most the important things as there was such a clear relationship between the tide and the moon. I had to be very aware of the tide and the wave patterns." They also required more organisation, as suspending the paper was much more complicated. One of them even involved some fifteen students helping. "One would watch and wait for the seventh wave and one needed split second timing."

Shoreline, 4.9, 1997 (detail)

Shoreline, 4.9, 1997 (detail)

While totally agreeing about the importance and the grandeur of the Shoreline pictures, personally I find the magical element in Derges' intimate relationship with her subject. This was necessarily threatened by the presence of others in those big majestic pieces. But then again the sheer difficulty of making all the work puts this balance at risk. "The process is quite hard," she admits but she has moments when she can appreciate her surroundings, "just before and after actually making the prints, I sometimes find myself acutely sensitive to sounds, moonlight and the cold. It is very enjoyable. From quite early on I found that the moon was affecting the work. It provided the pulse to the River Taw pictures. I soon discovered that a full moon caused a blue print."

Shoreline, 4.9, 1997 (detail)

Shoreline, 4.9, 1997 (detail)

Feminist critics have criticised Jackson Pollock and other male artists for playing God by trying to place themselves at the centre of their own work, but they could not fault Derges. Undoubtedly her biological connection to the moon has had an impact. Unlike Pollock she does not see herself in the centre of the arena, but her relationship with the moon has helped yield up a rhythm of nature and of herself. "I often find myself making work at a certain stage of the month. This is connected to the waxing and waning of the moon."

The moon supplied the trigger to her latest and most exciting series of work. For some time she has felt frustrated by the limitations of the print production. "The world as dark room was becoming a restraint; everything about five inches above the surface of the water was just not showing up."

In 2001 Derges was given a residency at the Ruskin in Oxford, where she produced an exhibition for the Science Museum. She broke with her practice to use a camera. In her scientific research into alchemy she was made to realise "that when earlier scientists were conducting their experiments they were always aware of what was happening in the celestial spheres, what was going on above their heads."

Last winter Derges was lent a cottage on the Cawdor Estate in Scotland and it was here that she made her latest breakthrough. Up on the hills it was very open. The burns (Scottish for streams) had no protection from bushes and trees. She saw reflections of the moon in the water. She was reminded of the Japanese woodcuts of Hiroshige and Hokusai, whose moons seamlessly bleed into the water without any hint of a horizon. On reflection she realises that the shape and human scale of her prints had been influenced by her Japanese experience where everything is tuned to the "scale of the body from the futon, the scroll, to the architecture."

Fruitbody No 37, 1999

Respository No 2, 1999

Walking into Derges' Dartmoor studio I was struck immediately by the image pinned up on the wall opposite. It was like opening a leather bound book and discovering one's own childhood. Her latest picture had the universal appeal of a children's illustration. A crescent moon cast its pink/orange glow of a silvery grey. It was the usual Derges shape, the same framed doorway that the Japanese would have used to gaze at the moon. To achieve this image the artist had abandoned her own hard-won technique to make the image in her own dark room. I wish I could show you the image, which has yet to be released. Instead I will leave you with her words. "I knew I was going to have to let the outside go, so that I could explore the inside more."

© Susan Derges, London