Water Forms

Charlotte Cotton, Woman Thinking River 1999


The journey to the sea is filled with anticipation.  The moon is bright and almost full, the sky is clear, and the wind has calmed.  The waves, not yet in sight, can be heard crashing on the shore.  Susan Derges pictures in her mind’s eye a delicate image that might come from this night’s work.  She carries the large sheet of photographic paper across the beach in its light tight box.  By the light of the moon, and the warmer emanations from shoreline towns, she observes the rhythm of the waves.  Each waves creates a different pattern outlined in the moonlight by the foam of water.  A cluster of forceful waves crashes quickly, followed by a sequence of more gentle, undulating forms.  The sense of time passing quickly and of chaotic force at play is overwhelming.  Derges removes the paper from its casing and rapidly positions it on the sand.  Her hands are immersed in the cold water, holding the paper to the shore as it becomes a participant in the tidal flux.  Two waves wash over the paper; she releases a flashlight as the third wave encroaches.  The scene is illuminated for a millisecond and the event fixed: the alchemy of darkness, light and water.

            By working at night, Derges extends the notion of the photographic darkroom into the ever-changing landscape.  The water flow of the sea and the river becomes a strip of film from which she selects.  Part of her journey is to find the sites of the water’s different rhythms and states.  The photographic metaphor has a deeper resonance with the character of water, as the liquid becomes the transparency that holds the record of its sensitive momentum.  It reverberates with the pulse of time and space and carries the language of this in its motion.  Each step into the river to the site of the work must be tentative and alive to the unpredictability of the compact flow.  The photographic paper is carefully manoeuvred into position between the low tree branches and the wet boulders.  They create vortices and wave patterns that are carried downstream like memory traces of past events.  Similarly, the sand dragging across the paper of the sea prints expresses the receding force of past waves, the colour of each grain of sand determined by the length of its stasis on the exposed paper.  On a cloudy night, the artificial light of nearby towns is refracted onto the photographic paper and casts magenta hues.  All these intricate and random elements are suspended in the neutral space of the photographic paper.

            The shadows of tree branches captured in the river prints are elemental to our understanding of water’s engagement with its environment, signalling events exterior to the frame.  The role of the trees through the yearly cycle is delineated not by the transformations of their foliage but by the degree of protection and exposure they create for the flowing water.  The prints’ deep hues from the height of summer express the foliage’s cooling shade.  The lighter prints from the winter months convey the opening up of the river to the sky, the exposure to ambient light.  No two prints carry the same colouration, thus illustrating water’s sensitivity to minute changes in external forces.  The cycle from deep greens to icy blues becomes a tangible scale of protective synergy between water and its environment.

            The sympathetic rhythm of wave patterns and tree branch shadows describe the geometric unity of organic forms.  Branches appear as solidified images of water turbulence and the mark of the invisible streaming of fluids in all living things.  The sense of shared energy is illustrated in a heightened form where the waves and branches fuse in the images, becoming indistinguishable from each other.  More stable forms amid the current reflect the meeting of nature’s sensitive boundaries.  Where a leaf touches the water, dipping the surface tension, a halo of light is created around its edge to form a glowing silhouette.


            Linking the river prints to the sea prints is Derges’s image of the waterfall, in which a deluge of clear water cascades with intricate momentum.  The waterfall print is as large in scale as the sea prints, and predicts the nature of the water’s force as it reaches the sea.

            While the river prints evoke the interplay of organic elements, the sea prints express the yet unbridled nature of water.  The foam of falling waves commands the images” strongest horizontal element.  A wave breaking gently spreads a graceful weave of foam, whereas stronger waves cast an intense and cloudy expanse.  An offshore storm can orchestrate sand and pebbles with such force that they literally graze the paper’s surface, creating a pure dynamic of chaotic water.

            The intimacy of our relationship with Derges’s water forms is drawn from our sense of being underwater, immersed.  Her expansive sea prints overwhelm us with this spirit, eliminating a self-conscious process of distinction.  The human scale of the river prints powerfully indicates our inclusion.  Just as the chaotic flow is suspended in the prints, the fluid unconscious is drawn to the formation of thought through the dynamic of participation.  It is as if our own organic membrane extends to the sensitive skin of the water flow.  The cellular structure of the wave formations mirrors our state of being; our own fluidity adheres to the same elemental forces as the lifeblood of all organic forms.  Whirling vortices of water and the patterns of the annual and moon cycles correspond to the countless inner circles of the human being.  Derges’s works are cosmic forms in miniature, displaying the ethereal forces that bind us to a universal system.