The Artist As a Drop of Mercury; As a Grain of Sand; As a Stream of Waves; As a Racing Cusp of Light...

Christopher Bucklow, Azure 2006


In the title of this essay are the things, I believe, that Susan Derges has used to symbolise herself in the succession of photographs she has made over the last twenty years. The list is in no particular order - just the one I remember them in - and it could go on: the artist as a surging ocean wave; the artist as a water-droplet frozen in mid flight; the artist as a hive of bees; as a cluster of spawn; as a distilled liquid; an alembic; a flame - and now, in this body of new work - the artist as a stilled consciousness gazing out from within a ‘womb’.


Nowadays I begin thinking about all art by assuming, in this way, that I am seeing a self-symbol. I look at it as happening like this: in the creation of the work I consider the rectangle of the photograph, canvas or video screen, to be a symbolic arena in which ideals of the self are displayed or urged. The process appears to be that the artist invents, or selects a set of ground rules of a personal art-making ‘game’. The rules of this game, the rules of engagement with the materials in the symbolic arena, stand for either the total self of the artist, or the ideal total self of the artist - its nature and ideal mode of being in the world. All the actions conducted, and all the choices made within that rectangle are paradigmatic of that self. The artist may be either conscious, or unconscious of the symbolisation.



What does it mean then to say that Susan Derges is, or would like ideally to be, a drop of mercury or a racing cusp of light?  First of all, I think we have to recognise that the answers are going to be essentially psychological.   She operates within ideas that earlier ages would have had no problem with calling ‘spiritual’. I have noted that she consistently adopts an existential position towards herself and her place in the world. Her awareness questions her own nature and existence within society and the realities of the wider universe. The mercury droplet is fluid, responsive, reflective, and in her early video of its motion within the field of sound waves within a speaker-cone, it seems ecstatically to form astonishing shapes before cycling back to a spherical, self-contained rest position. I have no need to spell out the ideal mind being proposed here, nor to mention the connection mercury has with alchemy, or the significance alchemy has for psychology as proposed in the writing of Jung - where the ideal individuated psyche was above all the integrated psyche. [1]


Waves too are vital for her. The metaphor she uses comes from particle physics and also from Eastern religious and philosophical thought. It is that of the interconnectivity of all things. And her ideal, longed-for position would appear to be one of unity. Such a longing for unity can, of course, be found both in the teachings of the East and underpinning the physics of the West.  And it certainly can be found in all Romantic-modern artwork from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. But it is only on the surface of these art-movements, and scientific, and religious disciplines, that the impulse to unity can be seen as a need for unity with the universe, or with nature. These desires are only symptoms; only, in fact, projections or externalisations. For the actual motivating desire - the desire for internal unity, is really a desire for psychological wholeness between the various areas that have been split off from one another during our evolution. [2]


This locating of human feelings and motivations in non-human objects - the imbuing of natural things with psyche -  was called by John Ruskin ‘The Pathetic Fallacy’. It is really a subcategory of the artistic strategy called personification which has long been used by poets and artists alike - though it is much less formally managed than personification. [3] I believe all the things in my list of her series could be considered to be herself, or her ideal self, personified and located in external objects. The artist looks at them and she wishes to share, in her psyche, some of their nature.


But a big change in this situation has occurred. For the objects and things  depicted in past works are separate. She looks at them, they are fantasised states; they are dreamed of, wished for, reached towards. Their externalness to the artist is part of the self-portrait of her being from this period. As we see the works, they have to be considered with her alongside them - she and they are a pair, twins - separate, but longing to be one. The artist offers them as her equivalents, but in the very act of making them as they are, provides evidence of her division from them. At least that is how it now seems to me after my experience with her new work. Before the recent images arrived I don’t think I could have recognised the true state of the older work; the longing was so intense and the holding of the self-symbols was so close and tight - that I could never have seen they were separate objects, or indicators of separation.


With these new works however, I feel that my awareness is not beamed on to the image, for it appears to be inside the image - coexistent with the image. I feel like it is my own awareness looking out from these nest-like wombs. I don’t feel separate from them. I cannot, for the life of me,  make the colossal effort to be outside of them. They convince me that I am them. What must this feeling be like for the artist as their creator? And what of this? - for as a self-symbol they are immensely exciting evidence of a giant event in the universe - that is the integration of a psyche, a fact of integration within a sea of disintegration - that curse of our species, and of our time.


If there is, in some distant way, a sense in these new works, of the artist still as a drop of mercury, then it is no longer configured as a mind peering into the speaker-cone to see the mercury globe, but a droplet’s eye-view - out from within.





[1] I should re-emphasise that these symbols of the self often emerge from psyches that appear locked in a condition that is almost the opposite to that proposed in the work. This then is the ideal self. We might see it as compensatory - or indeed view it as evidence of a homeostatic mechanism which returns the psyche to balance, if that balance has been destroyed by learnt or internalised thought coming in from the family or from wider society.


[2]I discuss these ideas at length with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in ‘Christopher Bucklow talking with Adam Phillips’ published in Christopher Bucklow If This Be Not I, a book published by The British Museum Contemporary Arts and Cultures Programme and The Wordsworth Trust, Centre for British Romanticism, Grasmere, 2004, pp. 39 - 101. (


[3] Further discussion of this can be found in my essays ‘The Sea of Time and Space: William Blake and religion as a human creation’ Sea of Faith magazine, England, vol. 33, 1998 and also in ‘This is Personal: Blake and Mental Fight’ in Blake and Sons - Alternative Lifestyles and Mysticism in Contemporary Art, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College, Cork, 2005, pp. 131-9. (Both of these essays are available on


The text was published in the catalogue Azure to accompany Susan Derges one person show at Ingleby galley Edinburgh, 2006