Thoughts on Implicate Order for Susan Derges
Fire, air, water, earth. We can probably all remember staring entranced into the dancing tongues of flame in a blazing fire, into the dappled patterns of cloud fringing the distant sky at sunset, into the hair-curls of water eddying from the stern of a boat, into rippled ridges of sand shaped into solid echoes of passing forces ñ hypnotised, as it were by phenomena which exhibit persistent kinds of inherent orderliness. It is an orderliness that not only shapes the apparent chaos of contingent events but also defies the ossified regularity of predictably fixed orders, whether those of simple geometry or endlessly repeatable numerical measures. We intuit those processes of shaping that recurrently testify to the deep pattern of things ñ the underlying visual music of physical phenomena. It is a music that retains the qualities of live improvisation rather than settling into the kind of metronomic regularity that certifies exact repeatability.
The 'structural intuitions' (a term I will gloss later) that provide access to such perceptions have always been the stuff of nature poetry. In her poem, 'Water', Kathleen Raine blends perception and metaphor, in a flow of fluid allusion to water-forms, simple organisms, time and individual human existence.
There is a stream that flowed before the first beginning
Of bounding form that circumscribes
Protophyte and protozoon
The passive permeable sea obeys,
Reflects, rises and falls as forces of moon and wind
Draw this way or that in weight of waves;
But the mutable water holds no trace
Of crest or ripple of whirlpool; the wave breaks,
Scatters in a thousand instantaneous drops
That fall in sphere and ovoid, the film-spun bubbles
Upheld in momentary equilibrium of strain and stress
In the ever-changing network woven between stars.
When in the flux, the first bounding membrane
Forms, like the memory-trace of a preceding state,
When the linked organic chain
Holds against current and tide its microcosm,
Of man's first disobedience, what first cause
Impresses with inherent being
Entities, selves, globules, vase-shapes, vortices,
Amoeboid, ovoid, pulsing or ciliate,
That check the flow of waters like forms of thought,
Pause, poised in the unremembering current
By what will be fathered in the primal matrix?
The delicate tissue of life retains, bears
The stigmata, the trace, the signature, endures
The tension of the formative moment, withstands
The passive downward deathward streaming
Leaps the falls, a salmon ascending, a tree growing.
But still the stream that flows down to stillness
Seeks the end-all of all waters,
Welcomes all solving, dissolving, undoing,
Returns, looses itself, looses self and bounds,
Body, identity, memory, sinks to forgetfulness,
The state of unknowing, unbeing,
The flux that precedes all life, that we reassume, dying,
Ceasing to trouble the flowing of things with the fleeting
Dream and hope and despair of this transient perilous selving.
Intuitions that resonances of form across organic and inorganic worlds speak of something more than physical coincidence have also been the prerogative of those artists (we will shortly be bearing visual witness to the work of Susan Derges and those she admires) who have attempted to draw forth the familial patterns of things of a kind and of surprisingly diverse kinds. Those that learnt to look at nature through art found no more eloquent a spokesman that John Ruskin, that most inspiring and infuriating of nineteenth-century critics:
In a wave or cloud Ö leading lines show the run of the tide and of the wind, and the sort of change which the water or vapour is at any moment enduring in its form, as it meets the shore, or counter-wave, or melting sunshine. Now remember, nothing distinguishes great men from inferior men more than their always, in life or in art, knowing the way things are going. Your dunce thinks they are standing still, and draws them al fixed; your wise man sees the change or changing in them, and draws them so, - the animal in its motion, the tree in its growth, the cloud in its course, the mountain in its wearing away. Try always, whenever you look at a form, to see the lines in it which have power over its fate and will have power over its futurityÖ. Those, then are their fateful lines.
Conditioned as we are to think of science as a dispassionate enterprise ñ fired not so much by suggestive observation of the visual magic of nature as by the icy quest for logical precision that Lewis Wolpert has termed the 'unnatural nature of science' ñ we are less likely to grant this intuitive licence to scientific investigators. However, the great Scottish biologist and man of letter, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, provided powerful and still influential testimony that such exclusion may be mistaken. In his classic text from 1917, Growth and Form, he wrote with characteristic elegance that:
The waves of the sea, the little ripples on the shore, the sweeping curve of the sandy
bay between the headlands, the outline of the hills, the shape of the clouds, all these are so many riddles of form, so many problems of morphology, and all of them the physicist can more or less easily read and adequately solve: solving them by reference to antecedent phenomena, in the material system of mechanical forces to which they belong, and to which we interpret them as being due. They have also, doubtless, their immanent teleological significance; but it is on another plane of thought from the physicists that we contemplate their intrinsic harmony and perfection, and 'see that they are good'.
And, even if we cannot take the Platonically-inclined Thompson as typical of modern biology, when we scratch the surface of the motivations of those twentieth-century scientists who have been drawn irresistibly to explicate the secrets of natural processes, we find that their abstemiously impersonal prose and sober figures mask complex tangles of imaginative perceptions and intellectual excitement. At every stage in the process of looking, hypothesising, experimenting, observing, visualising, modelling and representing, the faculty of imaginative insight is consistently deployed. Under the apparently tough skin of objective analysis in a paper in a scientific journal lie perennial itches that demand, beyond all ultimate reason, to be scratched.
This is not to say, or even suggest, that art and science are the same thing. Not only are the surface manifestations of the poem, the work of art and the scientific paper very different, not least with respect to those at whom the works are aimed, but the fundamental mental habits and creative impulses that are progressively brought into play in their making exhibit very different characteristics. Rather, what I wish to recognise are shared proclivities of perception that are built into the cognitive mechanisms by which we decide nature's layers of chaos and order. In this way the term 'structural intuitions' is to be understood as carrying a two-fold reference to the way in which natural forms and phenomena exhibit distinct and perceptible patterns, often shared across inorganic and organic phenomena over the widest possible range of scales; and to the way that we have been endowed with processes of mental sifting and structuring that enable us to generate patterns on geometrical bases and logical sets of numbers. It seems to me that the evolution of the human brain (and, at lesser levels of complexity, animals' brains) has equipped us with the means to set the exterior structure and inner constructs in ceaseless dialogue. The orders of nature respond, as it were, to our articulate scrutiny, while the mental processes of perception and deduction seem to reconfigure themselves continuously to resonate with external systems. If this is anywhere close to the truth, we may suppose that the 'aesthetic impulse' is an integral part of the feed-back system in perception and cognition that rewards and reinforces those mental procedures that allow us to make selective sense of the myriad of impressions that cascade on our senses.
Something of this interplay between inner and outer orders was mooted by Theodore Cook, author of Spirals in Nature and Art (1903), a book that Thompson admired for its wide-ranging visual reference across natural form and human cultures. In the context of his enquiries into the relationship between the logarithmic spiral and the Fibonacci series of numbers, Cook asks How come that even static facts require those successive 'throws' of a series which are like the beating rhythms of a spiral? In the mental phenomena underlying this there is a fundamental truth discernible: the truth that in some way or other all our mental concepts are bound up with rhythmic 'throws'.
Cook's question was to a degree rhetorical, in that the mathematics available to him could not handle the levels of complexity which we now know are needed to show how self-organisation arises in systems that are so complex as to behave chaotically. He was aware that there was a gap between what he sensed and what could be proved: It would only be possible to imagine life or beauty as being 'strictly mathematical' if we ourselves were such infinitely capable mathematicians as to be able to formulate their characteristics in mathematics so extremely complex that we have never yet invented them. Cook was non-committal on the question of whether the phenomena would ultimately prove susceptible to mathematical formulation or whether they were of the ineffable nature of 'something which has never yet been defined ñ the mystery of life'.
Thompson made an essentially similar point about complex systems, declaring the physicist or mathematician can be expected to 'give us perfectly satisfying expressions for the form of a wave, or even a heap of sand', but not to 'define the form of any particular wave of the sea, nor the actual form of any mountain-peak or hill'. As it happens, we now know that even the humble sand pile to which additional grains are added is an unpredictable system in which a poised state of self-organised criticality is suddenly overwhelmed by avalanches of an unpredictable nature. In the case of the organic forms that manifest life in such complex environments, Thompson realised that the goal of total formulation is even more distant.
The organic forms which we can define, more or less precisely, in mathematical terms, and afterwards proceed to explain and to account for in terms of force, are of many kinds, as we have seen; but nevertheless they are few in number compared with Nature's all but infinite variety. The reason for this is not far to seek. The living organism represents, or occupies, a field of force which is never simple, and which as a rule is of immense complexity. And just as in the very simplest of actual cases we meet with a departure from such symmetry as could only exist under conditions of ideal simplicity, so do we pass quickly to cases where the interference of numerous, though still perhaps very simple, causes leads to a resultant which lies beyond our powers of analysis.
What Cook and Thompson were intuiting was a form of mathematics as yet unknown, the mathematics of chaos, in which combinations of Thompson's 'very simple causes' when processed through successive iterations using powerful, modern computers result in patterns of behaviour that are unpredictable yet not random; that is to say that they oscillate within states that can be mapped onto flat graphs and beguilingly in 3-d computer graphics, but whose actual outcomes lie within the dynamics of process itself rather than being subject to any strict forecast. The graphic renderings of chaotic systems often display fractal qualities, which means that they exhibit similar configurations at all possible scales, however far we 'zoom in' to the pattern ñ an entrancing peculiarity familiar to us through the famous Mandelbrot sets (Fig 1). Computer expositions of chaos help us look again at old phenomena and witness the new revelations of science and technology with freshly attuned understanding (fig 2).
Cook is also of use to us in the present context because he drew attention to the commonality of certain 'natural' patterns across artefacts from many different cultures, often remote in time and place. His specific concern was the spiral, which he illustrated in examples from prehistoric and later civilisations across the continents, but it is fully possible to conduct a similar exercise for other archetypal configurations, such as wave-forms, concentric curvilinear figures (fig 3), cellular boxes and rectangles, and zigzags. These recurrent motifs are especially conspicuous in art forms that exhibit high levels of abstraction and schematisation, either in figurative genres or non-figurative decoration. European art in its most descriptively naturalistic phases, from the Renaissance onwards, did not so much suppress such patterns as limit their primary expression to the decorative peripheries of the 'applied arts', while the 'fine arts' dedicated themselves to an elaborate evocation of optical appearance in which these motifs generally featured as implicit orders immersed within the total texture of naturalism. Before the advent of Modernism, only exceptionally were the implicit geometries of form and process pushed into the foreground of the spectator's attention. Leonardo da Vinci (fig4) and Durer were the most conspicuous exceptions. Only with some of the more overtly nature-derived abstractionism of the early twentieth century, epitomised at the highest level by Mondrian (fig 5), did the basic fields of force underlying appearance become the primary subject of the representation. Where the patterns of standing waves in a Monet seascape (fig 6) were but a component of the visual texture of the scene, in Mondrian's pictorial field the conjunction of the co-ordinates of vertical and horizontal forces become the prime organisational elements. This move was in part related to an interest in non-Western and pre-historic art, but it was more profoundly driven by the direct or indirect impact of the abstract orders being revealed by new modes of scientific examination. Atomic physics, in particular, was disclosing a world of dynamics on such a small scale as to have no readily apparent connection with the optically visible realities of earlier science, even when using such aids as microscopes and telescopes.
A nice testimony to analogies between some of the characteristic qualities of abstraction art and the revelation of unseen phenomena in twentieth-century science is Behind Appearance, published in 1969 by Conrad Hal Waddington, the Edinburgh professor of Animal Genetics. Waddington, who married the architect Margaret Justin Blanco White in 1934, enjoyed contact with a number of leading artists and architects from the 1930s onward, including John and Myfanwy Piper, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Ivon Hitches, Alexander Calder, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius. His suggestive juxtapositions of works of art with scientific imagery (fig 7) was not designed to demonstrate 'influence' but did indicate that there were common fields of reference with respect to where the fundamental properties of aesthetic perception and scientific explanation lay, namely in zones deep below the surface appearance of nature. If one had to characterise the difference, it would, to oversimplify, lie in the way that aesthetic perception placed emphasis upon the inner receptive apparatus of the individual, while scientific explanation aspired to objectify the unseen orders below external realities. What they shared was a conviction that the old recourse to the apparent logic of things seen in the normal way would no longer suffice.
Integral to these developments is the transformation of the observer's role in the construction of scientific theory. Not only were the new ways of 'seeing' based upon the transcription of phenomena that they were simply not discernible through emissions of light within the visible spectrum, but the means of observation was itself seen to be playing a determining role in how the phenomena came to be manifested. This is the case, most famously, with the characterisation of the photons of light disclosing themselves to be both wave-like and particulate, depending upon the act of observation. The situation is that satirically immortalised by Schrodinger's cat in its atomic death-chamber, within which the unfortunate animal becomes, in effect, alive or dead only when the observer open the imprisoning box and finds which of the possible outcomes is realised. The observer was no longer the passive repository for nature's lessons, or even judicious experimenter enquiring of nature to uncover her secrets, but someone whose intrusive acts of observation, measurement and recording were themselves integral component sin the dynamics of the system. The enquirer is in effect registering his or her own condition as an interactive part of the whole. Not least of the dilemmas was the need to envisage new forms of time/space, not only the conventional three dimensions but also multi-dimensional fields that defied normal modes of visualisation and depiction. The uncertainty of the locations of particles in quantum physics which can be described only in terms of probabilities further served to obstruct the observer in the traditional quest to see what is what at a given moment.
Modern physicists generally live with these dilemmas, accepting their counterintuitive and counter visual characteristics in the face of the sustained efficacy of quantum physics as an explanatory model. Attempts from within physics to bring a holistic coherence into the world of probabilities and uncertainties have been the exception rather than the rule, and have needed to posit some kind of unified field as an act of intuition rather than of scientific demonstration. The most immediately relevant of these attempts to our present quest is David Bohm's notion of the 'implicate order', which found its classic expression in his 1980 book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order.
Bohm posits a supreme level of organisation that can never be directly accessible to any observational methods we might conceivably invent to investigate the properties of the physical world in the context of our sensory experience. This is not the eccentric view of a sceptical outsider. Bohm was an atomic physicist of world stature, who wrote in 1951 what was then the best overall introduction to quantum physics, and was a significant player in the vigorous post-war debates on how quantum mechanics might be understood and characterised. Increasingly dissatisfied with the intractable qualities of quantum mechanics as an account of 'real' events ñ classically expressed by Richard Feynmam's statement that 'nobody understand (i.e. can visualise) quantum mechanics' ñ Bohm explored the idea that contemporary physics, for all its enormous power and efficacy, needed to look outside the parameters of its accepted technical and theoretical concerns in order to posit the unifying principles of order that underline the mysteries of the quantum universe. He sensed that there was something inherently unsatisfactory with a set of physical explanations that could accept something as simultaneously wave-like and particle-like, without any physical explanation as to how phenomena could embody such self-contradictions. He could not rest happy with a science that worked potently in relation to its own kind of mathematics and related instrumentation but could not offer explanations beyond the answer, 'it's just that way; it works OK, and it's no good being distracted by other questions that we can't answer'. Bohm's style of answering was to look for alternative explanatory modes: at both the classical parameters of older, classical physics; and at ideas that stood outside the standard proscriptions of Western science.
From our present point of view, his most telling styles of 'answer' rely upon the time-honoured method of analogy. The best example that resonates in relation to Susan Derges's work is that of the hologram. A hologram uses the properties of a laser beam (which holds together and does not disperse) to record the wave field of light scattered by a visible object in the form of an interference pattern on a plate. The 'normal' optical array of the object can be reconstituted by a laser to such effect that what we see is a fully three-dimensional illusion, which even responds to the moving of the observer's viewpoint, thus imitating the phenomenon of parallax. Not the least remarkable qualities of the holographic 'photograph' ñ and the one which most intrigued Bohn ñ is that any part of the plate, down to quite small fragments, can be used to reconstitute the whole image. This property is similar to Leonardo's theory of the inherent presence of images (what he called 'species') at every point in the air around an object: 'every opaque body fills the surrounding air with infinite images, by which infinite pyramids diffused in the air present this body all in all in every part'. Such images only become visible when the right conditions are present: in the case of Leonardo's 'species'. When the eye is placed at a specific position which is situated at an appropriate distance from the object, or, in the case of a hologram, when a laser reconstitutes the image for an appropriately positioned observer. The holographic property of each small part embodying the whole image is clearly very different from a standard photograph. A corner torn from a standard photograph negative will only contain that part of the image that resides in that corner ñ a foot- and certainly cannot be used to print the whole image. We may say, therefore, that the swirling patterns of a holographic plate contains in all its parts the optical order with which our sight operates but that this order is inherent within another level of organisation such that we cannot directly see a coherent image of the original object.
Bohm argues, in relation to this and related analogies, that the contradictions in modern theory result from our being equipped only to see only the plate, as it were, and having the apparatus to glimpse only fragments of the symptoms of the implicate order. It is by intuition and faith that the deeper most layers of organisation within the implicate order are inferred. Bohm also looked to holistic philosophies beyond the margins of conventional Western science. For our part, we may say that the artist, above all those seeking the whole through the parts in their articulation of our acts of seeing, retains a freedom to evoke ñ to resonate with the 'music of the spheres' in the mediaeval sense ñ that extends the remit of modern science. It is this freedom which is proclaimed by William Blake, speaking from the very heart of Romanticism:
To see a World in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
These thoughts orbiting around the intuition of orders, are necessarily rather schematic when expressed in such summary form, but they do serve to establish a nexus of concepts and images within which Derges's works can be creatively located. Key to this location are a series of factors we have already signalled: the observer; the medium of record and the means of visual realisation; the manifestation of unseen orders; the interplays of process and form (organic and inorganic); and the relationship between simple causes, contextual complexity and the mapping of the unpredictability of non-random chaos. And, at the heart of everything, lies the relationship between interior perceptions, visual and somatic, and what are taken to be exterior realities.
Following the system-paintings that emerged from her periods of formal study at Chelsea and the Slade, in which serial components were successively adjusted according to predetermined moves, she sought to set up processes ñ experiments in a manner of speaking ñ that would themselves manifest and realise the transformational geometry to which she was instinctively drawn. There has been a long fascination with the way that the waveforms of musical sounds could be visibly realised. Sir Christopher Wren, mathematician and architect, and Robert Hooke, microscopist, experimenter and natural philosopher, found delight in the way that water in a glass vessel trembled with rhythmic waves when sounded by a violin bow drawn across its edge. Even more graphic and enduring were the range of beguiling figures that Ernst Chladni, the German physicist working in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, discovered when dust on a metal plate ridged itself into patterned waves under the stimulation of musical vibrations. Derges's Chladni Figures (1985) were etched onto plates not by copying but by vibrating the resinous dust used in aquatinting directly onto the copper plate by bowing along its edges. The patterns of the powder were melted onto the plate before etching with acid. The transitory sine waves, their propagation and interference, are translated into enduring variations on the musical theme of vibratory undulation.
The subsequent photograms of Chladni Figures, made during a six year stay in Japan, were even more direct in their transformation of process into image, since carborundum powder was agitated by different frequencies on the photographic paper itself before its exposure and development. The photogram, as the most direct means of transmission of existing forms onto photographic emulsion, is as old as photography itself. Indeed, images formed directly by the laying of items such as lace and feather directly onto sensitised paper were amongst the images displayed by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution when he announced William Henry Fox Talbot's invention of photography in 1839. The first concerted masterpieces of the technique were the wonderful silhouettes of plants by Anna Atkins (fig 8) including those in British Algae, the pioneering book with photographic illustrations, which she published in 1843. Dispensing with lens, aperture, depth of field, and perspective, the photogram assumes the guise of a real trace, a visual footprint on the scale of the original, a memory of the essential contour devoid of redundant information. Derges's photograms from the Chladni Figures series immortalise the quivering particles that shuffled inexorably into the ridges of wave-forms, in which each still particle is compelled to participate in the curvaceous geometry. The resulting traces evoke by analogy, without physical or visual imitation, such phenomena as the dancing tracks of atomic particles as they live out their precipitous existence in bubble and cloud chambers. It was (or it seems in retrospect) a natural step for Derges to create animated works incorporating the very dynamism of the processes that gave rise to such transformational geometries. Mercuy, the most lusciously paradoxical of substances, metallic yet liquid, a trembling mirror of lights and shades, was her chosen vehicle. The experiment she undertook in Hermetica in 1993 involved the nestling of a drop of mercury at the vertex of a speaker cone ñ re orientated to face upwards ñ which was then subjected to a continuous spectrum of sine waves. In effect, the powdery ridges of the Chladni plates were replaced by an oscillating and shivering succession of geometrical efflorescence's, blossoming in a series of gleaming primordial, simultaneously bud-like, resonant of shell-forms, speaking of micro-organism and of cosmic pattern, echoing anatomic and atomic forms in equal measure. The sheer improbability that one note has a triangular voice, while another radiates like the seed-head of a dandelion is as captivating as it is unexpected.
The wonders are very much in tune with the beautiful illustrations that the Swiss biologist, artist and morphologist, Hans Jenny, assembled in the two volumes first published in 1965, devoted to what he called Cymatics (Fig 9). Sub-titled, 'The Structure of Waves and Vibrations', his book extends the kinds of photographic exploration of unseen phenomena that Arthur Worthington and Harold Edgerton had pioneered in their instantaneous photographs of the phases of splashes, and that Ernst Mach had made of vortices and currents of air, Jenny introduces his enterprise thus:
Wherever we look in Nature, animate or inanimate, we see widespread evidence of periodic systems. These systems show a continuously repeated change from one set of conditions to another opposite set. This repetition of polar phases occurs alike in systematised and patterned elements and in processes and series of events. A few examples may be mentioned in brief. The great systems of the circulation and respiration are virtually controlled by such natural periods or rhythms. Inspiration and expiration of the lungs, systole and diastole of the heart are only these basic rhythmic processes writ large. In the nervous system the impulses occur serially and may therefore be described as frequencies. Much the same applies to the active muscle system that is actually in a state of vibration. The more closely one examines these functions, the more evident do these recurrent sequences become. Events do not take place in a continuous sequence, in a straight line, but are in a continual state of vibration, oscillation, undulation and pulsation.
In the body of Jenny's book there is no literal illustration of anatomical features and physiological processes. Rather the deep structures of periodic systems are demonstrated through the vibratory, percussive and physico-chemical excitement of granular layers, fluids and gases. Jenny unveils a striking series of photographs of natural artefacts and topographies, which exhibit amazing symmetries, quasi-symmetries and microcosmic geographies.
D'Arcy Thompson looking at Worthington's and then at Edgerton's famous photographs of the coronet splashes in milk (fig 10) had already intuited a parallel not only with such natural forms as medusiods, jelly-like marine organisms, but also with artefacts crafted by the human hand.
To one who has watched the potter at his wheel, it is plain that the potter's thumb, like the glass blower's blast of air, depends for its efficacy upon the physical properties of the medium on which it operates, which for the time being is essentially a fluid. The cup and the saucer, like the tube and the bulb display (in their simple and primitive forms) beautiful surfaces of equilibrium as manifested under certain limiting conditions. They are neither more or less than glorified 'splashes', formed slowly under conditions of restraint, which enhance or reveal their mathematical symmetry.
Derges's own images of singing mercury, entitled Hermetica (by allusion to Hermes, Mercury's Greek counterpart), inhabit just this special territory between the natural and the contrived. Developed after her return from Japan in 1986, they translate the morphologist's observations, whether Thompson's or Jenny's into the fluid poetry of the moving image. In Hermetica, 1989 the key phases of the wave motion were subsequently frozen as a vivid sequence of Cibachrome stills.
But there was another reason for her adoption of the mirroring mercury. It both declared and transformed the image of the observing presence ñ the glassy eye of the video camera. As in the Shinto shrines she admired in Japan, with their centrally located mirrors, we as viewers are both placed outside and drawn by reflection into the core of the material and spiritual phenomenon. The mirrored presence of the observer within the image, as the ever-present mediator, is a recurrent theme for Derges, sometimes by implication and at others by overt visual allusion. This mutual interference between record and recorder is very much a twentieth-century theme, first as we have seen, in science, and now in art.
In one way Cubism and Mondrian's manner of abstraction had already heralded a reshaping of the role of the observer with respect to space and form in painting. However, something analogous to the scientific re-definition of the integral nature of the observer and the apparatus of observation had to wait until the radical questioning undertaken within Conceptual Art in the 1960s and 70s. The notion of the transparent reality of the photographic images came in for particularly sceptical scrutiny. The camera was seen essentially as 'recording its own condition', to cite the title of one of John Hilliard's sets of photographs of the same object taken at different exposures, apertures, and focuses, using different varieties of film.
Derges's own exploration of this issue was less incestuously related to the camera itself than to a blending of experiments in scientific recording with her own optical presence inside the phenomenon. The title of her 1991 series, The Observer and the Observed , clearly signals the latter concern, while the experimental set-up that she devised testifies to a quest for the physical understanding of external phenomena in a way that is not typical of Conceptualism in the 1960s and 70s. Her set-up which elegantly displayed its own kind of wave-particle duality, was inspired by Sir Charles Vernon Boys's Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them, originally delivered as three lectures for young people at the Royal Institution during the winter of 1889-1890, and first published in 1902. As late as 1959 they were re-printed in the American 'Science Study Series' of books.
Typical of Boys's ingenious experiments is the one that provided the frontispiece for his little volume on Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them (Fig. 11). A beam of lights is projected onto a screen through a small hole in a card, behind which is a spinning disk with six holes around its rim. The pulsing beam casts the shadow of an arching jet of water which is vibrated by a tuning fork. The speed of the disk is literally fine-tuned by blowing through the holes until the note is precisely that emitted by the tuning fork. The apparently continuous fountain of water is revealed as an arc of beads. If the card turns fractionally slower, Boys explained that 'all the drops will appear to slowly march onwards, and what is so beautiful Ö each little drop may be seen to gradually break off, pulling out a waist which becomes a little drop, and then when the main drop is free it slowly oscillates becoming wide and long, or turning over and over, as it goes on its way'. Derges does not just photograph Boys's pretty droplets, but she allows her optical presence as an observer to be declared in the whole and the parts, in a manner analogous to Bohm's holographic reality. The camera, focused on the droplets, registers Derges's face behind the jet as an out-of-focus blur, while each droplet, a watery lens, transforms her image into a sharp semblance of her facial features and her observing eye, in-focus yet moulded, curved, stretched, compressed and warped in a bending of space in instantaneous time. The experiment both delivers observational delight and provides visual testimony ñ literal and metaphorical ñ to the ubiquitous ghost of the artist-scientist within the system.
Such images represent a height of experimental contrivance, akin to the beautiful and consciously didactic photographs that Bernice Abbot made for American physics books in the 1950s. They are about phenomena which can be set up in nature, but are they really 'natural' in the sense of nature observed? This question mirrors something of the old distinction between natura naturans, in terms of the immanent formative shapes and forces characterised in an ideal world, and natura naturata, as realised in the contingent world of physical forms and events. When Derges moved to Devon in 1992, this distinction and its related question, which possesses little immediacy in an urban studio, pressed itself forward. Nature, insistently and endlessly, presented its own 'experiments'. This was the world beloved of British 'Old Masters', who had so often sought allegiances with natural historians, students of the earth's crust and observers of the changeable skies. It was a world that disclosed its inherent order and beauties once the observer had 'learned to look' ñ to adapt a phrase from Sir Joshua Reynolds which was much cited, by Ruskin amongst others. Nature even presented its own transmitted images in a passing parade of evanescent photographs. One such was the accidental 'photogram' pf translucent jelly and opaque blobs lying on the bed of a Devon pond in which mated frogs had scattered their plentiful seed.
Transported to her studio, the patterns of the spawn were captured in a series of striking photograms which revealed different orders over time and varied types of order at the same time under different conditions of observation and recording. Photographing static spawn was one thing; but as the mobile tadpoles emerged from their gelatinous matrices, so they posed new problems for the apparatus and medium.
Containers of different types, fixed-time exposures, flashlights, and an adapted enlarger were pressed into service in different combinations to accomplish selective acts of looking which disclosed a fascinating variety of interplays between the growing organic entities and the shapely movements of the medium in which they progressed towards maturity. In the Vessel series (1994/95), for example, the second of which uses toad spawn, the effect is that of looking upwards from beneath the base of the jam jar containing the water. The chains of toad-spawn revealed related yet subtly different links in the chains of connection between the inorganic orders she had contrived in her earlier work and the organic configurations that arise when nature's chaos organises itself into patterns which declare some kind of mysterious coherence, both in themselves and by reference to analogous occurrences.
Unsurprisingly ñ though in reality though the lucky chance that favours prepared minds ñ the life of bees in their hives was next in attracting her attention. The geometrical honeycomb, like the spider's radial web, had been a locus classicus for students of nature's artfulness, at least from the time of Aristotle. The geometry of three-dimensional packing in the cells of beeswax became a matter for serious geometrical analysis, particularly for astronomers fired with a taste for the transfer of celestial regularities to the earthly realm. The tone was set by Johannes Kepler's The Six-Cornered Snowflake in 1611. Searching, as always, for the Platonic harmonies that crossed the boundaries of all things, he observed in the honeycomb that;
The architecture is such that any cell shares not only six walls with the six cells in the same row, but also three plane surfaces on the base with three other cells from the contrary row. This packing, which Kepler compared to the seeds in a pomegranate, is attributed to a physical process similar to that observed when pellets are systematically compressed in a round vessel. But the regularity of the physical actions must themselves be caused by something, and Kepler concludes that God 'prescribed it (the bee) those laws of its architecture' which resulted in geometrical forms.
Derges's Embodied (Fig 12) in 1994 records not only the mathematicising impulse of the bees' honeyed architecture, as its cells were progressively stocked and vacated ñ in a series of slightly enlarged photograms over periods of exposure up to 45 minutes ñ but also used shorter exposures to combine images of static bees with traces of others' dance-like perambulations which wove a new geometry over the ground-base of the regular grid. Whereas the tadpoles had generally minded their own business, unless Derges tapped the container to galvanise them into photogenic action, the bees collectively and individually behaved as more fully responsive and interactive systems. Like those other common-or-garden builders of miraculous edifices, the ants, bees had perennially been admired for their manifest industry and intelligence above all as a collective entity in which each particulate individual melds into the pattern of a greater whole. The hive which Derges set up within the peripheries of her studio not only became a complex monument to the bees' steadfast activity but served as a responsive register of the external and internal environs of the studio. Even our acts of looking were inscribed in the bees' sensitive world. It was no longer just an optical question of her eye or that of the camera in reflection. It involved the dynamic interaction of intelligences, consciousnesses even. In which the scrutinisers became the scrutinised. The intelligences are both of the individual bee, exhibiting what biologists term 'irritability', but of the colony and the comb as a kind of neural net, in which the present is recorded as memory traces and the future is forecast.
These themes of responsiveness, intelligence, memory and consciousness were underscored in the series Cascade (fig. 13)in 1994 by short statements drawn from writers on consciousness and the cognitive dimensions of physics, which were stitched into the beekeeper's veil. Threads of thought from Richard Feynman, Fred Alan Wolf, Joseph Beuys and Danah Zohar provide the warp and weft of a fabric that seamlessly incorporates experiment, analysis, consciousness and intuitions of holism:
What is the nature of these thoughts the interwoven patterns of a
long remembered dance.
The traces and pathways of particles entering, leaving, yet forming
this warm, dark internal space.
Of the same stuff as the world outside, matter is here transformed,
memories embodied. Energy renewed, within the process of continual
Wondering at wondering, the boundaries of this elusive self seem to
dissolve into a seamless web of endlessly reciprocal relationships.
In Wondering (Naoya) in 1997 (fig 14) themes were also presented by images of the disruptive visitors reflected in the glass in front of the hive. Like heraldic bees of the Papal Barberini family in seventeenth-century Rome, Derges's admirable insects inevitably attract metaphorical allusions just as ñ dare I say? ñ Bees are drawn to nectar. And like the Barberini bees, they stand within the orderly analysis of science. The Papal bee had, after all, been the first animal to be subject to a published print of its image as seen down the newly-invented microscope, the instrument which was shortly to reveal that nature's geometricising extended even to the hexagonal lenses of an insect's compound eye.
Yet, even by inviting nature into her studio in rural Devon, Derges was still 'setting it up', less blatantly than before, but setting it up nonetheless. Frogs do not normally sprout the buds of their legs in petri dishes nor toads in jam jars. Beekeepers disturb their charges only when absolutely necessary. Was it possible to create a photography of deep structure that would neither stand outside nature as an old-fashioned observer, nor resort to experimental set-ups that determined the confines within which the process would unfold its inner organisation? Was it possible to immerse the processes of recording within the contin-gent complexities of unfettered nature? Was it possible to look outwards from the phenomena rather than inwards at them? The answer again lay in the ancient directness of the photogram, but on a scale unenvisaged even by the far-seeing Talbot. The photogram is charged in the River Taw series (1997-99) with the task of embodying the most fleeting and elusive of effects rather than creating bright shadows of static beauties.
The Devon river itself serves as a photographic transparency, inscribed with traces of flow patterns, the chief feature of which ñ the standing waves ñ remain relatively stable within the chaotic flux. Sheets of photographic paper in a large aluminium slide are immersed just below the surface at night and illuminated by a brilliant but diffuse flash of a microsecond's duration. At other times, as in Waterfall in 1997-98, long sheets were held behind the vertical fall of a man-made water shute, registering the impetuous rush of water.
In the colour images, the peaks of the wavelets register as white lines and the troughs as tinted by moonlight and reflected vegetation. The black and white photographs are made with a negative process which inverts the tonality. The crests accordingly describe a rippling cellular network of dark membranous filaments, the line of each wave masquerading as a tissue wall. At one level, the works revel in the lucid beauty of wave trains, capillary waves and so on ñ like an aficionado of hydraulic science. At another they suggestively evoke the pattern-forming propensities of related phenomena, not only those exhibited dynamically by fluids but also those discernible in the growth of cells, wrinkling of tissues, the crumpling of lace, networks of capillaries (fig 15) and so on ñ across a vast range of scales. Again, they tell of the dynamic symbiosis of the organic and inorganic, above all when the sprigs and branches of vegetation overhanging the banks of the Taw etch their shadowy traces into the image.
Yet, in the final analysis, we need to remain alert as to how the images of the River Taw embed the artist's presence and consciousness, within the flow of the phenomenon's life. The scale of the slides, at 6' x 2', is such as to inscribe our bodily dimensions, much like the life-size block of uncarved marble that the Italians call a figura. On the one hand, they recall the format and dimensions of Japanese screens, particularly when hung close in vertical groups. They exhibit the technical delicacy, observational subtlety, rhythmic refinement and vital sense of life that Derges admires in Hokusai and Hiroshige (Figs. 16 & 17). On the other they aim to create a physical immersion in the very texture of the image so that we are inside the flow and, at the same time, the flux enters within us. For Derges this state of mutual embodiment reaches its intuitive height in the darkroom during the process which is appropriately called 'development'. Where the thumbs of her hands are recorded in the upper corners of the shute works, gripping the sensitised paper, the embodiment is literally present. In others, it is a matter of empathy and the casting of ripples in our consciousness. The images are, metaphorically, as fluid as thought itself, continually forming and reforming into patterns that echo throughout the diverse chambers of our memories. It is a metaphor that is richly exploited by Theodore Schwenk in his Sensitive Chaos, much admired by Derges:
The activity of thinking is essentially an expression of flowing movement Ö.
Like water, thought can create forms, can unite and relate forms to one another
as ideas; it can unite, but also separate and analyse Ö. Through watching water
and air with unprejudiced eyes, our way of thinking becomes changed and more
suited to the understanding of what is alive.
Such perception of 'what is alive' is attuned to the extraordinary strangeness and fragility of the complex systems that comprise the biosphere within which the human race will thrive or perish. The observer no longer simply intrudes upon nature as a ceaseless enquirer and intermittent experimenter. Human beings, as observational, rational and machine-making animals, have acquired such power to intervene as to transform the whole world into a vast experiment which we may be powerless to stop until we see conclusively that its unpredictable outcome is fatal to our survival. The stakes involved in perceptive intuition of the essence of life within inorganic as well as organic processes could not be higher.
We begin with the four traditional elements. It is fitting that Derges's recent works should move beyond even the watery complexities of the river studies. The Shoreline series (1997-99) resides on the very margin of where the massive waters meet the precarious earth, on the grainy beaches of sand where the pouring sea ebbs and flows, insistent and remorseless even in its most tranquil moods. Water no longer moves within itself, either autonomously or in transforming grip of bank and bed, but it responds with prehensile touch to what it finds at the edge of its skin. Rough aggregations of sand grains and tiny bubbles of incorporated air blend three of the four elements into a microcosmic soup. During turbulent weather, sand and sea are whipped into dark vortices, leaving greater residues of sand behind the retreating waves. Being fully open to the sky, the Shoreline Cibachrome prints are more affected by the ambient light than the river series. The new moon infuses a green tinge, while the full moon introduces a move towards blue. On moonless nights artificial light rebounded from the layer of clouds, tinting the prints rose pink or magenta. And, as always within the infinitely complex system of dynamic and optical phenomena, the intrusive maker becomes an integral component in the interaction of materials and forces causing unavoidable disruption within the swirling and eddying soup of fluids and particles which are inscribed onto the photographic paper.
The resulting prints thus draw into themselves not merely the local phenomena of the beating sea but also the more distant presences of air, sky and atmosphere, evoking the wider ambience of the biosphere ñ never without an implicit human presence, perennially curious as observer and potentially unsettling as the generator of the kind of non-natural lights that astronomers call 'light pollution'. In visual effect, the Shoreline images are less clearly patterned than the harmonic geometry of the Chladni Figures of her earliest 'experiments'; instead they assume the kinds of recurrent configurations we come to recognise as exhibiting fractal qualities within chaos ñ sometimes in semblances of recursive hillocks around shallow valleys, at others organising themselves into the dendritic patterns of nerve cells, river deltas and mud flats (fig 18).
Within the images, the margins of the waves ripple in small tremors that recal the impress of rougher substances, much as the mediaeval doctrine of visible 'species' assumed that images were peeled away from the surface of objects, like the layers of a magically undiminished onion, before being transmitted through the air in concentric waves. It was an idea that appealed to Leonardo, since he could see that it provided a framework for understanding how light behaved like water, like air, like heat, rippling outwards in successive circles before striking some solid object with a force akin to that of the percussion of a ball thrown at a wall. The impact would be harmonically proportional to the original force which changed the object with impetus, to the weight of the projectile, and the distance travelled. The rules were simple; their expression in nature awesomely complex. Just listen to some of the words he listed when we was thinking about how he could possibly describe the movement of water:
Rebound, circulation/revolution, rotation, rebounding, immersion/emersion,
declination/elevation, excavation/erosion, percussion/destruction,
descent/impetus, vortices/collisions, frictions/undulations, ridges/turbulence
discontinuities/deceleration, to flow/to pour, outpourings, sinuous re-submersions,
directedness, murmurs/uproars, to reabsorb/resistance, ruin, flux/reflux, shatterings/chasms,
caverns in banks, eddies, precipitations/reversals, tumult/confusion, tempestuous
ruin/confusion, equality/uniformity, Ö. Deceleration/rupture, dividing/splitting, swiftness/vehemence, fury/impetuosity, convergence/decline, mixing/revolution,
Mind itself was immersed in this world of motion. Towards the end of his life Leonardo wrote:
Water percussed by water makes circles around the point of percussion, as over longer
Distances the voice in the air; and even longer in the fire; and longer still the mind in the
Universe. But because the mind is finite it does not extend to infinity.
This nice conjunction of extensions into ever more distant space was based on the speculations of Albertus Magnus, the mediaeval natural philosopher. The finiteness of the mind, in Albertus's terms, was necessary because the human intellect could never aspire through reason to comprehend the full majesty of God's ineffable presence, but could only hope to sense the nature of divinity through faith. In our era, the finiteness of intellect is less likely to be defined in terms of God's ineffability, and more readily to be characterised in relation to our struggles to devise visualisations of the multidimensional space and quantum realities of modern physics. Could it be that the greatest role for the artist as we approach the end of the second millennium is to suggest through shares intuitions the ways that our eyes and minds may be granted poetic insight into the awesome presence of an implicate order that cannot be otherwise defined?
THE MUSIC OF WAVES, THE POETRY OF PARTICLES.
Thoughts on Implicate Order for Susan Derges