Soul of the Underground

David Chandler, Soul of the Underground 2018


Underlying the international resonance of Susan Derges’s photographic art is the capacity of her compelling images to communicate across boundaries of place, nation, identity, culture, education and taste. Derges’s pictures speak to a sense of universality; they constitute an art of common elements that, in drawing so closely, so directly from nature, touches our primary instincts and experiences of the natural world wherever and whoever we are. But as our already fragile connections with this world become more compromised or more remote, the aesthetic grace of Derges’s photographs, their harnessing of complex visual information into a sensual beauty, and in some instances their rekindling of our fading sense of the sublime, seems to embody something more: that is, a deep-seated yet generalised human desire to mend those connections and bring those primary experiences back into our everyday lives. In this sense, as they have made their long international journey, Derges’s pictures have become floating emblems for a profound yet unspecified contemporary longing.


Although Derges has made work in response to many different places and situations, her core impulses and motivations as an artist stem from her relationship with one particular environment, Dartmoor in Devon, a place she moved to over twenty-five years ago and where she still lives and works. Derges’s work is deeply grounded in this area, and despite its transcendent, metaphysical associations, her art has drawn much of its energy and distinctiveness from a forensic relationship with place, and from recurring, rhythmic encounters with a surrounding landscape that occur in the everyday. In many ways Dartmoor is the multi-faceted living presence that her work has sought to engage with, and that it mirrors in its fundamental atmospheres. It is a place of extremes, of distinct seasonal change, of hardship and wonder; a landscape in which there is an extraordinary dialogue between interior and exterior space: between dense, ancient woodland and sweeping fields; between heavily-textured enclosure and open air; between dark and light; between what is beneath and what is above. For Derges – living in relative isolation and experiencing this dialogue daily, in mind and body – Dartmoor has in turn prompted a fluid exchange between her own interior life and the exterior world; and, in many ways, the larger, overarching project of her work has been the desire to map that inner life, both psychological and physiological, onto the observable, external other.


Recently Derges has returned to a number of iconic works from this ongoing project and re-worked them as photogravure prints. These prints are the subject of this book, and they provide an opportunity to look back and reflect on those core values in her practice. The works revisit a particularly a fertile period in which she shifted the studio-based, observational and experimental nature of her practice into the more expansive darkroom of the landscape itself. Despite the fragile beauty of the works, they relied on intensely physical forms of engagement, based fundamentally on the painstaking immersion of photographic paper in rivers and on the shoreline at night. The locations of the work were places she knew intimately – the River Taw as it runs through Skaigh Wood, and the bridge at Blackaton Brook that she has walked over almost every day since moving to Dartmoor in 1992.


Undertaken over the past two years, the new printmaking project has been a re-affirmation of these key works. The prints have added new depths of tone and colour to the images as a way, perhaps, of recognising their life over time, of marking a maturing process as they age and as our perspective on them changes. They can also be read as a symbolic re-grounding of her work within the internal and external worlds of Dartmoor. They underline once again how site and process, inside and outside, living and working, have become intertwined in her practice, and how the intensity of her art relates strongly to its embeddedness in place. And, perhaps paradoxically, they remind us that the international success of Derges’s art depends on the fact that it is, in essence, so localised and intimate; the re-casting of a powerful and age-old human condition that echoes back through time.


Author’s note

My title is borrowed from Jean Dubuffet’s 1959 work of the same name. The reference to this profoundly urban artist in relation to Susan Derges is an acknowledgement of the two artists’ common interest – shared across very different landscapes – in experimental processes and the forensic sampling of their immediate environments; their search for soul in materiality.