SHOUFAY DERZ
THE FACE OF THE DEEP

2019



ARTIST STATEMENT

GAGPROJECTS is proud to present The Face of the Deep by Shoufay Derz.

In his poem, The Desert is a Memory of Water(2011), the poet Jack Myers recollects how his two-year old son, “dug holes in the yard and fit his face into each one of them to see, as he explained, if he could find where the darkness came from.”[i]For Shoufay Derz, this evocative poem reflects her similarly well-nourished compulsion to uncover the unknown, which has been the focus of her artist’s career. Motivated by a need for discovery and disclosure, Derz employs poetry and her personal history as guides to monumental landscapes, eroded by millennia and preserved by memory. Looking to what is within and beyond these poetic terrains, Derz marvels at what she can’t see “It’s like looking down a manhole and dropping a coin into the darkness to find out how deep it falls,” she says.

Derz reads landscapes as wordless poems that express loss, doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity. The paradoxical potency of this perceived ‘negativity’ allows our failure of expression to lead us to the unknown, its fragile, unpredictable ruptures, and all the possibilities it holds. In the photographic work,In Memory of water:To Descend(2018), the majestic formations of the Chalk Cliffs of Rugen in Germany, famously romanticised by the eighteenth-century painter Casper David Friedrich have been voided by a veil of chalk from Rügen, taken from the site and applied by the artist’s hand on the surface of the pigment print. Rather than point out towards the void of the sea in the style of Casper David Friedrich, her lens focused towards the material of the chalk cliffs with chalk paradoxically a whitewash to further void the already worn shoreline. You can’t entirely see the cliffs but you can see their materiality. By erasing the already eroded shoreline, instead of calling out, “Here I am” the works exclaims, “Look what we’ve lost.”

Now the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit moved upon the face of the waters.2[ii]

Much happens in the unknown: secrets, confusion, and contradictions. Surveying the landscape, Derz is particularly interested in the paradox of the void as reflection, the illusory separation between the visible and invisible. A state in which the void transforms through space and time to allow a moment in which we observe everything as it is, not as we see it. Although at first glance light and shadow co-exist in a single view, the illusion is created when the voided space opens up like an eye, to bare its soul. An extension of the paradox exists because although the reflection is real, it is also the illusion itself, an irony that creates an ephemeral state of separation much like memory – or a shimmery mirage. For the photographic series Unnamed landscape poems from 2015 at Hill End, a hole was dug in the ground and filled with black Chinese ink to reflect everything around it, so the void could give back what it would otherwise take.

Poetry links Derz’s thinking to the landscapes she explores physically and conceptually, in both personal and geological topographies, reflecting her resistance to the idea of finitude, and the impulse to abandon the delimitations of language in favour of the more imaginative bottomless potentiality of the unresolved and indeterminate. She likes to think of her works as “bad but sincere poems,” but suggests that ‘bad’ is an excess of emotion beyond the verbal, an accumulation of the inexpressible. Ink, characteristically an enabler of expression, here rests in a pool on paper in which everything that does not fit into words has finally externalised, as an inky void.

Mu (not have; without), a cast brass sculpture of a disembodied tongue presented on a chalk stick bed was cast during an artist residency in Berlin. The chalk pieces are fragile not unlike the majestic collapsing cliffs formed by the skeletal remains of minute marine alga, coccoliths and ooze accumulating at the bottom of a great sea about 100 million years ago. With its connotation of a mute state, it speaks of the impotency felt from absence of knowledge of languages on both a universal and personal familial level for the artist. As a landscape poem, 無Mu connects the fragile materiality of landscape with the disappearance of past stories but also the uncertainties of the landscape of the future.

Chalk is an elementary tool of language embodying the essence of transformation; thought to word, hand to paper, word to material. The origin of the word ‘poem,’ derived from the Greek poem a, also suggests something which is generative, a ‘thing made or created.’And just as language and ‘that which cannot be spoken’ are symbolised by formless pools of ink, or sculptures of disembodied tongues, the white veils of chalk also materialise utterances and silence, poetry and uncertainty. Is the chalk a full-stop or a sequitur? As in every poetic exchange, it is open to interpretation. Derz’s work is an ode to doubt, to infinite possibilities, and to the prospect of maybe never really finding out where the darkness comes from.

[i]Jack Myers, “Desert is the Memory of Water,” in The Memory of Water, (Michigan: NewIssues Poetry & Prose, 2011).

[ii]Eleanor Wilner, “Reading the Bible Backwards,” in Reversing the Spell, (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1997).

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Derz’s practice, through photography, sculpture and video installation, investigates the limits and possibilities of language, and the ambiguities faced when attempting to visually articulate the unknown. Informed by contemporary framings of the sublime, cultural heritage, and memorialization, her work looks at the creative tension that is created by the dialogue between materiality and absence. Just as the writer uses words to express the ineffable, her practice engages the intersections between known and unknown worlds. The resultant, elegiac artworks are simultaneously a lament on the transience of life, and a celebration of its mystery. Elemental and alchemical, her works harness diverse materials including the life-cycle of silk moths, glass, metals, textiles, eucalyptus, ink and pure indigo pigment. 

Her work was featured in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart and acquired by the AGSA. She has held solo exhibitions in Australia and exhibited in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea and New Zealand. Recent career highlights include new works at Auckland Festival of Photography with a retrospective of her landscape photographs; inclusion in the ‘4th International New Media Forum’ held at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute Chongqing, China and ‘The Fate of the Image’, an exhibition curated by Wang Chunchen from China Academy of Fine Arts Museum; and showing at New Media Now, Samrye International Media Arts Festival, New Media “Now, VM Art Museum Korea.

Born in Sydney, to German and Taiwanese parentage, she holds a MFA at UNSW and has received several awards and grants including Australia Council New Work grants, the prestigious 52nd Blake Prize for Religious Art and recently the Carstairs Residency Prize at Bundanon Trust. Derz is undertaking a Phd at Sydney College of Arts, University of Sydney.