Speaking in Tongues: The Art of Shoufay Derz

Shoufay Derz, Ritual of Eels: Loving the Alien, 2019-20, pigment print on cotton paper, 71.6 x 91.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Shoufay Derz, Under Erasure, 2019, pigment print on cotton rag paper, 128 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Shoufay Derz, I Am Death, Destroyer of Words, 2011, pigment print on cotton paper, custom-made cedar wood frame, stained natural indigo, 92 x 99 cm and video, silent, 2 minutes 11 seconds looped. Image courtesy of the artist.
Shoufay Derz, 無 Mu, 2019, wombeyan marble and cartridge paper (60 cm cube), bronze tongue. Image courtesy of the artist.
Shoufay Derz, Loving the Alien 17, 2020, ongoing project, 2019–20, pigment print on cotton paper, 71.6 x 91.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
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In her allegorical, multimedia installation works Australian artist Shoufay Derz delves beneath the banal events and encounters of the everyday world in search of deeper meanings. Luise Guest speaks with the artist over email on her recent work created in the midst of a global pandemic.

TEXT: Luise Guest
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

Shoufay Derz, Ritual of Eels: Loving the Alien, 2019-20, pigment print on cotton paper, 71.6 x 91.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Australian artist Shoufay Derz has been exploring themes of the ineffable, the permeable membrane between life and death, and the fragility of our existence for a very long time. A boat or ship is a recurring metaphor in several works, including the elegiac Transportation Love Song (2006). Derz found a century-old skeletal wooden boat rotting in a riverbed. Filled with a pile of salt, it became the central focus of the multi-media installation shown at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. While the work suggested a mythical journey between states of being—crossing the River Styx, perhaps—it was also imbued with contemporary associations of fragile boats filled with human cargo traversing perilous seas in search of refuge.

Like many contemporary artists, Derz has restlessly travelled the globe, undertaking residencies and installing exhibitions from Sydney, and Shanghai to Beijing and Berlin. She had begun a residency program in Berlin, at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, when COVID-19 threw the world into chaos. As international borders closed, returning to Australia became increasingly difficult, so Derz remained in Germany, preparing for a delayed solo show in the city where her father was born, strangely enough just around the corner from her studio. With Derz in a re-opening Berlin and myself in a semi-locked down Sydney we juggled time zones to speak via email about the ideas underlying her practice and the new work in her recent exhibition, which opened in late August.

For Derz, born in Australia to a German father and Taiwanese mother, the boat was a potent metaphor for the immigrant experience, symbolising the dilemmas of those caught between languages and cultures. She said, “I am interested in the hybrid feeling of foreignness and connectedness. I don’t know what it’s like to be certain of one’s cultural identity.’[i] Transportation Love Song includes a split-screen video showing a man and a woman seated at either end of the boat, adrift on a vast ocean. They converse—or do they? We cannot be sure they are in the same place at the same time. Perhaps we are seeing two separate, lonely monologues. Derz’s meditative works are never ‘about’ just one thing. Layers of allegory reveal themselves slowly. Transportation Love Song suggests that each of us is alone in the world. The shipwrecked boat is “neither this nor that.” It is a non-place, a liminal zone of transit.

Transit and travel are recurring themes. Derz has stood on the edge of volcanoes, photographed the Badlands National Park of South Dakota and the Taklamakan Desert, the mountains in an inhospitable region of Turkmenistan and the white chalk cliffs of Rügen looking across the Baltic Sea. Each of these extraordinary landscapes becomes mythic places in her work. They represent the endangered, fragile world of the Anthropocene, echoing with our global grief and fear of what may lie ahead. But they are also evocations of the artist’s inner world, her sense of loss and uncertainty, intended, as the artist says, “to refer to more intimate kinds of absences, what I like to think of as holes —inner cavities—and the uncertainty and inconclusiveness of our own trajectories.”

 

Shoufay Derz, Under Erasure, 2019, pigment print on cotton rag paper, 128 x 160 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Deaths and Entrances

After her father’s death, Derz found a bundle of love letters he had written to her mother. This discovery prompted Depart without Return (2011), an installation of still and moving images, panels of glass etched with her father’s handwriting, pure indigo pigment—and live silk moths. Derz says the work’s genesis was a recurring image that haunted her, a woman alone in a desert, traversing an achingly empty space that represents loss and grief. Derz travelled to the Taklamakan Desert in China’s southwest Xinjiang Province, sometimes known as “the place of no return.” Archaeologists discovered relics and artifacts of a completely forgotten Buddhist civilisation there. Derz discovered that in Buddhist thought the desert is not empty but rather a place of infinite possibility.

On her return to Australia she photographed a heavily pregnant friend walking in vast sand dunes wearing a heavy, trailing cloak dyed with indigo pigment. Just as she had researched the process of making indigo, mixing vats of the pungent liquid in her studio, Derz learned how to raise silkworms, and how to make silk from the filaments they produce. I am Death, Destroyer of Words (2011), one element of the Depart without Return installation, is a looped video showing blind silk moths crawling and fluttering across the artist’s indigo-painted face as her eyes slowly open and close. The image is at once beautiful and disturbing as we think of the short life cycle of the moths and the inevitability of death. Depart without Return explores loss and lamentation. It is a contemporary Vanitas.

 

Shoufay Derz, I Am Death, Destroyer of Words, 2011, pigment print on cotton paper, custom-made cedar wood frame, stained natural indigo, 92 x 99 cm and video, silent, 2 minutes 11 seconds looped. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

References to an eclectic range of religious traditions and sacred texts recur in Derz’s works, from the vengeful deities of Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings and the Sufi poetry of Rumi, to the Buddhist Heart Sutra and Judeo-Christian stories of Genesis. Influenced by Daoist cosmology with its fluxing, mutually reciprocal forces of yin and yang, her work alludes to the apparent binaries of creation and destruction, and life and death, which are perhaps not binaries at all.

“At heart paradoxes make most sense to me, places where irreconcilable differences coexist. And yet we seem to act like things are either yes or no rather than yes AND no,” said Derz. “I often think of the following text from Laozi in relation to my Badlands eroded landscapes, ‘In the world there is nothing softer or thinner than water. But to compel the hard and unyielding it has no equal. That the weak overcomes the strong. That the hard gives way to the gentle. This everyone knows, yet no one acts accordingly.’”

 

Speaking in Tongues

Complex meanings are embedded in the carefully considered materiality of Derz’s practice. She covered the Rügen photographs with a thin veil of chalk rubbed over each print, a gesture of erasure. Chalk and marble appear as plinths for severed cow’s tongues, cast in bronze. The image of the tongue re-appears in different guises, including an entire wall of glistening silicone tongues in her exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Raised without a mother tongue, speaking neither the German language of her father nor the Chinese of her mother, Derz grapples with a sense of being ‘neither this nor that,’ in a place of contradiction. Perhaps this explains the intense focus on written and spoken language in her work: apart from the potent symbol of the severed tongue, ink, paper, fountain pens and quills appear in other installations. The cast tongues in  Mu  (2019)—meaning ‘without’ in Chinese—recall gruesome fairy tales. 

Derz said of the work, “My own personal gruesome fairy tale is a memory of when I was younger, and my father would prepare some strange foods […] He used to make a kind of goulash stew. When he offered me a bowl, I remember asking him what was in it? The answer was tongues. I remember recoiling at the thought of eating tongue with my tongue, tasting taste buds with taste buds! It felt so intimate, like a kiss. I also think of the tongues as a kind of topology, with the texture resembling a landscape in itself.”

She added, “I was thinking of the Buddhist Heart Sutra. The words, ‘Form is empty, emptiness is form,’ is a contradictory statement that links to that which is beyond knowledge and speaks towards ‘emptiness’ and the Buddhist sense of ‘no self’.” Simultaneously beautiful and repellent, the bronze tongues allude to the state of speechlessness, referencing things that are beyond words.

 

Shoufay Derz, 無 Mu, 2019, wombeyan marble and cartridge paper (60 cm cube), bronze tongue. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

 

Neither This Nor That

“Not this not that” is the title of Derz’s Berlin solo show. The title is a translation from the Sanskrit expression ‘neti neti,’ referring to a method of distinguishing the immaterial from the material worlds in Hindu and Buddhist practices. In self-isolation in her studio during lockdown in Berlin, Derz thought about the Australian bush and became determined to re-create its unique smell—eucalyptus, earth, the smokiness of sun heating paperbark, and a hint of resin—for her exhibition. Turning her studio into a laboratory she mixed substances in glass vessels in an attempt to create the scent of home. The resulting illusion evokes one place in quite another. The photographic and video works exhibited in Berlin, as “Loving the Alien” (2019–20), grew out of a project that brought indigenous history, water research scientists and artists together at Gulgadya Muru, a wild area of the Manly Dam Reserve in Sydney. For the series “Ritual of Eels: Loving the Alien” (2019–20) her participants were painted bright, chromakey green and photographed submerged in the water, only their heads visible between the lily pads. Her subjects in this series appear like water nymphs, denizens of a mysterious world parallel with our own, if only we could see it. They are photographed with eyes closed, then open, as if ‘speaking’ a mute Morse code.

Derz continued the project in Berlin, using its parks and gardens as stand-ins for wilderness, just as the sand dunes at Stockton, north of Sydney, were a substitute for the desert in her earlier work. For Derz the figure of the ‘alien’ represents the possibility of transformation. It also alludes to the ‘illegal alien,’ the undocumented, unwelcomed foreigner—the other. “I think it’s important to return the ‘unknown’ or ‘what cannot be said’ to the body. The unknown is often considered in terms of the ‘other’ or foreignness rather than more intimately within ourselves,” said the artist.

 

Shoufay Derz, Loving the Alien 17, 2020, ongoing project, 2019–20, pigment print on cotton paper, 71.6 x 91.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Derz sometimes says her works are like “bad poems”—grasping at the ineffable, the unsayable. She imagines fragile, mysterious threads of connection and belonging that tie us to the natural world and to each other. Even while grappling with loss and absence, Derz creates allegories that reveal the possibility of redemption.

 

 

 
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