Shoufay Derz

…all that you need to find poetry

is to look for it with a lantern1

In Memory of Water

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.”2 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 inhospitable, monumental landscapes, eroded by millenia and preserved by memory; places where the unknown resides in the fissures and lacerations of colossal formations. Looking to what is within and beyond these poetic terrains, Derz marvels at what she can’t see. “I want to extract knowledge from the void and reveal the unknown for others to see. It’s about creating a sense of wonder about what is and what was,” she says. “If we define ‘what is’ as a void, then it’s interesting to see how much light the landscape can shed onto and into it. How far it can take us into the past and our own internal landscapes.” It’s like looking down a manhole and dropping a coin into the darkness to find out how deep it falls.

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 – as shimmery as a desert mirage. For a photographic series from 2015 at Hill End, a hole was dug in the ground and filled with water to reflect everything around it, so the void could give back what it would otherwise take.

Derz reads landscapes as wordless poems that express loss, doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity; the paradoxical potency of this perceived ‘negativity’ is that it allows the possibility of ‘relationship’ with something authentic. By doubting ourselves, we engage with a failure of expression, which leads us to the unknown; its fragile, unpredictable ruptures and all the possibilities it holds – the void as receptacle and reflector. In the photographic work, Via Negative (2018), Derz ventured into negative space at the Red Rock Canyon State Park in California in the scant hours when the weak, winter sun was high enough to coax the darkness out of canyons and ravines. By contrast, in 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 Rugen, collected and applied by the artist’s hand. You can’t see the cliffs but you can see their materiality. Although Rugen chalk is traditionally used to restore frescoes, here it is used as whitewash, a concealment rendered on the surface of a pigment print. By erasing the already eroded shoreline, the artist’s goal of artfulness without conceit is achieved; 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.3

Poetry links Derz’s thinking to the landscapes she explores physically and conceptually, in both personal and geological topographies. The works of poets Charles Wright, Jack Myers, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Eleanor Wilner, and Li Po, as well as Buddhist sutras, reflect her resistance to the idea of finitude, and the impulse to abandon the delimitations of language in favour of the more imaginative possibilities of the unresolved and indeterminate. The origin of the word ‘poem,’ derived from the Greek poema, also suggests something which is generative, a ‘thing made or created.’ Although Derz says she likes to think of her works as “bad but sincere poems,” she envisions the notion of bad as a void knowing that at certain times of day, an alternate meaning to the notion of ‘bad as not-good’ may have light cast upon it. At this time, she suggests that bad can also be taken as an excess of emotion beyond the verbal, an accretion of the inexpressible whose depth we can’t fathom, in which only a wince or a blush may be entertained. On the Other Hand (2013), is a sculptural installation composed of two outsized sculptures of fountain pens; a slab of black granite carved to extract the word ‘silence’ out of its darkness in the handwriting of Derz’s late father; and a pool of black Chinese ink surrounding the slab. Ink, characteristically an enabler of expression, here rests serenely in a pool in which everything that does not fit into words has blended together; the internal build-up of the inexpressible finally externalised as an inky void. Renewal from familial loss and mourning takes place by materialising the word ‘silence’ on the black granite slab, a cursive embodiment of absence. It is a one-word elegy that exists beyond speech, not just because it implicitly says so, but perhaps because there may be nothing left to say. And just as language and ‘that which cannot be spoken’ are symbolised by formless pools of ink, stagnated words, 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.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.4

Shoufay Derz | In Memory of Water
6 April – 20 May 2018
Manly Art Gallery & Museum, Sydney

George Shaw is a New York-based writer and artist.

1. Charles Wright, “The Secret of Poetry,” in A Short History of the Shadow, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002)
2. Jack Myers, “Desert is the Memory of Water,” in The Memory of Water, (Michigan: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2011).
3. Eleanor Wilner, “Reading the Bible Backwards,” in Reversing the Spell, (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1997)
4. T. S. Eliot, “Burn Norton,” in Four Quartets, (New York: Harcourt, 1943)

George Shaw is an Australian artist and writer currently based in New York.