Shoufay Derz, Ritual of Eels – Loving the Alien, ongoing project since 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Comprising photography, sculpture and video, Shoufay Derz’s exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien has its roots in earlier performances at Gulgadya Muru, the grass tree pathway in the Manly Dam Reserve, Sydney, in which participants were invited to paint themselves green and “emerge” as eels. Titled Loving the Alien, the performance has since turned into a major photo and video project featuring analog portraits of friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers who have taken part in Derz’s “eel ritual.” For the artist, the figure of the alien, conjured in the work’s title and her sitters’ green faces, stands as a metaphor for transformation and our shared unknowns. This state is also touched on in the show’s title, which is taken from the Hindu saying “neti neti,” and refers to great mysteries that can only be described through negation.
Derz presents over 24 photographic prints from this project, alongside a new video work featuring those taken in the Berlin locations of Hasenheide and the Botanical Gardens. In chromakey imaging, green is the colour conventionally erased, with the background replaced by a new fictive landscape. Developed for its properties as a colour that is not represented in human skin, subjects are effortlessly recomposited. In this project the people themselves are green. The potentials of disappearance and transformation are shared, mirrored between the landscape and green faces. The video installation is accompanied by a specially designed scent that the artist has blended to smell like her memory of the Australian bush. In addition, she has created a set of sculptures including bronze works. One of these is based on love letters that her father, who was raised in Berlin and later emigrated to Australia, wrote to her mother in Taiwan. The text reads: ‘In the beginning’, thereby adding a personal layer to the diversity of stories told throughout the exhibition.
Her work is concerned with the limits and possibilities of language and the ambiguities faced when attempting to visually articulate the edges of the known. Spanning a conversation on belonging, alienation and the potentialities of kinship with others and the natural environment, her work reveals rituals for the end of the world, so that we may collectively imagine other possibilities. For all this gravity, the work conjures a sense of playfulness and humour, for “in darker times,” she says, “expressions of joy can be a radical activity of necessary resistance.”