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Artwork Details
Published:  July 1, 2005

Author Details
Author:  Benji Derdeyn
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Various Pieces Of Artwork
by Benji Derdeyn
Rolodex As A Visual Communication

Rolodex is a piece that questions the meaning of communication; instead of containing names, addresses, emails and phone numbers, Benji’s Rolodex contains small drawings and written words of strangers.

“I took the blank pieces of paper around to members of the community and had them draw or write on the piece--whatever they chose to do; some people were accepting of the piece and other people were reserved,” Benji said. “I also took people’s names, and organized the cards in alphabetical order, but the names are not viewable to the audience.”

Rolodex was Benji’s first exploration in conceptual art: “I learned about the interaction in the community, I learned how to get people to embrace it.” He said if the project were done again, he would have multiples of the piece, convince people to leave it in public, and make it more obvious that it’s meant to be used in that manner.

This piece was chosen for a show in Baltimore at a gallery called Cubicle 10. The gallery atmosphere seemed to change the meaning of the piece: “When I got to the gallery, and I put it on this white pedestal, in a white room, with white seemed much more stale than I wanted it to be. I think it lost a lot of the excitement once it was in a gallery setting,” Benji said.

This realization excited him to get out of the realm of the gallery, and as a result, it strongly shaped his perspective of the ideas presented in his later pieces, (also featured in this article).

Drawing With Feet, A Ritual

This piece is a site-specific sculpture that was placed in a foyer of a building on the M.I.C.A. campus. The sculpture is made of three boxes: the first contains water, the second contains a layer of memory foam, and the third contains baby powder.

“I enjoyed working with materials that aren’t necessarily in this traditional, classical idea of sculpture. I was pushing the boundaries of my understanding about what materials could be used beyond wood, steel, or clay,” Benji said.

People are invited to walk through the boxes, and as each person walks through, they make a sort of drawing with their feet; when another person comes through, it is an addition to the previous person’s drawing.

“I like the interaction and the vulnerability people have because they have to take their shoes off. A lot of people don’t like to do that, but people are more receptive to the piece when they feel vulnerable,” Benji said.

Naturally, the baby powder sticks to the participant’s damp feet, and each person takes part of that piece with them; it gets dispersed to wherever they go that day, it gets in their socks and shoes, and it stays with them for a period of time.

Benji said he, “wanted it to be a sort ritualistic thing you can do when you enter the space, like when you go into a church, and you touch the baptismal water—not necessarily a cleansing ritual, but a pampering, soothing thing.”

In order to naturally integrate the piece with the architectural details of the room, Benji used the same edging on the constructed boxes as that of the edging on the walls. The white of the towel, the paint below the water, and the baby powder matches the color of the walls, and adds to the ritualistic aspect of the piece.

“I wanted the piece to look as if it was supposed to be there, totally integrated into the atmosphere,” but of course, “part of the problem of having it integrated in the atmosphere, [is the students] know it wasn’t there the previous day.”

The outside dimensions of the piece are as follows: 10 ft. by 6 ft. by 4 inches tall.

The Art Of Storytelling

“The story is about myself, and my interaction with the world,” Benji said. One thing that is important about this piece, however, is the accessibility and inaccessibility of it. How the listener relates to the story on a personal level, or connects to the story on an allegorical level becomes more important than describing what every word of the piece specifically means to the artist.

“When I completed the piece, I realized what is really powerful about story telling is, […] It’s mental visual imagery, not physical visual imagery. I am giving them the story, and the viewer can make up the visual art. I want it to stand on it’s own.”

Benji described the basic storyline as follows: There’s a voice---a person who is trying to do right by the sense of what everyone tells him what is right to do, but what they tell him to do ends up being the thing that all the other men in the village did, and were told to do; they lose the real meaning of the action, and it becomes just an action. Basically, they know he was doing it wrong, but he found the real meaning about why the things are being done, and he thought about the meaning of it more than anyone else had in the past.

Benji said he “was interested in connecting with that part of [his] identity, for this piece.” In exploring his identity, Benji decided to find out more about his Native American genealogy. Benji scanned lists of Cherokee names, the Native American history most predominate in his family history. He decided upon Tsunu’lahan’ski because, not only did it sound powerful, but also the name has two separate meanings: he who tries and fails, and something that habitually leans from a standing position.

“I found a lot of Native American stories on audio files, and they have a different rhythm and tempo to the way in which they speak and write. I studied that when I was writing and speaking this piece…to try to make it authentic, as if I was just rreciting this story that someone else told me.”


“Mom, why is it that Auntie always calls you Jennifer?” “She has sort of lost her mind honey.” “Well doesn’t she know your name? I thought you said she lived across the street from you and Grandma when her husband died.” “ She did.” “So then why doesn’t she remember your name?” “ It is just part of her problem, but don’t worry about it. It is one of those things that people just can’t really help.”

For many years I found it extremely disturbing that my great aunt couldn’t remember the names of her family members, what she ate for breakfast earlier that day, or even that she had just asked me what college I was going to attend two minutes before repeating the question once again. Should I feel bad for her, and the fact that she has lost that ability to form new memories, or is it O.K because she doesn’t have to live in fear of those things that have happened in the recent past? In her mind there are no more wars, deaths, diseases, or disappointments that last more than a few seconds. Then again there are also all of the good things that she misses out on, all of those little memories that make life worth living.

All of her siblings have now passed on, along with her husband, most of her friends, and even some of her children have slipped away without any real recognition on her part. But maybe it’s better that way. Maybe a lot of the pain of getting older has passed her by too. Or is it really more painful to be in this state? It is an odd thing to physically still have your mind, but the way it functions is so much different than the way it once did.

Then it hits me sharply across the face. This woman, only a remnant of what she once was, begins to weep uncontrollably, screaming for her husband to comfort her and all the while I sit with unending, gut wrenching awkwardness trying to explain to a woman who hasn’t created a new memory in over 6 years, that her husband died of kidney failure a few years before. I realize that in telling her she will forget in seconds and repeat that question over and again until some internal switch flips, and she suddenly stops crying just as quickly as she began.

I have assumed a role, just as my mother had done, of someone else that my auntie could remember from before the onset of her disease. I was Jeremy, my second cousin who also lived in the same small town where many of my family members had grown up, some of them moved on now, and some of them still living in the houses that have been passed down from generation to generation, carrying on the traditions of those preceding. Jeremy had enlisted in the marines, and for many years he moved up in the ranks through hard work and discipline, both virtues well respected in my family and the armed forces. When Jeremy was shipped off to fight in the Gulf War he was killed in a firefight attempting to pull one of his squad members out of harm’s way. I rather enjoyed being Jeremy, this man that I was too young to really know, but that I knew to have brought my family great pride, being that we have a long history of military men. The first time she called me Jeremy I tried to explain to her that my name was Benji, but I quickly realized after the fourth attempt that she would not relent, excepting it for the time that I spent with her as a sort of alter ego.

“Jeremy do you remember the time that me and uncle took you out and showed you where our property stopped? Way out past the creek, and over the levy that we built to keep the field from flooding?” I always felt guilty, as Jeremy, that I couldn’t remember these things that were obviously important enough for this women who had lost most of her mind to retain for what must have been at least 20 some odd years now. So I would say to her “ No Auntie, I don’t remember that, why don’t you tell me the story.” and she would say something to the effect of, “ Sure you do honey, you couldn’t possibly be that forgetful.” This always made me smirk a bit, which I don’t think she ever caught, but even if she did I can’t imagine that it would have really mattered that much.

Then she would tell me some long story entailing something about a rotten limb on a tree, and me (Jeremy) climbing that tree and falling down “Damn near 25 or 30 feet” and breaking my ankle when I hit the ground. Then my Uncle and Auntie had to carry me all the way from the property line, all the way back to the house (which I know to be almost a mile), and how I “Cried so loud that I could have woken the dead”. “You remember what happened next don’t you?” she said and I would shake my head no, so she continued. “ You just wouldn’t stop your wailin’, and I knew that if you kept it up Uncle was liable to drop you right on your behind and I would have to be the one carrying you back to the house, so I said ‘Couldn’t you have broken your foot closer to the house? You’d think you weighed as much as Ol’ Bessie.’ (Which I knew from a prior story was Uncle and Auntie’s milk cow). I remember that you just laughed and laughed all the way back to the house, and Uncle told me that he would have rather heard you cryin’ the whole way back rather than laughin’.” What a beautiful memory I thought. Just a simple little story, but it made her so happy to tell it.

I heard that same story many times, and for the first couple I let her continue with it, but eventually I remembered the story so well that when she would begin with “Do you remember the time that me and Uncle took you out and showed you where our property stopped?” I would say, “Sure I do, how could I forget.” and then we would reminisce about the broken foot and how angry Uncle was, and that I laughed until we got back to the house. Was it wrong that I lied to this poor old woman, or was it just a necessary part of our interaction?

I went with my mother many times to go and visit old auntie, partly because I felt bad that her family, or better yet, our family, had placed her in an assisted living home, and partly because I just loved to talk with her. She would tell me about things that would pass on once she died, and it began to make me sad that she would die with all of these wonderful memories. Without her or the people she loved no one would know about the time that her father stood up for Henry, the African-American man that worked on the farm, when others in the community tried to accuse him of raping some young white girl, or the time when the tornado blew the barn over and everyone from miles around came to help them build it from the ground up. What a wonderful piece of the world I had found in this wrinkly old body.

Talking with auntie was a relief for me as well. Being in my early teens, I was going through a time in my life where I felt a little lost to the world, and being that I knew she wouldn’t remember for more than a short while I used her as my ever forgetful confidant. I could tell her anything and she wouldn’t get angry with me like my parents would, and she had this air of experience around her that only old age could provide. This old lady soaked up everything about me like a sponge, one that I knew would be wrung out immediately afterwards. I told her about the girls that I liked, and how I felt inadequate because I hadn’t made it on the middle school baseball team, and about my interest in art and how my teacher always told me that I had real talent, but that my dad wouldn’t let me take lessons outside of school. She would just sit there with this look on her face that, if I had no prior knowledge of her condition, would have made me think she was hanging on every word that I said, storing it away in the most important part of her brain. But, alas, she wasn’t.

Then one day my whole world came crashing down. It began with an innocent comment on my part, something referring to one of those wonderfully rich stories that auntie had always told me. One of my uncles, with a cynical tone in his voice said something to the effect of “Has she ever told you that crazy lie about cousin Jeremy falling out of the tree.” “What are you talking about?” I said. “First off it wasn’t even Jeremy, it was his younger brother Chris, and secondly it didn’t even happen the way that she said it did.” I started to defend her, but thought better of it considering that he could have been telling the truth, and besides the disappointment I harbored at that moment was more than enough to leave me sitting quietly for a little while. It didn’t stop there though. The rest of my family began to tell all the stories that Auntie had always told me. Our precious little memories. Her’s and mine. They talked amongst themselves cracking little jokes about how she fabricated most of them, and that her brothers and sisters had always told the family before they died that Auntie had made up these tall tales throughout her life.

That senile old bitch. I felt slighted in some way. All that time I spent with her for nothing. Having to ready myself as Jeremy, like an actor standing backstage rehearsing his lines in the few moments he had before the lights came up. How could she have done this to me, the only person who still cared enough to go and sit with her for any length of time? What made me think that the time I had spent with her had made any real difference to either one of us. I was going to dismiss her stories from my mind, just as she had done with mine. To hell with her and those stupid ass stories. To think that all the time I was soaking up a huge crock of bullshit. I never went back to see auntie after that day, and I think she must have died not more than a few months after that.

At her funeral many of the older family members said a few words about her, you know the usual things that are said about people after they die. There was the whole giving, caring, loving speech. Some of her friends, those who were still alive and about their wits enough to go to the front and speak about her shared with us a few key memories that meant a lot to the both of them. I denied myself the right to be sad about the fact that this woman was not with us any longer, in retrospect it was because I was still a bit hurt about the whole situation. Then Auntie’s nurse got up on stage to speak about her. She started with “ I don’t usually do this kind of thing considering the number of patients that I work with, but Jean was not only a patient, she was a friend as well. I feel obliged to say a few words.” For whatever reason when that nurse’s voice cracked it set off a spark of emotion inside of me, and even though many of the other people in the building were already crying, they were doing it more for ritualistic reasons, whereas I knew this lady was doing it purely and simply for the fact that she felt a great loss with the exit of this woman from the world. I had often seen this nurse coming in and out of auntie’s room or walking back and forth down the hallway, no doubt doing the same thing a thousand times a day, “Here, take your pills sweetheart. Your water too.” Then she would leave, but not before acknowledging me with a “Hey honey” or “Hey sweetie”, but that was about the extent of the interaction that I had with her.

As I walked out of the church, once the funeral had ended, I heard people talking about Jean or auntie, how they knew her and what they knew of her, some called the names of others that they knew and all the while I stood with my back turned to the crowd, basking in the sunlight, and torn by my thoughts and feelings about what had just happened. Then someone touched my shoulder, and I turned expecting to see my mother or my cousin Luke, or thousands of other people before the face that actually greeted me. I hear the semi-familiar words “Hey honey” and see the half-hearted smile of a heart-broken nurse. She said “Jeremy I was calling your name from over on the stairs but I guess you’re just lost in your thoughts right now.” She was holding a package that was wrapped in the funnies from the Texarkana newspaper and tied with a nice little ribbon that was looped into a simple little bow. She handed it to me saying that it was from my Auntie Jean and that she was going to give it to me the next time I came to visit.

I opened the package and out fell a hand written note from Auntie. It read “ I thought about you when I saw this on our weekly trip to the Dollar Store, Love Auntie”. When I read the title on the package I couldn’t hold back the tears that I had early forced into submission. In my hands I held a box of watercolors that I knew were the kind that you give to a five year old child that would more than likely never use them, but that certainly was of no concern to me. Instead all I felt this horrible wave of guilt crash over my body. All this time I thought that Auntie was just this senile old woman who was lost in her own little world, one of the past that would never truly be brought to the present. With this one-dollar gesture I realized that I was what had kept Auntie alive. I was that which allowed her to live in the here and now, and I would also be the one that would keep her alive in the after. I had made a memory for this woman and she had done the same for me. This, I realize, was plenty enough. Does it really matter if what she gave to me was fabricated or not? In all truth she gave me what she had, and what she had was real enough.

A Memory Game

In this piece, a lot of what Benji said he’s interested in is trying to find out how close he can get to having memories of his own become real for other people, “Memory is so fluid, ever-changing. I was really interested in sharing this memory from me that I had three and a half years ago; it was one of the most powerful memories I’ve ever had—one that has formed me more than any other single situation I’ve been in.”

Benji said the written work has “become such a glorified and dreamy memory for me,” and concreting it on paper was an odd exercise for him. Benji asked himself a basic question: “In what form can you express a memory to someone else who hasn’t been there, and have them feel the same emotion/feelings about that, that I have? How can I have the same point come across?” His response: “I’ve now found it’s impossible.”

An Invitation To Make A Memory

I went into class with handwritten invitations for each person in my class; they were on nice paper, with nice handwriting, folded, and sealed with wax. Instead of making a seal symbol, I pressed my fingerprint into the wax; I used paraffin wax. (A side-note: the candle I used for the wax was from a candle I got from the philosopher in residence; he and I extensively conversed about the idea of memory before he died; I received the candle at the funeral.)

The invitations said, “I invite you to make a memory,” and I wrote R.S.P.V., and my phone number. A lot of people do projects that require other people to help/participate-- so part of this was, how am I going to get them to want to participate? I decided mystery is very important.

When you give them all the information, a lot of the real interaction is gone. I wanted to make people curious--if they wanted any more information, they would have to call me and find out. I got a response from about half of the people in the class. I wanted to share with people who meant a lot in my formation.

I found a place in Baltimore that I could sit and think, [and the people who came with me] had to trust me enough to know that I wasn’t doing anything creepy. I asked if they would like to come with me for a certain amount of time. I drove them to the park, talked to them, had a conversation, and I just started walking, and obviously they would follow me… this was in a big public park in Baltimore. I just sat and talked to them for a few hours; the conversations and writings were the final part of the piece.

Because I am the mediating factor here, for the project, I ended up talking to a lot of people about the same kind of thing. I took the conversations and I created writing--I fabricated this memory from everyone else in the class, as well as myself. That is where the story comes from, about what I learned from them, what I found very powerful about talking to them. Approximately ten people participated.

I made enough copies for everyone to take home if they like, but I found it hard to make it natural. I found it was hard to memorize it, I think it would lose a lot of it’s power. Ideally, it would be a memorized performance piece, but it just was not possible in the available time frame.

The Walk

Contents of backpack:
1 gallon of water
1 day’s food
1 pair of socks
1 fleece jacket
1 sombrero
1 first aid kit
1 sketchbook
1 pencil
1 eraser
1 knife
1 pinner
1 pack of filter less American Spirits
1 book of matches
1 zip lock baggie

As day broke I awoke to the desert landscape, with only the sound of wind blowing over flat earth and the faint rustling of sleeping bags bedded over a gravel arroyo keeping me from believing that I was still asleep. Three silhouetted figures and I rifle through what little belongings we have and remove whatever wasn’t necessary for the days journey, though I was just doing so to double check that I had all of the vital components to make the required distance. There and back again. Hoisting up my daypack and walking stick, two of the silhouetted figures and I start off toward the east with only the land marked out by the early sun to direct us onward. A strange thing happens in the desert when walking with others. No matter what tempo each of you starts out walking, sooner or later the polyrhythm subsides and there becomes a unified march towards destination’s end. One person leads, then the next, in a cycle that seems never to end, and for all practical purposes never does. One foot in front of the other, dancing with our partners, until it is time for the next to take the lead, when they then will emerge from the back of the pack, never breaking time, just slightly lengthening the stride in order to reach the front procession and become head of the organism we had become. I now recognize another silhouette moving across the desert along- side those of the previous three, and wonder where it has come from. There are certain points in time when time does not seem to exist, and then there are those points when the only time that exists is that which you create (I can’t remember exactly which of these it was looking back on it, but if I had to speculate I would say the later rather than the former). Snapping back into reality I found myself with the most devastating cottonmouth, the kind that inevitably follows any walk in a dry 100-degree climate. Lifting my gallon jug, now somewhat diminished from its former glory, I dream longingly for water that isn’t heated to such a throat ravaging temperature, all the while steadily gulping down the fire within, both quenching and scalding myself in the same moment. Then, thoughts of pain and pleasure forgotten, I sink back into the world without an inkling of regard for the fact that I was to be once again absorbed into the space-time continuum. Looming not to far in the distance, there are two large cylindrical out-cropping of sandstone, each of them giants luring us with their pre-historic beauty. We sail towards the middle of the two great arms, and we see and hear our great muses in all of their glory, drawn in by their power from leagues across the open sea. We stop and sit only to rest a while. Remnants of an ancient wall now surround us as we find refuge in the cavernous dwelling we have stumbled across, I and another in the seat of the Youngers, the other two in the seat of the mother and father. Cradled by the cool stone and refreshing shade we divvy up our rations:

1 tortilla
1 piece of cheese
1 handful of trail mix
1 serving of hummus
1 power bar

Our most precious commodities were these things, and once their mission was fulfilled it was time for the ascent. Leaving our belongings below, we once again ventured into the sun and with squinted eyes made our way up hundreds of feet of the sheer rock cliff, one hand over the other, slithering slowly toward the top of the world. It did not matter who went first and who came last, we had assumed all roles today, one was no different from the other now, we simply went when we went. All as one. We found ourselves wandering onto a site of past beings, but one, which we knew, was still being, a place where others had been just as we were then. There were physical marks of these beings, but before and beyond that we felt their presence, we knew that this place was far more than we had formerly understood it to be. This was a place of becoming. Here we stood in the midst of everything, the only human beings for miles, and not a word needed to be spoken. On this site of ancient ritual we burned ours, and with sketchbooks in hand we saw the world as we had never seen it before. The sun fading into the distance whispered to us that it was time to leave, and just as slowly as we ascended up, we ascended back down. All as one. Our earthly possessions collected we set off, this time towards the west, to once again assume the roles to which we had earlier become accustomed. One foot over the other, in perfect time, four silhouettes now combined into one we rolled back to our gravel pit, back to our home away from home. Solemnly the chimneys faded into the distance at our backs. None of us needed to turn to see their disappearance. With them I knew that we had also faded away. Remorseful only for a while, the moon came to reassure my worried mind and I once again saw those lonely silhouettes, each one silent and stoic as the next, only recently detached from the others.

Download a MP3 of Benji Derdeyn reading one of his stories.