… Love is for vanishing into the sky. The mind,
for learning what men have done and tried to do.
Mysteries are not to be solved. The eye goes blind
when it only wants to see why…

…This talk is like stamping new coins. They pile up,
while the real work is done outside
by someone digging in the ground.

The Wish, Shoufay Derz’s elegant, philosophically and psychologically complex installation of sculpture, video and photography has developed from the artist’s residency earlier this year in remote Hill End, site of a now abandoned gold mine.

Absence, abandonment, emptiness and loss - and ways to make such abstract concepts visible, have long been a focus of the artist’s practice.  She conjures with the expression of seeming intangibles, with stages of transition and transformation as she interweaves her own personal narrative and experience to make manifest universal aspirations, fears and quests for meaning.

The landscape as metaphor pervades her works. Vast, harsh, empty expanses of isolated far flung monotone deserts, craggy abandoned cavernous quarries, and deep, dark, dense bottomless black lakes are all allegorical sites for her expression of wildernesses of the soul.

The Wish suites of photographic images herald a shift from bleak emptiness to a more ‘optimistic’ and transitional landscape with ‘communal’ stands of sentinel Eucalypts signalling a closer intimacy with nature. Light filters through the trees. The palette, while subdued is tinged with warmth. Though trunks are seared and blackened by bushfire, sprouts of new growth augur of endurance and promise of regeneration, of life.

A video cycle, ‘Someone digging in the ground’, set in this landscape is characteristically cryptic with multiple connotations of burial, of searching, of hidden depths, of excited hope, of desperation, of wonder, of bottomless longing, of eternal quest. The artist states: ‘The terrain of Hill End is full of holes. One cannot walk far without stumbling upon a deep burrow or tunnel. The holes are blank open sites of speculation, enticing one to peer down into the dark unknown. I like to think of these holes as luminous voids where imagination ferments and of one ‘prospecting’ the ground for a sense of the unknown.’

Alchemy, a speculative and seemingly magical act of transformation as both process and idea is a significant element of Shoufay’s practice. She rigorously researches and manufactures her own dyes from natural materials and methods. Plant-based Indigo is a recurring culturally and emotionally symbol-laden dark blue-black used by the artist to dye silks, tint the wooden frames of photographs, and, importantly it is the colour of ink, carrier of words. Now, for The Wish, not as some latter day witch, but as an holistic act of integration, the artist has gathered, boiled and brewed eucalypt leaves and gum in a copper cauldron to craft the rusty warm gold-orange dyes for silk and for thread for words embroidered onto the canopy of ‘The sleeper’, a notional tent structure, and also to rub into the wood of deep box frames enclosing images of tree-scapes and red soil escarpments.

The warm luminosity of copper with the allusion to ‘copperplate’, to enlightenment, glows from the ground of ‘1024 full stops’ formed by two copper sheets leaning like ancient tablets against the gallery wall. The ‘stelae’ are pierced at intervals with so many  ‘full stops’, holes for white feather quills; each quill a symbolic voice - but many miss their marks, lying fallen.

Words, their meaning, their artistry, their physical form, and the materials and implements of their making; paper, stylus, ink, hands, are fundamental to all of Shoufay’s art. Many of these elements are implicit in the poignant video, ‘洗手(xǐshǒu) Wash Hands’ with its ‘panning’ for a sense of connection, for a touchstone between estranged individuals. The ritual hand washing is symbolic of cleansing and a means of healing - with ink a salve, a vehicle for words, for revelation of a hidden common language.

The profound writings of the thirteenth-century Persian mystical poet, Rumi are both mentor and essence of Shoufay Derz’s The Wish with its distilled elegance, pervasive conundrums, embrace of paradox, of the prosaic and of the poetic.

Barbara Dowse