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Art is a Shapeshifter: Zadie Xa in conversation with Sarah Shin

Sarah Shin is a publisher, curator and writer. She is the founder of New Suns, a curatorial project that began as New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival at the Barbican Centre in London, UK, and a co-founder of Ignota Books and Silver Press.

Zadie Xa is an artist who works across performance, painting, sculpture and moving image. Her exhibition Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers was created with support from Remai Modern and Leeds Art Gallery. The sound component of the installation was commissioned by Somerset House Studios for ASSEMBLY 2020, and can be experienced online at www.assembly2020.co. 

Sarah Shin: Korean mythology and storytelling are central to your work, from the cosmogonic Magohalmi myth in Child of Magohalmi and the Echoes of Creation (2019) to the Princess Bari story in Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers (2020). How did you find your way to them?

Zadie Xa: When I was a child, before I would go to bed my mom would tell me Korean folktales. I think this was my earliest entry point into being interested in Korean culture. These stories were often parables or had some type of moral outcome, and they usually included animals. Even as an adult, these fables are things that I hold very dear to me and it’s these worlds I’m interested in entering.

Magohalmi, which roughly translates to “goddess-crone” or “Grandmother Mago,” completely fascinated me and I am still very much intrigued and obsessed with her. However, I was disappointed to learn there’s very little information online in English about her history and presence in Korean culture. Dr. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang’s research and observations around Magoism really opened up the world of Magohalmi for me, and it is her dedication to Mago that has shed light on this otherwise forgotten and sometimes satirized deity who was once worshiped, venerated, loved and honored in Korean society.

You will often see Princess Bari—a young woman with flowers and bells—in Korean shamanic paintings. Shamans are dividers between the living and the dead and Princess Bari is able to occupy both of these realms as she guides the souls of the recently deceased to the underworld. I find the story of Princess Bari interesting mainly because it illustrates the journey of the shaman, how they must face hardship and sickness in order to become who they truly are. I knew I wanted to make work about Bari, but at a distance and from the perspective of an outsider. And I knew the work would be, as it always is, in deference to shamans and specifically to Korean shamanic culture and practice. So, I ended up using the very loose framework of Bari going on a journey to the underworld in order to find a life-saving elixir to save her parents. I wanted to take viewers on a similar guided sojourn through the experience of animals as avatars to talk about the human condition. The narrative in Moon Poetics invites the audience to assume the role of a protagonist, led through multiple dimensions by all these creatures in order to find a solution to save the planet, and all the lifeforms that share it.

SS: Why were you drawn to Korean shamanism?

ZX: I am really interested in the ritualistic dimension and, what I would call in Western terminology, the supernatural or magical elements of Korean shamanism. The unknown, fantastical, mystical and frightening are things I’ve been captivated by since I was child. But the main reason why I was so deeply drawn to Korean shamanism was my understanding of this culture as uniquely feminist and anti-colonial.

The very first time I saw a Korean shaman was in the movie Iodo (1977), an incredible film that reminds me of artist Tai Shani’s post-patriarchal city in her ongoing project DC: Productions. When I saw this shaman, it was the first time I felt like I recognized myself and women in my mom’s family within the Korean context. Usually the way that Korean women and femme archetypes are portrayed within Confucian parables, mythology or folk tales, and in contemporary media in general, is a more demure figure. So, this gregarious, determined and tenacious character very much appealed to me and I felt as though I could somehow model myself to her.

What’s also really interesting to me is that within rural villages, Korean shamans historically created “safe spaces” for women or those deemed queer (or transgressive through the perspective of conservative, Confucian Korean culture). As the domain of the shaman is already one of transgression and liminality—due to their lower-class standing and positions as societal outcasts—it’s also a space where women and queer folx can escape the rigid imposed gender norms of mainstream Korean society.

SS: In Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2006), Saidiya Hartman said: “Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past. Inheritances are chosen as much as they are passed on.” This for me resonates with what you’re saying about making work from a distanced perspective, and the transformative principle in art work.

ZX: This is the only way in which we’re able to break negative cycles. At the beginning of my professional career, there was this real desire to rewrite and fill in the gaps of one’s hi/story. That’s probably why I’ve always viewed the shaman as a maternal grandmother because I never knew my mom’s mom. The shaman is a grandmother, and she’s me. I think about these things generationally: how does this knowledge of self pass on to your descendants, continue into the future?

I often think about the journey across water that my family took willingly to immigrate to North America. Knowing that I have this relationship to a country or “motherland” outside my place of birth has created a type of tether that instinctively and emotionally binds me to Korea. But it’s not a geographical Korea, with demarcated borders, enforced by paper passports; instead, it’s more akin to how Dr. Hwang has spoken about her identity, referring to a relationship with a cultural and historical root, rather than a nationalistic one. This is something I deeply relate to. In my desire to feel connected there is something that keeps me tethered to the past, while simultaneously keeping me in the present. I’m always thinking about these parallel worlds that exist on top of each other. It’s not like I’m trying to travel back in time, it’s more like I’m traveling up, or to the side, in order to enter that other dimension.

Moon Poetics veers off from my previous projects because it’s less about me and focuses on community, and in that way brings up the communities I am a part of here in London and back in Vancouver. My search and desire for homelands has forced me to think deeply about settler colonial history, European or otherwise: how I am tied into this mess via my family immigrating to stolen land and being an arts worker who contributes to the gentrification of neighbourhoods, and what action I might be able to take to acknowledge this history and my entanglement in its current climate. How can my work touch the real? I was heavily influenced by adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017) and how its messages are reflected in the actions and relationships of people I admire in both my friendship groups and my artistic community.

If I want to, in earnest, be in right relations, as brown would say, with the land where I was born, it’s vitally important that I, we, all of us, listen to Indigenous knowledge regarding ecology, which comes from a very deep understanding of the conditions of the land. It is also urgent that we, the descendants of colonial settlers and immigrants, make right with the land by making right with the people who were there from time immemorial. How can I talk about wanting to find a diasporic, ancestral homeland and feel so closely connected to the Pacific Northwest coast without thinking about these things?

SS: Narrative and storytelling are of vital significance in shamanic cultures and their transmission. What were your interests in working in the oral tradition and giving voice to the creatures in Moon Poetics?

ZX: Stories carry a lot of power. In many Indigenous cultures around the globe, appointed community members are holders of sacred stories, and only they are permitted to share them. The colonial and patriarchal Western education or academic system hasn’t always recognized this transmission of knowledge or record keeping as the “correct” way to catalogue information. And perhaps this is why shamanistic stories and traditional knowledge were considered to be of low value in Korea, within the context of dominant Confucian rule and ideology.

Moon Poetics is placed within an oral tradition for this reason: I respect and value this type of knowledge transmission. I say this with deference, but when I’m making my work, I definitely feel like I’m the shaman, I’m the storyteller. But the stories are not mine and I don’t feel ownership over them—they are tapping into me from the ideas of a collective community of thinkers and makers I admire and feel I am working in tandem with.

In Korean folktales the characters are often animals who talk and are essentially avatars for humans who, in animal form, speak to ideas or emotions that we perhaps wish to communicate with one another. I have always loved how animals provide a window of understanding into who we are and for me this comes from a deep understanding that there is no pyramid hierarchy within ecology, it really is circular. So why not take the time to profoundly think about what the perspective of a plant living in and among this chaos that we’ve created might be? I wanted to decentre the human experience, as much as might be possible.

SS: There’s a connection between shamans and artists, in that shamans will also often be artists, artisans, craftspeople. There’s a shared way of working that is so much about presence and absence, and it’s based in feeling, because intuition is about knowing something that isn’t present in knowledge. How does this relationship to liminality play out for you? I also want to connect this with wateriness, because you are a Scorpio, and the whale and the ocean are symbols of what we cannot know.

ZX: You’ve basically described how I feel I exist within my art practice—sometimes I don’t even understand the journey that I’m going on. I really do think of my studio as a ritual space, where I’m able to build my shrine. It’s a space where I’m able to really clearly think about people I deeply admire, think about my ancestors, and the people who came before me. Of course, sometimes chaos and frenzy gets into it, but in shamanic ritual, they go into these trance states in order to tunnel their way into the other world. I do feel like that is a zone I’m able to inhabit here in the studio.

Water is like outer space, another galaxy, the cosmos, or a fantasy or sci-fi world. We might be able to imagine ourselves in those spaces, but we don’t actually know. This is why they’re so limitless in terms of possibility, and why so much storytelling exists within those environments.

The orca is beloved and venerated by so many people and belongs to many cultural mythologies. They were and still are such an iconic presence in Vancouver. I grew up with the idea and images of these animals and hold so much reverence for their intelligence, strength and social love for one another. It’s fascinating to me that we as humans desire ardently to be in contact with some type of extraterrestrial lifeform, but there are so many otherworldly lifeforms on this planet that we just don’t have any understanding of or real respect for.

SS: What about the relationships between form and symbol, and the particular and the archetypal? There are your masks and costumes that access the archetypal, but I am also thinking about the geometry and the color palettes of your costumes, in relation to traditional Korean textiles such as bojagi patchwork cloths.

ZX: I often repeat numerical formations and they’ll always be odd numbers, usually 7, 9, 3 and 5. My interest in these numbers lies within a personal logic, in which there are also numbers I will not use, such as 4 or 10. I just hate even numbers—there always needs to be one that’s off-kilter. So, in terms of how sacred geometry might work to enable another world to emerge, I definitely think about that through the repetition of symbols.

Using signs and symbols in my work started off almost as an exercise in formality, how one might use certain shapes within a picture plane. However, it was not only the formal shapes I was drawn to, it was also the sentimental value and meaning of each symbol. In Moon Poetics you’ll see a lot of repetitive images of the Fox, Cabbage and Orca. I feel like those symbols hold genuine power and magic when placed within the ecosystem of my work. I need to think about how sculptures and objects are placed in and around the gallery and how that goes with the lighting design and how it all ties together with sound. I’m constantly thinking about arrangement, which is likely due to my training as a painter, thinking about image composition and space. And composition is very much related to the principles of sacred geometry, or how the bojagi or geometrical painting functions. It’s tied to a personal spiritual or magical logic, with very specific formal arrangements that ensure everything visually makes sense to me, so that the work is able to process this magic I am trying to tap into. Perhaps that only can happen when all the codes, signs and symbols fall into the right place, and once the works leave me, they are independent beings. Art is a shapeshifter—you can have intentions for something to be this or that but it might turn into something else.

SS: You work with a cyclical, nonlinear temporality outside of clock time—perhaps a sort of queer time of becoming, making and remaking.

ZX: That liminal queer time is where I engage with my thoughts, and how those intellectual thoughts resonate with my emotional sentiments, which colonial clock time often doesn’t allow for. It’s a space of care where you’re able to get in touch with something that’s more primal. Ritual and performance can access liminal time and tap into states of being that are multiple and simultaneous. My work is not about one thing but a multitude of things that are all intertwined. I can’t make a sound work without understanding the written text. And I can’t write the text without understanding the costumes that embody the written characters, and I can’t understand the costumes if I don’t understand the environment in which they’re living, in and alongside the sociopolitical things that are important to me, my life, research and interests. All of those things run in tandem to each other and are very much connected.

SS: Could you speak a bit more about liminality and moments where things existing at the same time have met each other, or “broken through” for you?

ZX: There’s a lot of cultural embodiments of the supernatural within a cultural Korean framework that I don’t always understand as it’s not my lived culture. Once, on a trip to Korea, my mom and I went to this street in Seoul where they have shops that sell traditional costumes and drums. I wanted to get some shaman bells and I was so excited when I finally spotted them but as soon as I grabbed a pair, my mom had a meltdown. I think she was concerned that I was interested in becoming an actual shaman and she got frightened. A lot of older Koreans are scared of shamanism and its relationship with ghosts and the dead. At that moment, I realized that this had been mostly dressed up as an academic exercise for me. And for other people, this is a lived, embodied experience. Over the years it’s become less of an intellectual pursuit—maybe it is more something that I’m living through and then integrating into my work. It’s very similar to how, because I grew up Catholic, some Christian beliefs are still ingrained into the fabric of who I am and I had to realize how that’s affected my work. Even though I don’t subscribe to Catholic ritual, it’s likely the reason why I am so infatuated with the afterlife and the supernatural.

My family isn’t interested in art and my mom didn’t take me to art galleries. But when I went to the church I was exposed to beautifully illustrated bibles, priests’ robes, the ritual regalia, ornate interiors and so on. And you have one orator in the pulpit who is the direct link between you and God; the Catholic preacher has a flamboyant nature, there’s showmanship similar to the Korean shaman. And the mysticism and the unknown in Catholicism, for example—Jesus is the flesh Son of God and he’s not really a human, although we were made in His image: he’s three things at once. You can’t really describe it if you’re trying to explain it in rational, logical language. It makes no sense in terms of how we physically understand things to be, but of course, it makes sense in a liminal space and that gray zone.

SS: Yes, how do you give form to the invisible, incorporeal? What do creatures like the Cabbage and Conch embody and why were they interesting to you?

ZX: I was interested in the Fox’s history within Korea, China and Japan and their connection to the idea of women as malign, malevolent creatures you can’t trust. I learned a lot of other interesting things as well, for example in Japanese folklore, there’s the idea that if you anger a Kitsune, their rage will actually incite earthquakes and wars. That to me is a metaphor for nature bringing a blow back to you if you fuck with it. I also came across a Japanese belief that foxes were connectors to the underworld, through the burrowing of their tunnels, which in fact are conduits to other dimensions. This is how I think about my work—as burrowing through time. Because Moon Poetics is going to be shown in Saskatoon and in Leeds I wanted to fixate on this animal that both communities were familiar with. In the UK, people often think of them as vermin, which always upsets me; these creatures live here and we’re actually in their space. The Cabbage is based on the Napa cabbage, which originally comes from the Yangtze Delta region in China. I was thinking about the migration journey that it had to take in order for it to be widely known as the Californian Napa cabbage. It’s a product of agriculture and human engineering—we’ve learned how to care for certain things that benefit us. I’ve used the image of the turban conch shell for the past four years in my work. I first encountered them when I travelled to Jeju Island in Korea. I have always loved the idea of the shell as a communication device, an instrument and conduit; as children we’ve all held a shell up to our ears to listen to the ocean tell a story.

SS: What is “moon poetics” in your words? How did you come to come to that perfect encapsulation for your own myth-making?

ZX: With Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Daydreamers, I was thinking about the courage which all creatures on this planet need in order to survive. This includes humans; we’re not separate from but part of nature. The “dangerous daydreamer” is a direct reference to The Word For World is Forest (1972), a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which the “creechies” are able to control their dreams. Lucid dreaming describes the ability to willfully access liminal space, where it’s possible to influence one’s waking life. I was inspired to think about all the dangerous daydreamers—and that would be folks like you and me, everyone on this planet who dares to dream of a different reality—who could, in small and big ways, make change in the world.

Moon poetics is about being present, being in right relation with our environment and the people and creatures with whom we share space. It’s thinking about things in a connected, cyclical way. It’s about working together: we’re more powerful when we are in community, like how drops of water together form an ocean or how a school of fish can mobilize to act as a larger unit. The moon is a symbol that venerates this interconnection. I love that every single creature who’s ever lived on this planet, for millions of years, has experienced the same sun and moon. Isn’t that just so incredible?