Zadie Xa’s new performance piece Linguistic Legacies and Lunar Exploration reaches my ears well before I’ve entered Serpentine Galleries in London’s Hyde Park on August 13. Lying in the sun waiting for a friend, a drumbeat starts up, slow and steady. A voice next, a foreign tongue begins a roll call, a call met by a response from the other performers. Maybe it’s the sunny Saturday in the city but there’s a festival atmosphere developing, the peak of Bjarke Ingel’s pavilion in the Serpentine grounds appears; like a big top from old country fairs, drawing in the crowd to the sound, ready for the show.
Entering the gallery courtyard for the 5pm performance (one of three during the afternoon) a tension, between this sense of ritual/festival and the nodes of global contemporary art becomes more glaring. The pavilion is not a big top, but contains all the hallmarks of grand, starchitect-affected design. And as the crowd begins to hush for the now familiar roll call of the performers, the whirring of the espresso machine continues unabated. It is this tension, and the audience’s positioning within it, that Xa plays with in this performance —how are we implicated or being implicated?
The crowd is met by five performers wearing colourful, stonewash clothes, carrying instruments with haunting masks covering their faces with exaggerated expressions. They march through the audience, which parts, to take up their starting positions. The costume and performance are characteristics of talchum, a Korean form of folk entertainment which literally translates to ‘mask dance’. The ritual element of the performance is striking —there is not only call-and-response, but also faux-fighting, interaction with the audience and dance to the rise and fall of drum beats. There is also a circularity to the movement which suggests the creation of a space, whether physical or ritual. Over twenty minutes the action moves around the entire pavilion. The herd follows and the performers stop regularly to continue the ritual, finishing with the unfurling and then cutting of a long material scroll, made from the same fabric as the performers costumes.
Xa’s work is known for addressing themes of representation, and particularly racialized construction of identity. The particularities of the talchum undoubtedly raises questions over stereotyping of Korean culture, particularly when juxtaposed with the surroundings of a major UK art institution. Yet the masks seem to encapsulate a broader visual metaphor for the current moment. The audience follows the performers, phones at the ready for a new round in the circulation of images. These images will be shared on platforms in which we construct much of our public-facing identity.
Yet, the talchum also contains elements of critique of the ruling classes. The dance tells the stories of the common people, the social strictures they face, becoming a place where the behaviour of monks and the powerful is satirised. The line between seriousness and satire is less clear in Xa’s work, perhaps deliberately so. The ritual of Linguistic Legacies and Lunar Exploration feels anachronistic, both familiar and alien, caught somewhere between the language of tradition and trips to the moon.**
Ed’s note, Sep 3: The original published text referred to talchum as a specifically North Korean mask dance but it is, in fact, one shared by many Korean Provinces. See here for more info.