Between memory, dream cycles + imagined futures: Zadie Xa on navigating the Asian diaspora

, 24 July 2017

“Navigation through the diaspora is complex, fragmented and overwhelming,” says Zadie Xa over an email chat ahead of her opening solo exhibition The Conch, Sea Urchin and Brass Bell at London’s Pump House Gallery, opening August 3 and running to September 24. Exploring identity politics through the web of fantasy, memory, desire and non-linear narratives, the London-based Korean-Canadian artist plays with time, dream cycles and conflated fantasy to navigate Asian geographical dispersion across the globe and her “position within that web.”

Zadie Xa, ‘The Conch, Sea Urchin and Brass Bell’ (2017) Video still. Courtesy the artist + Pump House Gallery, London.

The upcoming exhibition “tells the story of a displaced body’s journey and return to a ‘homeland’, ” as described in the press release, and is part PS/Y’s Hysteria progamme, a multidisciplinary arts festival exploring mental health. Also part of the programme was Xa’s related ‘Basic Instructions B4 Leaving’ performed in ‘Hysterical X’ at London’s Cafe Oto on December 17. 

Curated by Mette Kjærgaard Præst,The Conch, Sea Urchin and Brass Bell will present moving image, textiles, objects and sound to ‘journey through’ Xa’s own memory. The work is not autobiographical, but rather uses fragments and flashbacks of her own life, alongside Korean folklore, storytelling and imagined future scenarios. Responding to “a desire to reach states of true enlightenment,” the show unfolds between the space of longing and belonging, awake and asleep, ‘excitement’ and ‘rejection.’

In a conversation about the upcoming project — as well as her practice as a whole — Xa expands on her “curiosity [for] the unknown,” what she feels most connected to, her use of rhythm and repetition and the search for new realities formed through diasporic knowledge.

** You play with time a lot through looping, rhythm, the idea of journeying, compressing past and present, and trance. Could you talk a bit about ‘time’ in your practice? 

Zadie Xa: In my work, linear sequential time does not exist. I am interested in creating space whereby memories, fantasy and personal lived experience conflate. At the moment, my practice is focused on navigating the Asian diaspora, and my position within that web. This journey has been murky and sometimes confusing, making it appropriate to channel this perspective through repetitious loops, which for me operate similarly to dream cycles. In some ways, I am trying to replicate the feeling of a partially-remembered dream. I am excited and interested in the residual imagery left from a night’s subconscious sojourn. That familiar, yet distant feeling between acute sensorial experience and muddied memory is how I feel about exploring hybridity. 

The looping, use of rhythm and the compression of time found within my work is also the consequence of my creative process. I rely heavily on collage and use this cut-and-paste method across all disciplines, sound, video, textiles, paintings, etcetera. By placing disparate images and materials side-by-side, a sense of linear time can become blurry as information coalesces.

** Sea creatures keep coming up in your work — can you expand on your interest in them, especially the octopus?

Zadie Xa, ‘Basic Instructions B4 Leaving’ (2016) Performance documentation. Courtesy the artist, PS/Y + Cafe Oto, London. Photo: Dawid Laskowski

ZX: I grew up on the west coast of Canada and the ocean was a big part of my life. For the past 8 years I have lived in the interior of three different countries, making the sea a marker for nostalgia and a reminder of “home”.  The underwater realm in my work acts as a metaphor for outer space, the unknown and a homeland. I recently spent time on Jeju Island (Korea) and was very inspired by the folklore and local coastal culture. This experience heavily informed the work in my upcoming exhibition and recent performances.

My fascination with sea animals and the ocean comes from a curiosity of the unknown. The underwater world is mysterious realm lending itself readily to fantasy and imaginative exploration. I am particularly interested in octopi and have used them as central characters within many narrative strands in my work. I am in awe of their intelligence, physical appearance and position within science fiction and more recently Asian mythology. I first became drawn to them while doing research on shape shifting and was fascinated by the parallels between this survival skill, magic, deception and identity politics.

** Whats the centre for you – are you trying to build up/search for a sense of ‘self’, or break it down?

ZX: I am trying to do both, as I mentioned in an earlier question, navigation through the diaspora is complex, fragmented and overwhelming. I would say that my work and the research involved does inform a somewhat clearer sense of self, but I am not interested in presenting an autobiography to viewers. It is vital that stories of nuanced, varied identities and positions are told and because of this I choose to engage with personal experiences. Ultimately my goal is to be in dialogue with other people who are trying to widen the spectrum of cultural narratives.

** Who do you usually collaborate with and what role do your collaborations play in your work?

ZX: In my work I collaborate heavily with my husband Benito Mayor Vallejo, who is also an artist. He is an essential part of my performative and video practice, often creating some of the costuming I wear. He also provides input in the art direction of performances and assists greatly in the direction and filming of my moving-image projects. Another person I frequently collaborate with is writer and curator Taylor Le Melle. They have contributed written material/scripts for three of my performances and is someone with whom I have extensive conversations with before embarking on any new performance. 

It is important that I work with people who have a similar experience to me or understand my interest in diasporic stories. For all of my performance work, I have collaborated with other brilliant Korean/Asian artists who have provided tremendous support through guidance, cultural knowledge and physically performing with me. However, it is not ‘Asian-ness’ that connects me to the people I choose to collaborate with, instead it is a shared or common experience within the diaspora.


#ZadieXa @serpentineuk, London

A post shared by Atractivo Quenobello (@aqnb) on

** What are some of your obsessions and/or inspirations right now?

– These films: ‘Night Fishing’ 2011 directed by PARKing CHANce, ‘Iodo’ 1977 directed by Kim Ki-young, and “Mashin:  Ten Thousand Spirits” 2013 directed by Park Chan-kyong

– Korean shaman music

– Pansori (Korean musical storytelling)

– Octopi

– Traditional Korean dance, in particular: Salpuri, Mudangcham

This video of Araabmuzik making a beat on Rhythm Roulette 

– Jeju Island**

Zadie Xa’s solo exhibition The Conch, Sea Urchin and Brass Bell at London’s Pump House Gallery opens August 3 and is running to September 24.