In autumn of this year, Korean-Canadian artist Zadie Xa (b.1983) presents her largest solo exhibition in London to date, commissioned by the Whitechapel Gallery
. Xa works across a range of mediums from textile, painting, sculpture and installation to live performance, sound and moving image. Her practice is an exploration of matrilineal societies, familial legacies, histories of migration and the ways in which different species communicate with one another. Korean mythology often provides the narrative framework for Xas investigations into ideas of cultural conflation, systems of power, home and belonging. Often drawing on her own lived experiences, Xa seeks to articulate multiple narratives within hybrid and diasporic identity that she situates in both our contemporary socio-political context as well as through a study of the supernatural, Korean folk religions and speculative fiction.
For this benchmark exhibition, Xa has created a site-specific and immersive installation featuring a new body of sculptures, textiles and paintings that are positioned within a large-scale structure that was inspired by a traditional Korean home known as a hanok. Designed in collaboration with artist Benito Mayor Vallejo, the house will be constructed from wooden frames that are wrapped with different coloured, hand-dyed linen that is stitched together to make a patchwork. This motif alludes to the Korean tradition of jogakbo: a style of patchwork made from scraps or leftover fabrics used to create domestic wrapping cloths known as bojagi. During the Joseon dynasty (1392-1987), bojagi were fabricated largely by women to cover everyday objects for safekeeping as well as used during Buddhist rites. Traditional Korean folk religions also believed that the act of shrouding or wrapping ones belongings increased chances of good fortune.
In this presentation, the artist explores belief systems and ideologies that have been largely subjugated as marginal by rapid industrialisation in the 20th century. This is also reflected in the exhibitions title House Gods which refers to spiritual practices within Buddhism and Korean shamanism, as well as communities around the world that practice ancestral worship and pay deference to household deities: a commonplace belief across many different cultural groups in deities or spirits that protect the home, ensure prosperity and good health. The placement of various sculptures by the artist around the hanok-inspired installation, including near the entrance, in the corners and suspended from the beams, allude to the belief that different deities occupy certain parts of the house.
For this major commission, Xa was inspired by local legends of apparitions and spectres, as well as the rebuilding of London post-war and of lost architectures. In thinking of an art institution as a home for the ghosts of artworks, artists and people that once passed through the building, she responds to the gallerys historic architecture in order to immerse the viewer in another realm or a dreamscape. As such, the exhibition is conceived as an intervention that draws upon presentational aspects of funerary rites, ancestral shrines and tombs. These are critical sites for the artist who is interested in their liminality in terms of how they connect the world of the living with that of the dead. Through choreographed lighting and audio, Xa gives the impression of a ghostly presence within the gallery and points to a sense of transience. Red and orange lighting gradually transitions into purples and deep blues in order to reflect a passing of time, a journey into night and a new conscious reality.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted firstly with a textile artwork representing the Korean shamanic deity Princess Bari or Bari Gongju (translating as throwaway or abandoned princess). Within shamanic and oral mythology, the figure of the Bari Gongju is one that guides souls from the living world into the underworld after death. In House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness she is considered the viewers first guide, a presence that accompanies them on their journey through the installation.
Installed throughout the exhibition are paintings, sculptures, textile works, suspended marionettes and masks, many of which feature different animal species. In many fables, animals are often protagonists to help instruct society, as well as to speak of power structures and moral quandaries. Animal Guides within the exhibitions title reflects the artists exploration in recent years into the figure of the animal and how different species can speak to our behaviour as humans and of society more widely. For Xa, animals are avatars: beings that are embodiments of ecological, political and cultural shifts within the world. The recurring motif of the tiger, fox and seagull as examples speak to Xas continued exploration of the trickster archetype: a disruptive outsider whose presence both provokes and inspires change from dominant social and cultural orders. Tigers are also deemed sacred in much of South and East Asian religion, yet are an endangered species as a result of human actions.
This ambitious body of work by Xa draws on folktales, oral histories, spiritual and religious rituals: systems of knowledge and cultural traditions that are not only repressed within Western worldviews, but which can also disrupt and expand our perception of the world around us. This is reflected in the final part of the exhibitions title Five Ways 2 Forgiveness: an eponymous anthology of short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin where she conveys a rigorous criticism of colonisation that oscillates between the genres of speculative fiction, science-fiction, parable and folklore, by which Xa is also heavily influenced. For the artist, these are languages within the exhibition that have the potential to dismantle what one knows or understands of the human condition. It also references the belief that in acknowledging those that have passed away and by paying respects to ones familial ancestors, deities or spirits may then forgive past wrongdoings and bring good fortune onto households. This pursuit of forgiveness is critical to the artists own journey when thinking through how the diaspora are disjointed from their cultural communities and the ways in which reconciliation can be sought through acknowledging those that came before us.
An accompanying exhibition catalogue the artists first monograph will be designed by in the shade of a tree and published in November of this year. The exhibition will also feature a public and educational programme of talks, workshops, screenings and performances. Details will be published in due course.
Launching in February 2023 in collaboration with Art on the Underground Zadie Xa will produce a new poster artwork for the Whitechapel exit at Aldgate East Underground station.
House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness coincides with Whitechapel Gallerys wider exhibition programme that is dedicated to the theme of performance and bodies in motion. In the adjacent gallery spaces, the exhibition Moving Bodies, Moving Images brings together short films exploring the intersection of dance, choreography and moving image. Upstairs, an archival exhibition examines the shift in institutional relationships to performance and Live Art that took place during the 1990s.
Zadie Xa was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1983. She has an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art and a BFA from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Recent solo exhibitions include: The Box Plymouth (2022), National Gallery (2021, Leeds Art Gallery (2021), Remai Modern (2020). Group exhibitions and performances include: Jeju Biennale (2023), Somerset House (2023), Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2022), Hauser & Wirth, London (2022) Jeffrey Deitch Gallery (2022), Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong (2022), Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (2022), Castello di Rivoli (2021), Haus der Kunst (2021), Shanghai Biennale (2021), Frieze London (2020), AGO Toronto (2020), Art Night (2020), Venice Biennale (2019), Hayward Gallery (2018) and Serpentine Galleries (2018 & 2017). Xa lives and works in London.