‘All eyez on you’ states Seagull, who is one of the critters offering an audio narrative in Zadie Xa’s latest exhibition Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers, on at Leeds Art Gallery. This direct appeal for audience action from the gull reflects multi-disciplinary artist Xa’s recurring interest in interspecies communication, which, in this exhibition, specifically calls for a collaborative self-reflection on creaturely kinship to save the worn and weary planet that we co-inhabit.
Xa was born and raised in Vancouver on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory. Interdisciplinary and interconnected themes weave within her practice and working methods, which rely often on collaboration. She combines this with her experience within the Asian diaspora and the environmental and cultural context of the Pacific Northwest. Identity and its construction – familial, cultural, spiritual – is thus a frequent presence in her work, often taking the form of ceremonial or protective garments and multimedia installations.
Her exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery is loosely based on the Korean shamanic tale of Princess Bari, the seventh daughter of a king and queen, who travels to the underworld in search of a life-saving elixir to save her dying parents. Xa has commented that one of her main points of entry into Korean culture was through such tales.1 Fantastical while at the same time accessible, storytelling offered a way into the critical issues of ecology, ancestry and matriarchal social structures that her work explores.
The show aims to place the audience as the main protagonist, going on a journey through multiple dimensions led by five sentient guides: Conch, Orca, Seagull, Cabbage and Fox. These guides vocalise damages caused by human actions and their impact on sea, air, land and fellow beings. Xa is invested in her cast of characters, who make repeat appearances throughout her work. Orca, for instance, showed up in Child of Magohalmi and the Echoes of Creation (2019). The guides call on the audience to consider the connectivity of living things, and to adapt our behaviour before it is too late. The exhibition has been previously shown at Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Canada (2020/2021) and in audio form at Assembly, Somerset House (2020).
Upon entering the installation, a brightly painted screen created in collaboration with artist Benito Mayor Vallejo is the viewer’s first encounter with Xa’s work. It was inspired by foldable East Asian screens and depicts, in a painterly and fluid style, the five guides who will act as narrators of the next stage of the journey.
The fiery amber Fox features twice at either side of the screen, whilst the Cabbage, bright green in colour, appears to hover over two swimming fish. Seagull, mid-screech, stands on the back of Orca (who is only partially visible), and the spiky Conch shoots vertically upwards, nearly stretching the height of the screen. A background of swirling water and abstracted outer space imagery surrounds the characters. The overture introduces you to the guides while hinting at the more foreboding narratives they intend to share with us later in the show.
The main exhibition space offers a point of calmness with low-level ambient coloured lighting and a meditative soundscape, a welcome tonic from the loud noises and bodies on the street outside the gallery. Commanding the space are five highly ornamented, robe-like garments with imagery relating to each of the guides mentioned above. They are supported upright, which makes them look inhabited and, at times, like they are floating above the audience. Next to each robe is a sculpture of the guide made by Vallejo and together, the robe and sculpture seem to conjure the guide’s corporeality while inviting the audience to imagine what it might feel like to wear the vestments; what it might feel like to be the particular animal or things that the garments relate to. Xa has commented on the importance of clothing within her practice and its role as a performative act. She states that ‘clothing allows you to change who you are; it mediates the person that you, on that particular day, wish to present to the world’.2
Tree stumps at the centre of the space offer a space to sit to listen to the fifty-five-minute audio work, which also appears in projected text below a sculpture of a seagull. The low-level seating aids in the de-stabilising of species hierarchies, as you are closer to the Earth that we, as humans, are in the midst of destroying.
Dominating the sonic landscape of the installation is the audio work that features the different guides and an unspecified narrator as they speak through their different life experiences, urging the audience to ‘listen, listen, listen.’ Take, for example, Cabbage, which Xa explains the inclusion of: ‘I really love kimchi, a national food staple for Korean people and is meant to be very good for your gut, so I wanted to think of a power food that I very much connected with and its relationship to the land’.3 Cabbage talks gratefully of how it is ‘here because of you. For thousands of years you have nurtured and willed me into existence. My body is the rewarding result of your tenacity, creativity, cultivation and care’, before warning that ‘…violation of the land is violence against all beings. We are of and from the land. How will you make amends with the land?’
The personal stories of the guides and their call for a change in human behaviour urge a reassessment of humankind’s place and impact within the world and the self-serving, destructive hierarchies it has established. Being told all this by a cabbage is utterly farcical on many levels, and does require some suspension of disbelief. But Xa’s carefully constructed narrative highlights the complexities of how something as simple as a cabbage can be connected to wider narratives of ecological oppression. The fact that it only exists ‘because of you’ means it, too, is deserving of care.
The audio work ends with Conch stating ‘chapter two’, opening up the narrative for the audience to complete. Will we just repeat our past negative ecological actions, or will we alter them? The last visual aspect of the exhibition is a painting, featuring Fox riding on the back of Seagull, a playful work which highlights interspecies connectivity and a need to advocate this way of being for greater survival.
As the climate emergency is becoming ever more acute, and the Covid pandemic is raising questions around human-animal relations, Xa’s installation offers a moment of pause and reflection on what a creaturely response to it all would be. Leaving the gallery, visitors might be more aware of the animality of spaces, noticing the seagull perching on the lamppost, the dandelion poking out between the crack in the pavement and realising that ‘all eyez are on you’. It should be noted that when curating shows with ecological themes, institutions are inviting scrutiny into their own environmental policies, and should thus be ready to make any changes brought to their attention. For example, Tate permanently removed farmed salmon from their outlets after hosting Salmon: A Red Herring by Cooking Sections. While a small act, it highlights that the ‘you’ that is being addressed in Xa’s audio piece is both a direct call to audiences, institutions and fellow creatures at every level of constructed hierarchies.
Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers by Zadie Xa runs from 18 May – 4 September at Leeds Art Gallery.
Martha Cattell is an artist/curator from Peterborough, currently based in Scarborough, with research interests in ecology, camera-less photography and moving image.
1. Zadie Xa in conversation with Tamar Clarke-Brown, Somerset House Studios, 23 September 2020. https://bit.ly/2VSQMfP
2. ‘Zadie Xa’ by Anietie Ekanem in Contemporary Art Society, 27 September 2018. https://www.contemporaryartsociety.org/news/artist-to-watch/zadie-xa/
3. Zadie Xa in conversation with Tamar Clarke-Brown, Somerset House Studios, 23 September 2020. https://bit.ly/2VSQMfP