Zadie Xa

For the latest instalment in my ongoing series of interviews I spoke to artist Zadie Xa. Born in Vancouver, Canada and currently living in London, Zadie has exhibited both in the UK and internationally working with performance, video, painting and textiles, exploring how different cultures inform identities and notions of self. Zadie’s intricate, hand sewn garments bring together a range of personal imagery sourced from music, digital space, fashion, and art history. Zadie has developed a system of semiotics and a personal visual language for articulating nuanced Asian identity narratives, which are frequently situated within fantastical or supernatural realms. Zadie has most recently exhibited at the Arnolfini in Bristol, Art Night 2019, Yarat Contemporary in Azerbaijan and Tramway in Glasgow. Zadie will be showing at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill in 2020. 

I listened to the podcast GUEST, GHOST, HOST: MACHINE! with Victoria Sin and Legacy Russel who talk about fabulation and story-telling within performance, this idea of creating narratives where we purposely place ourselves at the centre of our own experiences, where science fiction and fantasy tend to give us the tools to create an imagined but a better future. Can I ask you how you came to work in this way?

I had originally trained as a painter but ended up finding it a very frustrating medium to work with. I wasn’t able to express my ideas and found it very restrictive. I was taught through a Eurocentric and Western-weighted way of making images. I would blame my frustrations specifically on that. I was institutionalised. I never really felt like I had my own ideas. Everyone always told me that my ideas were too complex to speak about within the medium of painting.

I tried to think about ways in which the figure or a person or a character could be central within my work and, in some way, without realising, I put myself at the centre of that narrative. When I came to making textile garments, which in the beginning and in many ways still function as two-dimensional and then later three-dimensional paintings, I found they lent themselves to be put onto the body. I guess when working with performers or working with an actor, this creates a platform for a figure or a character to be central. It’s also about the accouterments that surround me within my work where I’m able to build the narrative.

I think in the beginning, for the first couple of years, I did put myself in the centre as I had this desire to connect to my homeland. I feel, more and more, that I’m pulling away from doing that now as I’m actively pushing against the ways in which women, people of colour and queer artists need to present themselves as artists. I think in the beginning when I was making work it made sense that I would be at the centre of my work. For me, acting in that way is, in itself, a performance that allows myself and my body to be cannibalized, which is essentially what I want my work to be against. This is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. 

 A while back, and this is another reason why I use masks in my work, I found that I wasn’t really interested in representing feminine faces or canons of beauty. I understand that my face looks a certain way and I don’t want that to be at the centre of the work. My interest in female archetypes are powerful women and women-identifying people. For me personally, it has nothing to do with sexual desire. If there is sexuality attached to it, it’s more the idea of birthing life or being an aggressive mother or a protector or a grower and actually, it doesn’t really have to do with sexual desire in that way. That sexual nature, for me, has more to do with power. This probably comes from feeling very insecure as a young person or as a young woman growing up within patriarchal landscapes.

As I was saying, I have always placed myself at the centre of my work because, and similar to many other artists, we want to see ourselves at the centre of our own experiences. We didn’t have that type of representation when we were young. I don’t necessarily have to be in the centre, but I still view a lot of the characters as individuals that I relate to and who I look up to. These are essentially my alter egos. Right now for me, an alter ego figure is an elderly woman, an elderly, rural woman that’s strong enough to work the ground. This is an experience that I’ve not had but I can relate to. Especially the way people in my family have had to work really hard because they were immigrants or because of the situations they found themselves in Korea and after. I think that’s something that I’ve always been really interested in. 

I have a very female-led family. I only have a relationship with my mother’s side who are five sisters out of seven siblings. I think strong women have always been very present in my life. My practice now looks at women whom I aspire to be like as opposed to just having it all about me. Well, having said that, I completely understand the work still stems from that and in many ways it’s a conflict that I carry. I feel that a lot of my work is very self-serving and narcissistic in ways that probably all artists make work.

I’m interested in storytelling but find that I’m not a very academic person. I’m very envious of colleagues or friends or other artists who use texts as their medium. While I do that too, the texts tend to come naturally to me. I don’t have a problem talking or speaking about my ideas, sometimes sentences are disjointed and not structured overly well but I am able to hold a conversation. I think that the voice is something that I very much enjoy exploring. I guess most people, even those who may not feel comfortable writing, can write in first-person like in a diary or a journal. I think that those are the kinds of voices that I myself am attracted to, specifically within the context of oral storytelling within history and pushing against the idea that writing is inherently patriarchal. I am obviously influenced from Korean culture and Confucianism and these patriarchal cultures that push against God-based indigenous cultures and religions that were less scholarly focused and more intuitive.

Has there been a process of ‘unlearning’ from these patriarchal teachings?

Yes, definitely. From an art-making perspective I harbour a lot of these anxieties and hang-ups that younger people or younger artists don’t necessarily have. I think it has a lot to do with Canadian art-making within Western art history. There’s a lot of baggage in terms of what you should know when theorising art. That’s the background I came from. I went to school in Vancouver where you are constantly reminded of the legacy of that school. They pride themselves on having a history of photo conceptualism, which was a movement very rooted in the success of white men; Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ron Terada. They’re fantastic artists but they’re all men. Canadian culture is based on this history. It’s sad as one tries to participate in that when you’re young, especially if you’re from Vancouver. In many ways this is a result of Vancouver being quite cut-off geographically from other art centres. It’s different now because it acknowledges art from Asia, comparatively to other European cities or New York where you’re closer to the UK or Toronto or Montreal. That’s what I grew up within. These are your hometown heroes that are forced upon you and on top of that, they’re not even regional. They’re not international. There’s this expectation that if you are to succeed and you’re from Vancouver, your practice should resemble that history and the work of those male artists.

I then went on to study at the Royal College of Art where the climate was very similar. I think it’s starting to change now but it was very intense. It was quite shocking. It was a much smaller group of students back when I was studying. I remember a colleague of mine who was from Israel and identified as gay. Unfortunately, that was seen as a crazy identity position to be in because of this incredibly white and hetero-normative system. I remember him saying that the place was so devoid of any socio-political conversations, regardless if it’s in your work. He said it literally feels like 1960s America with Willem de Kooning and Clement Greenberg. That’s really what the vibe was when I was there. I believe it’s very different now.

I mention all this because if you’re in that position, within a strange hierarchical system, it’s either A, not interesting to you or B, you just aren’t able to keep up with it, not because you’re stupid but because it’s genuinely not the way you make work. You need to unlearn that, but before you realise that, you’re wasting a lot of years thinking you’re not worthy of making work, or it doesn’t live up to these standards that people have laid out before you.

Having followed your practice for a while it seems very much part of who you are, way beyond any educational system.

That’s right and I think for a long time that’s the way I felt. I feel differently now. There’s a lot of reasons why but I feel very lucky right now. I don’t even want to say I’ve caught the wave but i’m making the work I’ve been wanting to make since I was a young person. I guess the art world has caught up to that, which is great but then in lies a danger when it’s mixed with market capitalism and cultural institutional cachet, it just becomes very muddled.

Even I sometimes feel confused by things. I imagine for younger artists who are interested in making work like this it becomes the same kind of toxic system, where one should make work that looks like this and talks about this, if you want to be successful right after university. This is the same narrative that’s been going on forever. When I graduated from school no one was told that you must do your masters because like I said, all these other blokey superstars never did their masters as that wasn’t a thing in the ’90s or whenever they graduated. In Canada, the idea was that you would wait two years minimum and then you would apply for your masters. I decided to move to Spain. I lived there for four and a half years and then I thought, I’m ready to do my masters now. Not everyone can do that because the courses are very expensive. That’s another hurdle I’ve had to manage in my life.

Sometimes I suffer from impostor syndrome. I think it comes down to that feeling of inadequacy. If I were to put my work up against some kind of hard-edged, hard-lined conceptual painting it would fit a different criteria but that language is just not interesting to me. Not saying it’s easy to learn but if you’re literate, you can watch documentaries, like Art:21, you can listen to these people talk. I can actually hear a level of resentment in my tone, because it’s real, because it really was pushed on me for so many years. Luckily, I don’t think it’s so much the way now. I can see that change but it was really debilitating for a long time.

It’s interesting, I think I’ve only been interviewed by two cis male curators in the past year. Surprisingly, I don’t seem to be very interesting to other men, practitioners or curators. It’s really a thing. I actually feel very fortunate at this point. Women and those that self-identify as women, their stories have become more mainstream now. There is a greater number of curators who happen to be women or women-identified who are in positions of power, where they’re able to provide a platform for my work. I think, if this was 10 years ago, I would still really be struggling to have a show.

It’s all new for me. Only within the past few years have I seen this happen. I am completely and fully supported by other women and women of colour. They are the ones who have supported me exclusively, with the exception of two people. It’s a noticeable thing for me. Just to be clear, it’s a very specific type of cis man that isn’t interested in my work. I have been interviewed by a man. I was very suspicious of the whole set up but he ended up being a really thoughtful person and had clearly done his research. Those are the bare minimum requirements, but sometimes these things will surprise you, which is unfortunate. He clearly found ways in which he could not identify on a personal level but still find my work interesting. Ultimately, I always feel if curiosity and a willingness to listen is strong enough within that person, the subject and artistic practice is interesting to everyone and anyone.

I would like to talk about your exhibition Child of Magohalmi and the Echoes of Creation for Art Night and the fictional, mythical and immersive world you created. Your performance and installation at Walthamstow Library brought multiple aspects of your practice together. How was this experience for you? 

It was great. There are probably a few format issues I would change but that’s the nature of those types of events. One area I found frustrating, from the perspective of the viewer, people attending the event wanted to see the live performance, but the evening was punctuated by a film screening. I think in a normal gallery setting, a structure like that can work well because then there’s no pressure to queue and you can leave whenever you want. However, with Art Night there were scheduled times for the performance, which people had to wait for. I would really like to have an exhibition where you can view both the film and the performance in the same context. Other than that, my experience of the night was great, mainly because I was present in the room. 

When thinking about my work, I’m not really able to think about the textiles if I don’t think about the sound work. I’m unable to think about the sound work without thinking about the performers I might be working with and then thinking about performers and how they influence my thinking around particular narratives. I can’t separate them. Sometimes it’s really difficult because I’m asked to talk about my work and I give these very long-winded responses, which I then feel guilty about. It’s because of that, I’m not really able to separate the work. Of course, I can compartmentalise and talk directly about the textile works and where they’re coming from and how they’re supposed to operate but in order to really fully do that and provide a full picture, I need to speak about every other element of my practice because everything is related. I think with Art Night that was probably the first time I was really able to do something like that. I guess the reason is not to have the platform but, to be honest, the money and the high-level of organisation that was involved as well.

I’ve always been interested in theatre and theatrics, however one thing that’s been frustrating for me as an artist with an object making or painting background, there’s an expectation to make something and leave it in a room for a month or two months. With performance it’s a very intense time based element of my practice. While I do enjoy the performative side, I feel the amount of work that I’m putting into these performances, I’m not getting the right level of artistic feedback, mainly because they’re too short. I think it’s because everything needs to be condensed very heavily. I want to be able to play with tempo, speed, modes of looking and how a performance should be digested by the audience. I’m someone who likes to be in control, especially when it comes to my work. When you have longer periods, perhaps there’s moments where you can let that control go and allow things to happen spontaneously.

Art Night was a very positive experience because I was able to see all those elements come together. I think in the future, and particularly for an exhibition, I would like there to be more of a mix between the film, the performance and the live music. I would like to blend these elements further.

Your textiles and costumes are adorned with traditional Asian symbols, words, imagery, hair and nails. When being in the presence of the costumes they signify the performative act of wearing clothes, or being able to place the clothes on and change your identity and disguise yourself. I want to ask about time; how long do they take to make and is that process a performative act?

Yes, I do see it as performative. When I’m making a painting, which I almost never do now, that for me is a very private as I think painting is quite difficult for me. It’s a medium I don’t have as much confidence with. With the textile garments, I’m more comfortable with elements of collage. There are moments when I’m working where things are looking a complete mess and I really need to be by myself with that work. In all honesty it makes me feel quite uncomfortable as you are faced with all your mistakes laid out in front of you. That process needs to take place before I can start pairing back and moving things around. For me it’s extremely performative. It’s always hard because I say these things and as a logical speaking person, it sounds very fanciful and crazy but if we keep in mind the idea of performance and why I’m making these performances, then it makes sense.

I think for most people who work with craft, and in particular traditional craft, you’re directly linked to aspects of your past or your family’s history. With my work, I’m not interested in romanticising Korean culture. I’m not interested in lifting actual images and then re-purposing them into my work. I’m not interested in remaking existing crafts. I’m interested in thinking about how certain things were made, why they were made and inserting aspects of that into my work, especially from a visual perspective. I’ve never been very rigid with a particular process. I’m not very technical either. For example, I’ve used a type of Korean patchwork in my work because it reminded me of an American modernist abstract painting and because I was interested in the idea of collage and throw-away materials. I’m interested in women who would take scraps of fabric, similar to quilting, rural quilting, and make these beautiful textiles. I love thinking about how women would communally sit around and make these textiles together. They would basically loot little pieces of fabric to create these wrapping cloths for important documents or gifts. I guess it’s just the idea of quilting and collage that I find so interesting. 

Collage is the most important aspect of my work both conceptually and physically. Physically, I’m concentrating on my ability to work with disparate materials, colours and textures. That’s probably why I’m so interested in the way hip hop music was made because they’re using so many different samples, different instruments to make music. It’s cultural overlapping, which for me, conceptually, is very important. For a long time I had a real fixation with hybridised identities because of my own background. I think about how, due to societal lenses, not everyone views themselves as having a hybrid overlapping. For me, that’s the way that I work. I pull from different pockets and then conceptually make sense of it all because it’s essentially the makeup of how I was raised and how I move through different spaces.

There is this magical quality to my work and my thinking. There is a lot of interest within my practice around the creation of folk tales or ideas of the supernatural. I feel, right now within the zeitgeist, people are very interested in the supernatural or witchcraft. I believe a lot of that has to do with female empowerment and the taking back of control. There is this need to get back to your natural roots. That’s not always been the way for me. Without sounding dismissive, as a teenager I would approach these subjects as a real feminist pursuit until I came across Korean Shamanism, something that I had only learned about a few years ago. Korean Shamanism is an indigenous cultural religion that’s been systematically suppressed, with many attempts for it to be eradicated. From a social justice perspective and being someone from North America who’s from an immigrant family, who has had to contend with the fact that their family has moved to another place where the land has been colonised, it’s very complicated. For me, as a non-indigenous Canadian, it’s always been very important that I try to learn as much about indigenous history, culture and art as I can.

In Vancouver, imagery of indigenous people is disseminated throughout mainstream media as a way for them to promote their history and make money, basically. That’s a very stark contrast to how the government actually deals with indigenous people. For me, when I learned this about the country where my family is from, I felt very strongly about it. I learnt very quickly that I had to push back against Western evangelical Christianity, missionaries and against Japanese colonial rule, as well as outside influences like Confucianism. Silvia Federici discusses this in her book, about how groups of women conjugating together is considered unintelligent and something we should fear. She links this to the idea of hysteria and how most enlightened cultures view historical or primitive religions. This is the same thing for me when I came across Korean Shamanism, which was mostly led by women. I see this is a metaphor. I can imagine myself as a Shaman and how I would navigate throughout the diaspora and be within multiple cultural worlds. That’s how I am thinking about it. That’s where I develop my views around this idea of the supernatural because within those contexts, within science fiction, anything can happen. I’m always invited to be in talks where they’re speaking about new age spirituality. While I think that’s interesting, it’s not my strength. I literally have a teenager’s level of knowledge around astrology. I don’t have the wherewithal to be able to speak with any authority on the subject.

I would like to pick up on what you said about navigating through different cultural worlds, the connection to the supernatural and sci-fi. These are topics within your practices that I find fascinating; how bodies that have been historically marginalised thrive in other dimensions.

I honestly believe that’s what most queer people or persons of colour think about when making work. Science fiction, this idea of fabulation and fantasy, that’s what I’m really interested in. On one hand, it’s a great tool, but on the other, I worry about myself. I admire artists that work with storytelling as a way to speak about real life, however,  I’m not really able to do that. I need to have a certain distance. In my work I situate myself in a fantastical parallel to reality as a way to process and depict places that are real. I do think, for me anyway, there’s a risk of escapism. I’m sure that’s what most people are doing when making work like this.

I would like to touch on this idea of distancing yourself from your work. This idea of ‘care’ is quite a big topic at the moment, how we care for the artists we’re working with, especially when commissioning performance or socially engaged works. I spoke to an artist recently who said that she’s having to step away from using her own personal experiences as a basis of her performances because she finds it too emotionally draining. Is this something you have considered? 

I think if anything I could probably go further and be more personal, not because I’m exposing myself, but because sometimes very personal stories are actually quite universal. I sometimes put a guard up because, in all honesty,  it can be a bit boring. I can’t sustain a career where I’m just talking about myself all the time. It’s boring for me too. It’s more interesting to focus and filter those ideas on other characters, which I think, again, in the same way a writer pulls on their own experiences, I’m referencing my own personal perspective. I also don’t really enjoy seeing my face in my work all the time, even hearing my voice is difficult. I prefer working with other professional people who are doing a better job than me as they’re skilled or trained performers. 

I think that’s probably one of the reasons I have this real fear of putting myself at the centre of my work, to be seen as a spectacle. This is something that I really struggled with. Even if I am wearing a mask, or my performers are, there’s still a female body and a person of colour present. For me, agency and power are very important. I make sure the performers are never put in the position of the entertainer for the night just to be spectated.

I’m keen to understand more about the durational aspects and your relationship with the performers and the audience. How do the performances translate to the audience? What is your relationship with the audience?

Overall I’ve been lucky. I had one really bad experience, it was a few years ago now. Long story short, it was for a VIP party. I don’t think I understood what the event was for. It was sponsored by Becks alcohol and was a night out for bankers in Liverpool. That was the vibe. It was really horrible. I think from that, comparatively to my first experience at the Serpentine, it was very different. With the Serpentine performance we very much controlled the audience and the ways in which they would consume the performance. That’s a really important factor for me.

I did another performance on a stage. I really didn’t enjoy that experience as there’s a real disconnect between the performers and the audience. Whilst, I think the performance part was okay, I just don’t think it worked. Of course, it’s not always possible to get a good balance like there was in Venice, for example. That performance was completely outside. I think, for me, it’s really important that there is that connection between the performer and the audience member. Whether that’s friendly, whether there’s some call and response effort, which never happens because we’re not socially and culturally conditioned to engage in performance art.

The performances that I’m interested in or that stem from my interest are Korean folk performances where the audience is culturally trained to know how to perform and behave. Whether that’s a Pansori, which is Korean opera where there’s a singular storyteller and a percussionist. There are moments in these stories where the audience knows when they’re supposed to chime in. It’s almost rehearsed, it’s fascinating. This is the same with a lot of Korean folk masked dramas. People know how they’re supposed to engage. There’s moments within the performance where one of the performers will come around and basically ask for money. Then you and the performer do a little dance. There’s also some imprinted and rehearsed lines of spoken dialogue. Of course, that’s not going to happen in the art world, but I do like the idea of that setting. The hierarchy within those performances is fascinating and completely non-existent.

These types of performances were enjoyed by the villagers when they were allowed to have a break from the feudal system in Korea. This was a way for them to satirise the different characters within the community through these masks and characterised performances. I guess it’s within that relationship, between audience and performer, that I find interesting. If there could be some way to emotionally connect with the audience or the hierarchy could somehow be balanced, that’s something I wish to explore.

I do, however, feel the performer should always have the upper hand because they are the ones being watched. For Art Night and Venice I told the performers they needed to be very aggressive in their movements. It’s also part of the character, they need to assume that role. The character is supposed to be earthy and really aggressive, creature-like and unsettling. I believe, the audience should always be wondering what’s going to happen next. Most of the time people just expect entertainment, which can happen very easily of course if you’re using a lot of theatrics, costumes, people, and movement. I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes. I do think about that a lot because I’m responsible for the people that are working with me. I would never want them to feel I wasn’t in it with them, or I’m putting them in a space where they’re disrespected.

Can I ask you about the pull towards female figures in your life and how they materialise in your work; the goddess Grandmother Mago, the symbol of the orca and your interest in their matrilineal family structures and the female Shaman? Please could talk me through how you came to address some of these themes in your work? 

It’s how I’ve been raised. I see the way in which my mother acts or people in my family have been. I’ve never met my maternal grandmother because she died when my mum was very young. My mum had a very interesting folktale-type upbringing. Growing up one way and then finding herself in another unfortunate position. I think because of this I’ve been really interested in her past, but also not wanting to poke and pry too much, as well as not use her non-fictional narrative within my work. If you are interested in your own family legacy and you go far back enough, again, I guess it becomes that knowable non-space where you’re able to bend the truth in order to understand it further. My way of bringing together elements of my mum’s life and talk about my grandmother, I’m able to shape their stories in a way that I’m able to understand and even fill in those gaps and create a new narrative for them.

Although saying that, in a very flat and one dimensional way I do feel it’s important to highlight women’s stories. For me and for other folks who are queer, those stories need to be told by them. It’s not that I put women’s stories above other non-binary or queer stories, but for me, I do think that’s really important. I’m not interested in TERF feminism or that type of female, eccentric stuff. For me I’m actively pushing against male-dominated stories to the point where I’m not even centring them. They don’t exist in my world. It’s not a conscious dig at them, they genuinely don’t exist within my fictional, fantastical sphere. I think it’s because men have had such a small presence in my life. The only man that is important in my life is my husband. He came into my life when I was 23. He has a very strong matrilineal family relationship and history. These stories exist in everybody and people feel connected to them, similar to my connection with orcas. I’ve said this before, and maybe this is redundant, but there are many different eco-species all over the world, but it’s the killer whale species that I’m interested in as they are local to where I’m from Vancouver.

I was feeling very homesick and I think a lot of my work has always been about my homeland. It’s much more explicit very recently because of my recent trip back to Vancouver. I really wanted to highlight particular stories, obviously in a more idiosyncratic way because Vancouver has a history with white settler colonies and indigenous people. As you can imagine the region has a deep history of amazing and incredible indigenous stories, which I haven’t really been interested in. It’s very difficult to talk about a place that you’re from and you identify as your home but there’s many hidden and complex layers. It’s not like I’m from Korea either and can speak about a particular village or setting, I don’t have that relationship with Korea. However, with the orca, it’s a mythological animal, internationally recognised no matter where you go. If you think about it, biologically or through a scientific lens, their social family structures are very interesting. I’m learning that orcas go through menopause, unlike many other animals. The whole idea of a female body after you reproduce, for most animals, you just die because there’s no need or point for you to continue living. If you’re an animal that lives for a substantial amount of years after your reproduction age, there must be something you can impart that’s important to your surrounding community. This is obvious for humans as well as orcas. I also learnt that grandmothers and mothers are the most powerful figureheads in their immediate families. I thought that was incredibly interesting. They’re important, not only because they’re the leaders that teach or lead the hunts, but they have a responsibility to disseminate the information in which the other orcas need to learn in order to survive. They’re also imparting cultural behaviours, which I thought was really fascinating. 

There was one orca that was internationally famous because she died at the age of 106, it was at the end of 2016. It was in mainstream media news because it was so phenomenal. Her nickname was granny. She was part of an orca pod that’s been studied since the ’70s, and because they had been so widely tracked they were somewhat domesticated. Scientists have been able to really observe their family lineage for the past 30 years. To think she had taken care of so many generations of orcas, incredible. Even males within the orca populations never leave their mothers. They will go to another pod to mate, but will leave the female with the calf and go back to their mothers. They have a very strong connection. It’s really incredible. There’s a parallel with human relationships that I find interesting, the relationships we have with our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers.

I’m also very interested in how orcas communicate sonically with each other or how whales communicate through sounds, clicks and echolocation. With the Korean goddess Grandmother Mago that I was interested in for Art Night, I read an academic study based upon the origins of female-centric religions and how she came into being, born out of cosmic music. Through my work, I imagine what that cosmic music would sound like. I mean the story is a bit more complicated than that, but in short, through these cosmic melodies, her daughters and grandchildren were reproduced without the need of a male. The sounds that were played kept all the universe in balance. I thought it would be really interesting to parallel that with the way orcas, cetaceans and all aquatic animals are able to communicate and think about how that keeps the core of the earth safe, but also metaphorically, all animals species, if we think about the ocean. Once the ocean starts dying there’s an imbalance that’s catastrophic for the earth.

I have such a distant relationship with nature now. It was different when I was younger. I do have a real longing to get back to more primal aspects of dependency and coexistence with nature. I find it’s probably a lot of internal and existential fear with the current state of the planet. It’s always on my mind.

I am interested to ask a bit more about this idea of magic, witchcraft and the supernatural within your work. There is a drive in current artistic practices towards healing and ethnobotany as a result of colonial encounters. Is this something you are interested in?

I know where you’re going with that. I feel a lot of conversations within popular culture are very focused on these ideas and types of work at the moment. For me, it’s much more about internal cultural healing. This need to feel connected to my family’s homeland. Having said that, again, I’m not interested in trying to adapt or assimilate this idea of what an authentic Korean experience is. I’m not trying to replicate actual modes of making within traditional craft and then put that into my practice.

I make a conscious decision to take something and transform it. That’s how I understand my personal experience. It’s how I’ve been shaped as a person, which is equally Korean. Again, I am interested in witchcraft but I think that keeps coming up because it’s in the zeitgeist, which makes sense because of the way I tend to talk about Korean Shamanism. Shamanism can be paralleled with ideas of Western feminism, Wicca or Pagan practices, it’s very similar, but it’s important to mention that Shamanism it’s rooted in real traditional cultural practices. I remember someone once asked me, within my performances am I recreating Shamanic rituals? I was like, no, I would understand why you would ask that because there are a lot of performances that try to re-enact certain types of rituals but that’s not what I’m doing. I do think of my work as ritual, but again, the ritual is based on modes of making and how you present ideas on a public stage. I’m not trying to recreate a religious experience. I believe those things are sacred. I feel on one hand it’s very lazy and lacks maturity or depth to try to recreate those things, even if they are done with careful intentions. I honestly don’t think you can create that within a performance, and certainly not within the art world.

It’s a good question and I understand why you ask it. I guess I’m starting to feel like I need to really set myself away from that. The stigma with Korean Shamans, and probably other cultural practitioners or historical religions are easily associated with witchcraft because it’s outside of the main doctrine of Catholicism. It’s insulting to them. I’m interested in that too, but I see it as very separate from my work. I’m deeply interested in folk art culture across the board. I guess it’s because the way language is inscribed through shapes and symbols, colour or weaving or different types of embroidery on all types of traditional clothing, those are indicators of historical stories that have happened to me as a person. That’s what fascinates me. The idea that you are able to assume a role when you wear that garment.

On more of a practical level, could I ask you about your exhibition at Yarat Contemporary in Azerbaijan, Tramway in Glasgow and your forthcoming exhibitions at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill?

For Yarat Contemporary I was lucky to have a really big team with me. I work collaboratively with Benito, my partner. Anyone that makes ambitious presentations, even if they’re showing paintings or sculptures, you need a team. For me, I was very lucky with Art Night. I had a very good team, but outside of that and in the studio I’m working with my partner, who is also an artist. He provides me with both an artistic and technical perspective. I’m not very good with three-dimensional space unless I’m actually in the space. He’s able to really help think about the positioning of objects within a space. As you can imagine we have really intense conversations as it can be quite frustrating sometimes if you’re working with your partner. 

The Tramway is quite similar, but it’s a very different space. It’s quite small compared to Yarat but it’s still a good sized space. The space feels quite intense, which I think is good. It will go back to this idea of feeling confronted with a lot of objects and sounds. It will hopefully feel quite primal in that regard, whereas at Yarat, it felt a bit more spacey. It was really beautiful and it flowed well because you have a lot of space in between the different elements.

Then with De La Warr, it will change again because that space is very different. It’s very long with large windows. It’s beautiful. I’ve decided to make a new work, a large scale wall painting which I think will be really nice. The exhibition at the De La Warr will be broken up into three spaces. The middle space will be similar to Art Night, Yarat and Tramway where the room will be carpeted with the film screening and the large orca sculpture. Then with the other rooms, I will show some new works. I think, just for the sake of audience, I’m interested in having more object-based works presented so people are able to look at how those elements engage within the space, outside of any media presentations. I’m thinking more about the tactility of objects or how garments are hung in the space.

I’m doing a group show in Melbourne, Australia with seven other artists. I’ll have my own room. I’ve decided to show a video from 2017. That’s a two-screen projection, so I’ll have one on each wall. I’ve been considering including a giant painting or theatrical landscape as well. Next year, I’m doing a show in Canada and then at Leeds Art Gallery at the end of the year. I need to think about what form those shows will take. I always start with the idea, that comes first. I’m very slow otherwise. Sometimes when I panic about time I just start making stuff, but then realise I’m just wasting materials. Sometimes, even though it can be painful, there always needs to be an understanding and motivational drive as to why I’m making certain things.

Are you in your studio are five days a week?

I’m here seven days a week as I tend to waste a lot of time. I watch a lot of garbage TV, and then I sit around thinking. I look at the books, I listened to podcasts and read magazine. This consumes a lot of my time. Unfortunately, for me, because I work in that way, the work is very labour-intensive and I really don’t sleep very much, which is not great. I’ve tried to think about ways in which I can be more organised and don’t have to work like that. It’s hard to find an alternative pace. You can’t control what days are your most creative days, which is really hard. My ability to make work only comes out when there is fear involved. It’s fear because you have a deadline. If you have a presentation and that presentation is incumbent on so many people and their livelihoods, you need to be ready. That ends up being my motivational factor. I don’t know what it is. That seems to be a good motivating impulse for creativity, which I wish it wasn’t. It’s hard though as you can’t switch it on and off. There’s moments where I’m like, I’m never doing this to myself again.

It sounds like you’ve got an incredible support in your partner? 

We work very collaboratively. I really don’t think there’s any other way to do it unless you have the resources and you’re able to pay people. Even so, it’s not the same because the commitment level is different. When you’re working with people that are within your family sphere, whether that’s blood-related, married or otherwise, it just makes a huge difference, especially when it comes to the support and trust that’s involved. I feel very lucky. 

– Laura Hensser, 2019