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Issue 149

“Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers” — Zadie Xa
by Lillian O’Brien Davis

White-tailed jackrabbits change colour in the winter; their dull-brown fur shifting to a wintry white to better camouflage them within the frozen expanse of the prairie. They surprise me on my walks to work, jumping away from me, appearing out of seemingly nowhere; they notice me ages before I notice them. Familiar characters in a prairie landscape, they fight, scavenge, and occasionally end up as roadkill in and around the city. I try to nod at them when I lumber past dressed in my snow gear hoping to establish some kind of kinship. “Morning,” I am tempted to say to each of them as I walk past.

Current human-animal relationships in Western society are loaded, often one-sided, with people projecting their own foibles onto the pets and the animals they interact with. Vancouver-born, London-based artist Zadie Xa’s immersive installation at the Remai Modern engages visitors as protagonists on a journey where they venture through different dimensions representing air, land, city, and sea to find the cure to “save the planet.” Organized spatially in a circle, each dimension is delineated by a particular colour of floor covering as well as suspended robes designed by Xa and her collaborator, Benito Mayor Vallejo. The robes are representative of a Conch Shell, Cabbage, Fox, and Orca, respectively—associated by the artist with each dimension. A fifth creature, Seagull, surveys the entire exhibition and each dimension in the form of a sotdae, a tall wooden pillar with a carved seagull perched on top; sotdae are often positioned at the entrance of Korean villages to ward off evil spirits. The robes, while not activated by any human beings throughout the duration of the exhibition, invite the audience to imagine themselves in each of the dimensions articulated by the narrator. For instance, Cabbage, who is the representative of the earth dimension, is rendered on a robe by a cabbage-leaf pattern on green fabric and rough seams to reference the layered leaves of a cabbage. The exhibition invites audience members through several dimensions in order to reflect back on their own positionality as humans. The journey is based loosely on the Korean shamanic tale of Barigongju, in which Princess Bari travels to the underworld looking for life-saving water for her dying parents, while encountering many hardships and obstacles.

The progression of the journey is represented through timed lighting that illuminates different portions of the exhibition as the narration shifts perspective across each creature. A gathering space is situated in the middle of the installation with seating to invite the audience to stay still and listen to the progression of the 55-minute audio. Although many visitors may enter the gallery at once, the narration is directed toward a single protagonist, inviting introspection as each audience member is addressed directly. The narration is done by one gentle-toned voice which speaks from each creature’s perspective while voicing concerns related to their particular dimension. At the beginning of the journey, Conch Shell welcomes the protagonist, saying, “This is a story about how we could save the planet, how we might liberate all creatures. It’s a bold statement and even as these words leave my body, I lack confidence, but now is not the time for fear.”

Instead of exploring the agency of each of the creatures, Xa dives into the human inclination toward anthropocentrism through the use of familiar folklore tropes, projecting human thoughts and feelings onto animals she has personal association with in order to communicate a lesson relevant to the audience’s circumstance. For instance, the fox is a scavenging animal seen frequently around Xa’s home and studio locations in London, England—a circumstance that is the direct result of the fox’s territory being consumed by the city’s continually expanding footprint. Fox, in the exhibition, speaks to the protagonist: “Becoming small, smaller, thin, thinnest. A waif. Find me scurrying across roads, slinking into gardens, cemeteries and trash. Trespasser. Intruder.” In truth, it is impossible to know what a fox is thinking, and Xa underscores this impossibility by choosing to have the creatures narrated by the same voice speaking to the audience, mediating each through the lens of the human. Cabbage says, “Because of you I am alive. And because I exist, I think you love me. And because of this, I hope you care.”

The foundation for the exhibition is personal rather than scientific. Xa’s selections reflect creatures the artist has previously engaged with, such as seagulls, a familiar urban and coastal animal, and cabbage, the main ingredient in kimchi. And whereas the creatures—all of whom are deeply impacted by the human toll on their environments—are implicated as the subjects of the exhibition, the suspended robes and the directed narration are designed with a human body in mind, thus reaffirming the true subject of the exhibition: humans and our own circumstances within an environment that we’ve irrevocably damaged. It’s humbling to imagine the anger of animals. The Seagull says to the protagonist, “The smell of burnt plastic and chemicals linger, sticky residue clings to mouth but still we breathe.” I have no sense of a jackrabbit’s thoughts, but I am conscious of my own presence as more of a threat to them than a comfort. Xa’s exploration of what these creatures might say or might do if we could hear them does not shift the blame for our circumstances away from us, but instead reaffirms how intricately bound up we are within our own subjectivities.

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