Published 31 October 2018
Transcribed recording, edited for length and clarity.
This is the fifth of five in the Phantom Limb interview series: co-curators Kathy Cho and Katie Yook in conversation with artist Zadie Xa.
Documentation of Linguistic Legacies Lunar Exploration performance at Serpentine Gallery, image courtesy of artist.
Zadie Xa is based in London, UK, identifies as a Korean-Canadian woman and is a Scorpio.
Kathy: What was your last message on KakaoTalk?
Zadie: So we had a bit of chit chat earlier and I didn’t know what Kakao was. I assumed it was a messaging service for Koreans, this just shows how out of touch I am with Korean pop culture but good at guessing games.
Kathy: How’s your knowledge of Korean language?
Zadie: With regards to language, my understanding and comprehension is really low unfortunately. When I was younger I grew up on Korean and had to go to Korean school every Saturday. I did art lessons and language lessons. I was actually quite proficient and actually really enjoyed it but I decided I wasn’t interested when I turned about thirteen, I think like most kids that grow up in a white dominated society.
Since then I have learned how to speak fluent Spanish. Spanish is now the default language. My brain automatically goes to every time I try to revert to Korean words or phrases that I used to know. The other day my husband asked me, ‘what’s the word for dog in Korean?’ This is a word I was really familiar with and I have no idea now. I can only think of the word in Spanish which is weird.
With regards to the culture, there’s a lot of nuanced aspects about culture that never leave you so even though I didn’t grow up in Korea, there’s a lot of things like gestures and mannerisms and modes of behavior and maybe perhaps ways of thinking that differ greatly from mine but I recognize as really familiar and Korean. Those are the kind of things that never leave you if those are inculcated in you as a young child. So with regards to feeling or understanding Korean-ness I feel I’m very Korean in some ways and then other ways obviously I feel like I’m completely outside of the box of Korean-ness but understand those ways of behaving really well.
Kathy: What was it like in your hometown where you grew up? Were there a lot of other Koreans around?
Zadie: Where I’m from in Vancouver, Canada, there are a lot of Koreans actually. I grew up around a lot of Chinese, South-East Asian, Eastern European immigrants and aboriginal children as well. My mom is a divorced woman, within Korean communities I understand it’s a really taboo thing, and because of that I don’t think she felt comfortable joining a larger Korean community which is usually the church. Because of this I actually didn’t grow up with a lot of Koreans around me.
My mom had very few Korean friends and most of her friends revolve largely around the local community, like I said other Chinese people. My mom was involved with a lot of Chinese extracurricular activities like taichi or Chinese line dancing so through that I kind of had more Chinese friends. I didn’t actually have a large Korean community around me.
Katie: Can you talk about what you’re trying to address with you work and what you’re working on right now?
Zadie: Within my practice I have an interdisciplinary way of working. I studied painting for about twelve years and then decided that traditional oil on canvas painting wasn’t the best way for me to communicate my ideas or explore stuff that I was really interested in. Largely I would still think of my work as being painting based because of the way I filter and look at images and work with color. But at the moment I’m more interested in costuming, textiles, theatrics, sound, video and performance.
The reason why I think these are the ways in which I work best is because I’m trying to re-create space or non fictional realities based upon personalized fictions where I can re-create a sense of home or belonging. Within the kind of fictional landscapes that I’m working with, I’m trying to access entry points into family histories that have maybe been erased and not necessarily based in reality all of the time. When one works within the idea of fantasy, you can kind of come to a lot of resolutions easier. I have been thinking a lot about escapism. Not trying to make it an escapism from reality but trying to figure a way which I can access really ancestral lineage of mine that I haven’t spoken about directly with my family and thinking about generations back which they might not also have access to, so trying to weave a way into learning about myself through fantasy.
Katie: Who would you love to see wearing your works?
Zadie: My husband always thinks it’s gonna be Beyonce because she’s a person who I most idolize in terms of performance excellence. Who would it be?Another person I think would be amazing would be Michael Jackson for similar reasons. I really idolized him when I was younger and also his performance style and his clothes but there’s a million people you can think. Like right away, I could think it’d be so amazing to see Cam’Ron wearing one of my coats but then he’s kind of a misogynist. I mean I love him but I’m trying to think of the most non-problematic fave cause we all have these problematic favorites.
I’m thinking of someone who I’d be really honored to wear. I don’t know because a lot of the times these clothes that I make they’re not really made for real people. It’d be really dope to see someone like bell hooks wearing one of your jackets at an amazing talk that she would be giving. Or maybe an artist that I really respect like Rebecca Belmore who’s a Canadian aboriginal artist. I can’t think of someone right now specifically because you can think of really dope people that you think are cool, like I’d really like to see A$AP Ferg rocking it, because I love his style too.
Katie: Are you reading anything right now that is informing your practice?
Zadie: In the recent past I’ve been really interested in Korean shamanism and reading theoretical books about that and how it relates to Western feminist ideas or maybe some Western feminist performances. Actually, I just finished a book called Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. She’s a Korean American writer. The way she writes the book is very much about journeying and traveling through different characters. It’s a generational saga that begins with one family and then the offspring of each of the subsequent families. It follows their journey to Japan and having to live as Korean people in a really hostile colonial, imperialist Japan which is really interesting to me because as someone from North America I’m often thinking about oppression and colonialism and racism from a very specific lens.
I know from my own family history there have been really hostile feelings especially from the older generation about Japan. I was always really curious about that because that didn’t exist within my immediate surroundings in North America, where one often thinks about the hardships that Japanese folks had to endure while living in the states and I never understood the non-camaraderie between Asians because as a child of Asian immigrants, anyone who kind of looked like me I would immediately feel very much connected to and feel very defensive for. So that was a really interesting way I was able to think about journeying and travel and different experiences of other diasporic Koreans.
Subsequently I’ve been thinking a lot about the zainichi, the Korean people that have lived like four generations in Japan and the shit they need to deal with all the time and how they also resolve the idea of homeland. In the past, even if they were Japanese by nationality, living for generations in one country, which is essentially their oppressive country they have the documentation of a South Korean but also do not feel welcome there because it’s a country they’ve never been to. Some people in Korea feel very hostile towards them and consider them Japanese traitors. So kind of thinking about that space in which one never feels like they have a home is really interesting.
Katie: Yeah, it’s interesting to compare when we talk about our experience growing as minorities in North America, where race is a very visible signifier of identity but for the Korean diaspora in Japan, race is no longer just your skin or how you look, it’s very cultural too or based on name and birth certificate. I have a cousin who’s half Japanese and grew up in Japan and identifies as Japanese. But he was born with a Korean name which he had to change for fear of bullying growing up.
Katie: I was wondering what Phantom Limb means to you and what you think it’s referring to with this project?
Zadie: I can’t say exactly what I think it refers to for the organizers, but for me, without it even having been explained to me I thought it was a really brilliant name for anyone that could feel within that space of the unknown or the longing for something that is not there physically. You can’t actually physically see it but there’s traces of a physical sensibility or knowing. The idea of Phantom Limb having something that’s extricated or annexed from your body, something that once was there or should be there that you can still feel and maybe still causes you pain or nightmares but it actually not existing.
For me that kind of anxiety and that stress really is put upon people that find themselves within the diaspora whether it’s through trauma because of colonialism or whether it’s from having to flee somewhere, but even in my case my family left Korea like many families where you want to leave because you’re trying to find a better place. I don’t know how it must be from my mom and her sisters and that generation, but definitely for children of immigrants, especially first generation, there’s a really big detachment in terms of who you feel like you are and where you belong.
People like myself need to really carve that out and that’s probably what I’m doing in my work and within my personal life all the time. Really trying to figure that out but also having to come to terms that you’re never really gonna have that real place and I think that’s what phantom limb really is too. You know it’s there, cause you can feel it, and sometimes it’s not even a thing you can explain to other people. You can’t make it tangible for someone who doesn’t understand or have that same feeling.☁
For more of Zadie Xa's work, please visit her website at zadiexa.com