Exacerbation 2016 by Wong Bing Hao


Zadie Xa: EXACERBATION by Bing Hao

Racialised features, figures, and objects are taken to extremes in artist Zadie Xa’s multimedia works, including painting, fashion, performance, video, and installation. A fashion and hip-hop aficionado, Xa’s intricately designed and hand-made garments, textiles, and fans are usually inundated with vacuous yin-yang symbols and monolid eyes, the feature by which East-Asian bodies are most readily identified, racialised, parodied, and policed. Nails and hair appear in striking colours and outlandish lengths in various works. In one particular installation, Xa even stacked fortune cookies and Asian take-out boxes. These and other popularized tropes of racialisation repeat themselves to absurdity in hyperbolic performance. 


Clearly, Xa is not one to shy away from provoking perceptions and representations of race. Taken at surface value, one might question the accountability of the anxious swarms of Orientalist paraphernalia in her work (especially since it has not largely been exhibited outside Europe and America). However disconcerting, these overwrought symbols do more than generate controversy for controversy’s sake. As a child of diaspora, authenticity can be seen as a constant source of influence and anxiety in Xa’s practice. Interestingly, then, Xa can be both accused and accredited for playing up prevalent or harmful stereotypes of her racial and ethnic identity. It is therefore intriguing to unpack and go beyond the obvious criticism that her work panders to a predominantly white audience. With a slight change in perspective, the artist’s spectacularization of identity can be viewed as intentional, a product of nervous crisis, or even a tactical refusal, of truth and positivistic race-making. 


Uncovering the ironies of empire studies, cultural theorist Neferti X M Tadiar writes that the ‘focus on race as difference,’ against the norm of whiteness, reinforces rather than critiques imperialism and coloniality. Race-making is just another disciplinary analytic that works to concretize discrete categories of identity. Tadiar’s thought is particularly applicable to present-day liberal democratic movements, where activisms and rights discourses of every kind trend and proliferate. Although these well-intentioned movements propel disenfranchised subjects into the spotlight, their resulting visibility might not necessarily be beneficial to the cause. Recognition is a double-edged sword that can backfire, and even put visible subjects at greater risk, depending on socio-political climates. 


Xa’s work might therefore situate itself uneasily between a binary of good vs. bad exacerbation. On the one hand, Xa’s work can be seen to worsen unhealthy stereotypes. On the other, it performs a reactionary advocacy against these stereotypes by overloading, and therefore ironizing, expectations of a particular racialised body. These nascent critiques function on the assumption that Xa’s work operates primarily on liberal rhetoric and racialised visibility. Shifting away from such superficial, teleological expectations of minoritarian cultural workers, I would like to conjecture that the artist actually engages in many invisible gestures that disrupt hegemonic race-making practices (Tadiar).


In her new video work, Moodrings, Crystals, and Opal-coloured Stones (2016), Xa undergoes initiation rituals for mudang, or Korean shamen, channeling her interest in magic, witchcraft, and astrology. Loosely based on her research on female mudangs, Xa learns the steps of the ritual from a female shaman character. Similarly, the artist has recently developed performances in which she ‘retraces’ (interview with artist) and learns traditional ‘Korean’ movements and practices from other cultural producers from Korea and its diasporas. Superficially, the original fashions and staging of these time-based works strike the viewer as overtly playing to racial and ethnic concerns, when in fact they are premised on invisible, incomplete transfers. Poignantly, in her understanding of Korean culture and identity, the artist considers herself an ‘amateur’, and therefore uses strategies of mimicry in attempts to perform or attain authenticity (interview with artist). 


Naturally, the quest for ontological realness is fraught with failure, especially for the diasporic subject. However, this failure can be productive. Cultural theorist Rey Chow writes that diasporas help us rethink the teleological link between transience and permanence, and reveal ‘”permanence” itself [as] an ongoing fabrication.’ Perhaps, then, what Xa performs through her practice are her own internalized, rather than the essentializing, external, expectations about her race and ethnicity. 


Upon a closer look at Xa’s works, microscopic cultural assemblages become clear. The artist constructs most of her work like a collage (interview with artist 2016). Xa sources and appropriates material from movies, music, Korean dramas, magazines, and art. She intricately splices diverse influences that both correspond to and stray from the expectations that are placed on her. This strategy works well not just for her fantastic, wearable garments, on which patchwork might be visible, but also for the medium of video, which has historically facilitated an efficient recording and editing process.


The word ‘Xa’ is also the artist’s own piecemeal invention. It sounds vaguely onomatopoeic, something futuristic yet atavistic, but fair game for Orientalists either way. Uncannily, this seems to describe her aesthetics, which might be read on the surface as predictably racialised, telling a reductive polarizing story of either capitulation or “resistance” to the status quo of racial violence, but are in fact internally and ontologically mosaicked to the point of being a visual blur. Xa’s practice one of embeddedness, complicity, and deep dissonance. Her barrage of symbols, colours, and references succumbs to and insidiously disrupts any totalizing or literal understanding of what it means to make art as a marginalized subject. 


In Moodrings, a mysterious narrators speaks of ‘somewhere else…another place and space, something beyond what you know as time.’ Asian Gucci, a huge fan that spans over 3 metres, is peppered with large knife cut outs that allude to the blades that mudangs exposed themselves to in brazen attempts to prove their invincibility. These hints of unknowing, hollowness, and failure in Xa’s works are incredibly potent, and gesture towards the integrity with which Xa presents herself, flaws and all, through her work. It is precisely these pluralistic inconsistencies that confound imperialistic modes of knowledge production like racialization and their reactionary counterparts. In other words, Xa depicts the vicissitudes of lived experiences. Although her works present an image of effusive over-sharing, through her practice, Xa is still simply trying to figure out her own path.