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In the studio with… Zadie Xa

19 July 2023

Science fiction and folklore find new expression in the performances, textiles, sculptures and paintings of Zadie Xa. The London-based artist draws deeply from her Korean-Canadian heritage, taking inspiration as much from the ancient religions and traditional dress of Korea as from its street style and music videos. Her current show, ‘Nine Tailed Tall Tales: Trickster, Mongrel, Beast’ at Space K in Seoul (until 12 October) features the fantastical creatures that appear throughout her work – not least the titular nine-tailed fox, which is found throughout East Asian mythologies.

Where do you work?

I have two studios now – one in Bromley-by-Bow and the other on Stratford High Street. I’ve had to get two studios because I work across textiles, painting and sculpture, and I just don’t have enough room for them all in one space. I’m always playing Tetris, moving furniture around to make space, which can get tiresome.

How would you describe their atmospheres?

Both studios have very distinctive feelings. The textile studio feels more like a reflection of my personality, because it has a lot of knick-knacks and masks I’ve collected from Korea and personal detritus that I like having around.

My painting studio is new, and I love it. It has huge windows and only the bare minimum inside it (painting trolleys, easels, a tiny storage area and a fridge). I try to keep it that way because I need a clear head for that type of work. At the same time, it does feel a bit clinical, so I’ve put a couch in with some cute colourful pillows, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.

Installation view of ‘Zadie Xa – Nine Tailed Tall Tales: Trickster, Mongrel, Beast’ at Space K, Seoul. Photo: courtesy Space K Seoul, © Zadie Xa

Do you have a specific daily routine?

My routine is usually to take my dog out, then go to the studio. To be honest, I waste quite a bit of time settling in – I’ll start off by cleaning the space, making food, drinking tea, listening to music and looking at my phone. I work intensively during the production period of projects. But in between, I tend not to go to the studio – I wish I did, but I exhaust myself so much that I need to just take a break and watch TV. My first show in South Korea [at Space K, Seoul] opened last week and I’m off to Paris this week to Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris, where I’ll be having my first solo show with the gallery in March next year.

Is there anything that frustrates you about the studios?

I have poor air circulation in both studios. The windows in one don’t open, and the other has skylights but no windows. The area is also quite dodgy at night: the studio is at the end of a very isolated industrial estate.

What do you listen to while you work?

Music is an amazing way to go on journeys, but I find it too distracting – it takes me away from what I’m doing. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks instead. In the past few years, I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR and documentary podcasts, which is strange, because the topics have nothing to do with my work. But I think they help keep my mind sharp – I’m learning about political events and hearing stories about people around the world.

Installation image of ‘House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photo: Andy Keate

What’s the most unexpected object in your studio?

The ashes of my dog, Chicho. He was part of my show ‘House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness’ at the Whitechapel Gallery and then when all that work was shipped back to my studio, he just stayed here. He’s like a little guardian, but I might bring him home again soon.

What’s the most well-thumbed book on your shelves?

The Mago Way: Re-discovering Mago, the Great Goddess from East Asia by Dr Helen Hye-Sook Hwang. It centres around this semi-forgotten female deity and has helped inform my work since about 2019. The author has uncovered Chinese, Korean and Japanese texts about the deity and describes how, through time, the goddess’s story has been transformed to make her into a male. It’s fascinating both on an academic level and in terms of this writer’s journey through theology. I go back to it quite often.

Who is the most interesting visitor you’ve ever had?

I don’t really have people in my studio. No one glamorous has visited. I can barely handle my friends coming here – it’s my workspace, my sanctuary – but I do love going to other people’s studios. I’m private about my studio in a way that I feel like a lot of people aren’t. I don’t even work with assistants (unless I do a larger textile piece, in which case I get a professional machinist in to help me). I’m always working with my long-term collaborator [artist] Benito [Mayor Vallejo], though.

‘Zadie Xa – Nine Tailed Tall Tales: Trickster, Mongrel, Beast’ is at Space K, Seoul, until 12 October.