Zadie Xa’s ‘Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers’ – reviewed

A multi-panel painting depicting land and water, the planet and animals: an orca, seagull, fish and objects like a conch and and a cabbage. The painting is a concertina shape and is standing on a small grey plinth.

At first glance, Zadie Xa’s ‘Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers’, on display at Leeds Art Gallery until 4th September, feels eclectic. The installation is disparate in its arrangement and interdisciplinary in its content. Its dim lighting and textile displays give it the feeling of an archaeology museum, while its speculative and experimental approach is distinctly forward-thinking. The work is a conglomerate of ideas and thoughts, but at the same time, the layout is spacious, allowing the visitors to examine the work at their own pace, or sit on one of three tree stumps in the centre and be guided by the landscape of sound that the exhibition pivots on. The longer I stayed with the work, the words and visuals started to feel connected, evoking a sense of commonality between human, animal, and vegetable lives.

‘Moon Poetics’ is a multi-media installation that fuses abstract soundscapes, intricate textile work, sculptural forms, and poetic dialogue. At fifty-five minutes long, it loops on the hour, and concludes with five minutes of reflective silence. Though the duration was long, as a visitor, I felt gently carried along by its current. The work is centred mostly around a spoken word narrative that consists of five parts: Seagull, Cabbage, Conch, Fox, and Orca. Each outlook serves as a different touchstone to recalibrate and broaden the viewer’s point of view of the world.

Seagull provides an overhead view, a rare perspective that reshapes a relationship with the land. “We gulls, like gargoyles, sit perched above the city”, the narrative states, evoking a sense of fantasy that is laced throughout the work. Cabbage, on the other hand, expresses a groundedness, considering what it means to be rooted to a certain place and grow from its soils. “How well do you know the land? How well do you know those who lived on the land before you? Whose home lies beneath yours?” Cabbage asks us; challenging us with ideas of how histories and lives can be buried beneath our feet.

Person wearing a metal-looking mask shaped like a shark that goes over their eyes, in the background there is a fox and a dream-like landscape

Credit: Zadie Xa, Leeds Art Gallery

Fox embodies a feeling of marginality, conveying what it means to live on the sidelines, while being “widely looked upon as slippery and unruly, mistrustful and deceptive”. Orca contemplates the mythological idea of whales in human imagination as “knowledge vessels, wisdom givers, carers, matriarchs”, considering the ocean and the creatures that inhabit it to be couriers of histories and stories. I found the dialogue to be insightful and precise, particularly in considering bodies of water to be strange beings in their own right.

The exhibition is loosely informed by the story of Korean folk figure Princess Bari, who travelled for years to the underworld, to seek out healing water for her dying parents. It also feels in dialogue with classic science fiction adventure novels by writers such as Ursula K Le Guin or Samuel Delany. As Le Guin famously proposed in her essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, the first tool that separated human from animal was likely not a weapon for hunting, as is asserted in masculine imperial narratives, but a bag or vessel for carrying. In Xa’s work, the soft curve of a conch shell evokes the sense that it is a carrier of the sea: a vessel for sea sounds if you hold it to your ear. The sea itself is a carrier of its migration histories, embodied by Orca. This looped sense of interconnectedness considers how objects and animals can be symbolic storytellers.

Zadie Xa’s practice is often collaborative, working with dancers or other artists to enliven her stories. This time, ‘Moon Poetics’ was created alongside visual artist Benito Mayor Vallejo, whose sculptural works amplify the themes in the dialogue, and voice actor Samantha Lawson, whose words cut through the immersive soundscape with clarity. At times, the speech is confrontational, as the visitor is directly implicated in narratives of extractivism: are you an observer of environmental degredation, or an agent? Xa’s distinctive narrative voice is not dampened through working collaboratively; her signature blending of natural themes and ancient mythologies with the artistic potential of digital technologies and contemporary eco-criticism prevails.

‘Moon Poetics’ is as deeply rooted as it is speculative and theoretical, drawing on history and the future in equal measure. All of the elements, from intricate costumes to immersive sounds, merge to create an experience that is equal parts museological and theatrical. I particularly found value in the installation’s use of mythologies in a recognisable setting, to amplify the hauntedness and weirdness of coastal spaces. Xa adapts legends and ancient folk tales to consider their contemporary relevance and resonance, to address how we can think about community in an era of individualism.

Zadie Xa: ‘Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers’ is on display at the Leeds Art Gallery until 4th September 2021.