Seven terra cotta sculptures, each with a large “X” at its center, are lined up in Sweet Briar College’s Pannell Gallery, resembling tombstones in a graveyard.
When the exhibition they’re featured in, “Skin Piece,” opened there last month, artist Xia Zhang had covered each sculpture in chia seeds, unsure of how they would grow in the confines of a gallery.
“I’m really thinking about death as a natural event that happens for rebirth. A cyclical event,” said Zhang, who calls the installation “Death Growth Repeat.”
“One chapter might be very different from the next one.”
Within two weeks of the opening, the seeds had gone through an entire life cycle, sprouting, growing and then withering and dying — something Zhang had anticipated from the beginning — said Shawn O’Connor, an adjunct professor of visual arts and associate director of Sweet Briar’s galleries and museum.
Attempting to grow something on the forms also was “about letting go of control and being able to let things exist as they are,” Zhang said in early October, just after the exhibit opened. “[For] the next iteration of this … I’ll know more.”
Zhang collaborated and met with Sweet Briar students last month around the exhibition’s installation.
O’Connor, who met Zhang when she was a grad student at West Virginia University, said they’ve been trying to focus on bringing young, female artists to campus to interact with students.
“We just thought Xia’s work ... kind of checked all the boxes for us as far as what we’re looking for,” he said. “[She’s] dealing with some things our current student body is familiar with.”
Zhang said she feels “a softness toward college women because I remember being one. I remember how uncomfortable I was in my own skin at the time.”
Zhang explores those feelings at length in her work, reflecting on her identity as a Chinese-born American woman who moved to suburban Maryland from rural, southern China when she was 6. She later studied art at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and earned her MFA at West Virginia University.
“Xia has been an avid outsider wallflower her whole life, and thus spends most of her time watching,” according to her bio on The Growlery, a San Francisco-based program where she was an artist in residence during the summers of 2018 and 2019. “Much of her work has evolved based on her observations from living in white-dominated communities from coal country to wine country.”
Even the tombstone installation evokes those feelings of being an outsider: “As an immigrant child assimilating in the 90s, hearing ‘chi-chi-chi-chia’ throws me back to memories of navigating uncertainty and awkwardness,” she writes on her website.
Her early work dealt primarily with her own feelings of belonging, or a lack thereof, but she eventually realized the reasons she might not belong are historical, she said: “It’s beyond me.”
In an interview with the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee, where she was in residence from 2017 to 2018, Zhang said art has helped her understand why she felt uncomfortable in her own skin, “to realize that it is a social and cultural thing, and to find some level of peace while still calling out injustice. I think that my perspective on things is very different from 10 years ago because I have learned a lot about myself and the world around me.”
Now her work is about “an unlearning of assimilation,” she writes in her artist statement. “… I strive to understand and dismantle the systems that have normalized subtle and overt hostilities that are inescapable based on the skins we inhabit.”
Calling all of her work an evolution, Zhang also studies popular culture and the stereotypes it can perpetuate, she said in the interview at Sweet Briar.
“Our minds are changed by the things we see in mass media, and they definitely affect how we see the people around us.”
The installation “Madam X,” also on display there, deals directly with that. It features images from the 1960 movie “The World of Suzie Wong,” which is based on a 1950s novel about a romance between a Chinese woman and a British man (it was changed to an American man for the film).
Like “Miss Saigon” or “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Zhang said the film portrays Asian women as “being delicate … and self-sacrificial to white men.”
Zhang printed the screen shots onto cotton, then hand stitched subtitles from the scenes onto the fabric in gold lettering.
The dialogue is appalling. One scene features a character saying Suzie “isn’t really a human being, so she couldn’t possibly have any feelings,” and that “since she’s Chinese, it wouldn’t matter anyhow.”
“It’s hard to watch. It’s so uncomfortable,” Zhang said about the film. “It’s not even about her. She’s just the object the movie revolves around.”
Each image is displayed in a yellow ceramic frame Zhang made herself, and she said stitching the dialogue onto fabric was “a violent act, poking through and pulling.”
Zhang also included an interactive installation in the exhibit. Called the “Flesh Mesh Shame Quilt,” it hangs next to “Madam X” and features more than 100 sewn-on pockets.
A nearby table is stocked with small, clay tablets onto which visitors are instructed to write down something they feel shame about; once they do, the tablets are glazed by O’Connor and eventually placed into one of the pockets. In early October, responses ranged from “a diseased body” to “a terrible daughter” to “ignorance.”
The whole idea is to consider “how we hold ourselves from moving forward due to deeply saturated feelings of shame that branch out to other emotions of guilt, embarrassment and fear,” according to the instruction sheet on the table. “Shame is a master emotion that tells us we are not good enough and unworthy of love and belonging. It disconnects us from practicing empathy with others and ourselves.”
“The first thing is to acknowledge that you have [those feelings],” Zhang said. And then by sharing them, be “able to leave [them] behind.”
The pockets themselves are roughly sewn, with hanging strings, because “it’s not about perfection,” she explained. “It’s about vulnerability and being able to express the things you’re afraid of.”
Zhang intentionally uses methods that typically are “perceived to be women’s craft” — such as sewing, weaving and pinching clay — with a focus on materials that explore a “recurring level of discomfort with identity and ideals of femininity,” according to press materials from Sweet Briar.
She works in a variety of media, ranging from ceramics and sculpture to photo, video and recorded performance. Repetition, especially when she’s working with pottery or ceramics, is a constant in her work, a process she calls meditative. And she doesn’t shy away from inserting herself directly into a piece.
“I’m in most of my work,” she said. “I have this mentality that I have to do everything myself.”
“Under the Weight of Model Minority Tears/Truck Nuts,” for instance, is a photograph of Zhang wearing 400 porcelain forms — about 40 of which are hung next to the photo at Sweet Briar — a piece she says is about burden and “turning mental weight into a physical weight,” while the video “Yellow Fever Agitations” features her wearing a body suit covered in silicone nipples, flicking each one individually.
“With each flick, you hear a flesh-like slap,” she writes about the piece. “Despite the aggressive action, the white gaze resettles upon my othered body. I intend to continue to earnestly disrupt and take up space where I once used to shrink myself.”
No matter what she’s working on, process truly is her primary medium, Zhang writes in her artist statement, and “requires a multilayered system of experimenting, scavenging and a regimented routine. It is an intimate performance of invisible labor between my body and materials.”
“I get an idea, then I figure it out,” she explained. “It never turns out exactly [as I pictured]. ... Part of being in this world, you’re just figuring it out.”
Casey Gillis is the features editor at The News & Advance and editor of weekly entertainment publication The Burg. Reach her at (434) 385-5525.