Xieni Zhou is a Chinese visual artist currently living in London. Before coming to RCA, she received her BA and MA in Fine Art degrees from Sichuan University and Camberwell College of Art, respectively.
I bowed my head, the soil was covered and squeezed downwards by a shell of artificial stone and concrete. The surface beneath my feet cuts the environment in halves, and my perception is enclosed by the dominance of my sight. This disdainful gesture leads to the arrogant illusion that the soil is a dark, dull, and dirty 'substance'.
Soil certainly has enormous vitality. However, the vitality of urban soil often appears in the form of decay, which sprouts from the cracks in the streets, nourishing weeds and devouring tidy gardens and paving. They become a closed, complete but broken form, and then suffered continuous repairs and reconstruction. This micro landscape structured as a hybrid that reflects the endless entanglement and transformation of nature and culture.
Is it possible that the connection between the 'indigenous' soil of human historical activity and the 'settled' soil of modernity could challenge the human understanding of a one-way timeline from the 'dark past to the bright future'? I focus on drawing practice, by keeping gazing and retracing these soil ghosts, to explore the absence of soil in contemporary society, and test whether they can evoke the reflection and inspiration on our ecological identity and the future relationship of soil-body.
How can we perceive a contemporary soil portrait in the suspended moment?
I try to understand this 'paused frame' of the ever-changing movement through my drawing practice. By using perspective lines to generate an organized rhythm—the lines intersect and form the shape of tiles. Patterns of soil then filled the paper, growing along the scaffolding-like draft lines and forming islands. Finally, I kept the draft and intentionally left the artwork unfinished.
As a process of becoming, the shaping of the soil is influenced by frames with a strong sense of purpose, which are then broken over and over again.The physical traces of my hand-drawing, such as dots, lines and blocks of colour, evidence the interaction of paper, pencil and bodily movement as controlled strokes amass in a metamorphic process, just as creativity is also about balancing the transition of gains and losses between my spiritual world and material world.
Have you ever heard of this soil folk remedy?
If you travel far from home, you might feel sick, because your body cannot adapt to the new environment immediately. At this point, if you bring some soil from your home town, and eat them, you will get better soon.
I was fascinated by this real daily behaviour that used to take place in the Chinese agricultural civilization, and surprised by its incompatibility with our 'modern' lifestyle. In my storytelling, the soil, as an inedible object, is consumed and then digested in the body with healing effects. Looking back to these original experiences with the soil in the past, can we draw new inspiration for the relationship between the soil-body? By narrating the story of people eating the soil as marginalized and neglected members of contemporary life, I hope to doubt and challenge the existing human-soil relationship that has been established in the Anthropocene.