The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
As Feixuan Xu settles into her Post-Doc fellowship at The Courtauld this autumn, she answers three questions about her work and practice as an anthropologist and the path that led her research to transit from conventional interpersonal to multispecies realms.
ASYMMETRY: Why did you decide to work in this field?
FEIXUAN XU: A quick answer: I kept a dog, and I enjoy art. A prolonged story: It was during my sophomore year when the internet was once abuzz with heated debates over the long-standing dog-meat festival in Guangxi province where I grew up. I juggled the moral/cultural relativism stance and a supportive attitude towards animal rights as a dog person. My then-supervisor Dr Magnus Wilson recommended to me ‘Purity and Danger’, a book examining the relationship between food taboo and identity formation by British anthropologist Mary Douglas, where my passion for anthropology stemmed. My Master’s thesis centres on buskers in Durham city, delving into how street performers strategically navigated urban ecology – infrastructures, pedestrians and microclimate in public spaces. Inadvertently all these threads of animal, art, ecology and ethics were woven into my doctoral project, in my agnostic eyes, as if done by an invisible hand.
A: What led to your research specialisation on the anthropology of art from a non-human or multispecies perspective?
FX: The first year of my PhD journey was a leisurely meander around the area of Chinese contemporary eco-art. It took me some time to figure out that posthuman conceptual tools popularised in contemporary interspecies art discourse show less interest in understanding what happened daily between artists and those nonhuman participants in art projects, and thus do not channel much insight in art interpretation. In carving my own research pathway, I took pains to avoid imposing theoretical jargons to explain away artworks but experimented with ethnographic fieldwork methods in exploring ‘social relations’ from conventional interpersonal to multispecies realms. My intellectual inspirations mainly draw on studies in ritual, sensation, multispecies ethnography and material culture.
A: How do you envision your research and practice developing during your fellowship?
FX: A two-year postdoc position at the Courtauld is a precious opportunity to pick up those unsettled threads in my doctoral thesis on Liang Shaoji’s silkworm art and further refine my thoughts on interspecies art, which I envision to publish as a monograph in near future. Based in London and co-hosted by Asymmetry, I hope to widely connect and communicate with local art institutions, practitioners and organisations for possible collaboration in public engagement programmes outside my scholarly work. This fellowship also entails non-academic writing commitments on various platforms, which I’m particularly looking forward to practising for, as effective and caring ‘translation’ between different communities and domains has long been my interest and research anchoring point.