New York

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha died in 1982 at age thirty-one, but “The Dream of the Audience,” curated by Constance M. Lewallen and originating at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (where Cha’s own is housed), was the first major retrospective of her work. Cha’s reputation has battened in the interim on her posthumously published experimental novel Dictée (1982), a fringe classic for students of women’s studies, book arts, and poetry. For loyalists, access to the exhibition’s works on paper, performances, sound pieces, and films came as a blessing long overdue.

The show didn’t look that terrific at its stop in New York. The single-channel videos and Super-8 and 16 mm films appeared dingy and grainy when transferred to DVD, and both they and the sound elements had been awkwardly installed so that their strategically attenuated pacing felt more grueling than seductive. The artist’s books and prints were presented mostly in vitrines—unavoidably, perhaps, but not optimally, since both Cha’s puns and her emphasis on evocative silences depend in part on the diachronic/synchronic interchange of turning pages, and the gaps in which the reader’s/viewer’s mind wanders or interjects. Still, Cha’s wit and subtlety will make its mark on anyone who gives her work time to filter in, and “The Dream of the Audience” was an important show, effectively reinserting into contemporary awareness the work of an artist who refused distinctions between image and language, who combined an idiosyncratic lyricism and a fascination with structuralist principles.

Cha’s brand of Conceptualism is philosophically and formally rigorous but also playful, wistful, allusive, and profoundly female (which means what? More on this later). From Korea she emigrated to San Francisco with her family at age thirteen, earned degrees in studio art and comparative literature from UC Berkeley, and worked at the Pacific Film Archive in that city and the Centre d’Etudes Américain du Cinéma in Paris. She spoke Korean, English, and French fluently. Her work returns continually to the experience of language as cause and cure for exile—exile from the interlocking systems of nationality, religion, family, and syntax and therefore from the self. Well before such interests furnished buzzwords for the American academic press, Cha’s work incorporated postcolonial discourse, French semiotic theory, and the spiraling preoccupations with polyvocal speech, vexatious history, cultural displacement, and reinvented autobiography that were later flattened into the monolith labeled identity politics.

Wordplay is, in a sense, Cha’s primary material. She turns a French word like amer (“bitter”) into a caption for the Stars and Stripes, off-rhymes “abandon” with “redemption” and “passages” with “paysage” (“landscape”). In ironic commemoration of an instance in which she was hailed as “Yoko” on the street, Cha wrote a pair of Beatles-esque songs, shredded their lyrics, and placed the shreds in a pair of tiny ceramic bowls. Titled Surplus Novel, 1980, the piece evokes a cultural text (“Yoko”) that is both new and narrative (“there’s a young Asian woman who’s an avant-garde performance artist”) and yet, when applied to Cha, superfluous. The bowls mock the idea of overabundance, and the song’s torn whole cannot be read or sung. Similar layerings occur in the films, in which lap dissolves repeatedly interpenetrate one image into another, and in the spoken-word recordings, where hesitancies and loopings multiply the single voice.

“‘She’ is indefinitely other in herself,” Luce Irigaray wrote in This Sex Which Is Not One (1977); in Dictée Cha replies, “Mother, my first sound. The first utter. The first concept.” This sense of simultaneous absence and proximity is imagined throughout her work as an implicitly feminine erotic topography. The body is paramount yet is knowable only through the medium of language, which splits subject and object and makes them long for one another. Grammar, for Cha, is insubstantially yet ineluctably coded as a way of expressing the layers of female subjectivity, a full blankness in which articulation is threatened or strangled, yet constitutive. The importance of her art now lies in this imbrication of Conceptualism with a feminism that blurs tidy distinctions between representation, cognition, and corporeality.

Frances Richard