“I want to be the dream of the audience.” – Cha’s manuscript of “A Ble Wail (1975)
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, born in south Korea, studied in the U.S. and France, received her M.F.A. from U. C. Berkeley in 1978 and worked at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. On November 1982, six months after her newlywed, only one week before her book Dictée published, Cha was tragically murdered by a stranger. However, the solo exhibitions and retrospective for Cha, rivetingly, continue appearing at art institutions all over the world. Her reputation has continued to grow.[“Dictee- choreolab Dictee- choreolab DNA” By Soomi Kim from Youtube]
Organised by U.C. Berkeley in 2001, the retrospective The Dream of the Audience presented Cha’s works in relation to the development of conceptual art in San Francisco Bay Area in the 70s. But Cha’s influence is beyond the geographical boundaries and art forms. Cha treated her art as “open systems,” which is allowing the audience not only receive her message but also generate multiple interpretations for her art. Her cross-disciplinary and hyper-textual approach continually inspire global viewers until today.
At the time when the computer had not become popular, Cha’s techniques of editing and montage predict the wave of future artists. Presenting the sequences of still images, words and voice-over, Cha’s pioneering open-structure hinted the characteristic of digital art. Two of her single-channelled videos, Re Dis Appearing (1977) and Mouth to Mouth (1975), has exhibited at EAI (Electronic Arts Intermix) in New York. These videos showed simple images, such as a bowl of tea or a photograph of the ocean. The slow fades, dissolves and moves from one image to the next, arouse the viewer’s imagination to the spaces and moments in between images and sounds. She managed a close-up view of lips mouthing Korean vowel and the sound dissolved into white noise. In another piece Permutations (1976), the rapid cutting from image to image exacerbate the random glimmers, leave the viewers with compound impressions of flowing images. Cha’s art offers the space in-between the text, sound and image for the viewers to release a series of imaginations.
“Mother, I dream you just to be able to see you. Heaven falls nearer in sleep. Mother, my first sound. The first utter. The first concept.”— from Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
In her magnum opus Dictée, Cha focuses on the stories of several women – her mother, the Korean revolutionary lady Yu, Cha herself, and female readers. Composed with black and white pictures and handwriting pages, Dictée is presented as a handmade book. Her handwriting was followed her sub-consciousness flow and presented as concrete poems in Korean, English and French. In remembering her mother’s exile experience (as a Korean woman born in Manchu under Japan’s rule), the narration echoed to her own experience (born in south Korea, settling first in Hawaii during her teenage and then moving to San Francisco in 1964). The concept of “mother” in this book also refers to mother country, or mother tongue. It talks about the longing, alienated, inability to articulate in a patriarchal culture or in a foreign surrounding. To overcome the predicament of the silenced female voice and the struggle to communicate had become the crucial concept of Cha’s art.
Similar as the black and white pictures of Dictée, the various images in Cha’s works evocated the viewers’ conscience for the series of glimpsed fragments. In Passages/Paysages, she juxtaposed the images of the hand gesture, the facial expression, the photo of Cha’s childhood with her mother, the close-up picture of the cloud, the scenes look out from bay windows…etc. The imageries suggested about memories and recollections, but Cha did not impose the meaning for the scattered images. Her video Exilée(1980) is that of dust gradually covers up an envelope, firstly the shape of the envelope is distinguishable on layer of dusts, suddenly the envelope was lifted but left the shadow. Although black and white and seemingly muted in colour, Cha’s works are however intriguingly poetic.
Beside of the juxtaposed image and the multi-lingual text, Cha tried a variety of ways (performance, photograph and video) to convey her messages in order to communicate with the viewers. In Other Things Seen, Other Things Heard (1978), Cha sat on the stage and looked to the screen on which a woman covered her mouth while struggling to speak. Locale herself on the stage Cha transformed herself as an audience while she was performing. When she turned her face to the audience, she was the performer again. This exchangeable roles of Cha as a viewer and as an author, allows a space for the audience to engage into the performance. In another performing Aveugle Voix (Blind Voice, 1975), she blindfolded herself with a headband inscribed with the word “voix” and covered her mouth with a fabric with the text “aveugle.” The shifting of visual and audio element in Cha’s performance looks abstract, yet it created a room as of hyper-text which calls for the viewers’ interpretation. Such open structure between the images (signifiers) and the meaning (signified) is inviting and inspiring the followers. Thus Dictée has become the text for women art and performed at DNA Choreolab in New York by an Asian choreographic ensemble (Soomi Kim, Suzi Takahashi and Jen Shyu) in June 2008.
“O Muse, tell me the story
Of all these things, O Goddess, daughter of Zeus
Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us”
- From Dictée by Theresa Hak Hyung Cha
To overcome the predicament of communication is the key to Cha’s art. Her text, poem, sound, photo, video and performance, are functioned as the translation between various artistic forms. In A Ble Wail (1975), Wearing white robe with headscarf, Cha lights up candles in a dark room. The candle lights enhanced the folded layers of her clothes, while the relations between brightness and darkness hinted secret. As an Asian female priest, Cha used her ritualistic performances to convey an ethereal and mysterious vibe. She brings out the composited strength of her cultures, of Asia and of the West.
Being an avant-garde writer and artist, Cha’s text is not only the text printed in her book, but also projected as an image; Cha’s image is not only an image on the screen, but also an element of her performance; Cha’s performance is not simply her performance, but also the text for other artists’ performance.
The influence of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s art continues to grow despite her untimely death. Her innovative approach to the media is varied, an interweaving of voice, text and image reflects on the contemporary multi-linguistic, visual and audio cultures. Origin from her memory and personal life experience, the segregated image and sound of Cha’s artworks also functioned as extended “apparatus.” Thus the viewers could be freely to pick up the image and meaning and to engage in her. The flowing interactions further generate the new life of Cha’s art. The meaning of her pioneering multi-media, films and performance are hence endlessly profound. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s art resists to be silenced.