Page 1


A Portrait in Fragments: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha 1951 –1982


Published December 2013 by Bea de Sousa & KCC UK 1 – 3 Strand London WC2N 5BW  www.kccuk.org.uk Copyright © Bea de Sousa 2013 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright holder. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Curator: Bea de Sousa Writers: Bea de Sousa & Juliette Desgorgues Editor: Paul O’Kane Design & editorial: Lionel Openshaw (www.openshaw.uk.net) Exhibition and catalogue supported by the Korean Cultural Centre UK ‘Curatorial Open Call’ Printed in the UK by Whitmont Press

Thanks to: Juliette Desgorgues (ICA, London), Stephanie Canizzo (BAM/PFA), Sasha Priewe (British Museum), the team at the KCC, JW Stella, Ruth Barker, Sujin Lee, Jefford Horrigan, Bada Song, Helen Wilkes and Mary George, Charlotte Jansen, Anne Lacheiner-Kuhn, Alice Acland, Fabienne Gassmann, Francesca la Nave and Tim Wright.


Contents

06/

Introduction Juliette Desgorgues

09/

A Portrait in Fragments: Legacy Archetype Speech & Speechlessness The Workstations Bea de Sousa

13/ 16/ 21/ 31/

37/

Artist Biographies (& Appendices)


Introduction Juliette Desgorgues ICA, London

| 6 |

If the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha gained considerable attention during her lifetime and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, her work has since been somewhat overlooked, especially outside of the US, despite a major touring exhibition The Dream of the Audience, which went on to several American and European institutions. Cha died tragically in 1982 at a very young age and her untimely death may also explain why her work may have not gained international recognition. Further, her performances were often poorly documented at a time, when in the San Francisco area of the 1970s, many events took place through informal student happenings. Yet recent projects around Cha, such as, in 2013 alone, the publication of a monograph of her work, a group exhibition at Bétonsalon, Paris, a solo exhibition at the Korean Cultural Centre, London, as well as a presentation of some of her films at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, are testament to a growing interest in her work and urge us to try and reposition her within the canon of postwar art. 1 Whilst Cha’s writings, and primarily her book Dictée, have been widely discussed and studied particularly within American academic literary circles, her visual art works, notably performances and films, have remained neglected. Cha applied the same finesse, discipline and complexity across her rich artistic practice, exploring consistent ideas and themes, and yet her films stand out for their unique quality. It is this aspect of her work


that particularly interests me and consequently became the focus of the screening and talk presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in October 2013. 2 One of the central elements of Cha’s films is the recurring notion of a void, which creates an almost claustrophobic feel, as manifested through the fadeins and outs, plus the use of black and white and of lingering silences. We are repeatedly offered nothingness as a mode of representation. In Vidéoème (1976) the sense of emptiness is referred to directly through the deconstruction of the title itself, to its constituent ‘vidé’ - which means ‘emptied’ in French. If the voiceover in Re Dis Appearing (1977) refers to ‘portraits fixes’, the image we are presented with is that of a single black shot. The singular face of Theresa Cha’s sister, Bernadette Hak Eun Cha (and in one instance the artist herself) is revealed in her film Permutations (1976), and yet it systematically flips to the back of her head, followed by complete blackness. Where traditional modes of representations are repeatedly used, notably form and sound – these are continuously negated and deconstructed. 3 The few references to nature throughout her films such as the sound of a waterfall, the song of birds, images of the sand beaches and the sea, automatically collide with more dystopian visions. As a student at the University of California, Berkeley from 1969 to 1978, and at the Centres d’Études Américain du Cinéma, in Paris in 1976, Cha familiarised herself with structuralism and French film theory, particularly through the work of filmmakers such as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker. In 1980, she edited an anthology of texts by prominent film theorists entitled Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings, published by Tanam Press, which drew largely on psychoanalysis, mainly through the work of Christian Metz who was her teacher. Her films may well be considered in this context. Form and sound are used to investigate structures and limitations, exploring the very mode of representation, the ‘apparatus’ of film and film-making. Cha’s films utilise a quasi-mathematical structure, functioning through rhythmic sequences, whether via the

| 7 |


| 8 |

repeated representation of faces, words, or black and white planes. Through this repetitive quality, time is suspended. The viewer’s sense of self is heightened, as if experiencing each film in a physical sense. Representation in Cha’s oeuvre is dealt with more specifically through language, as is apparent in Mouth to Mouth (1975), which shows a mouth forming the eight Korean vowel graphemes. This isolated and thereby somewhat de-humanised mouth appears suffocated by a blurred visual effect and the sound of white noise. Distress is all that is left in this attempt towards the mere act of speaking. Readings of this work draw on the SinoJapanese War of 1895 and the subsequent repression of Korean language and culture. 4 But more generally, this attempt at ‘unrepresenting the represented/able’ that is also evident in her film Permutations (1976), could be understood as a form of questioning of one’s identity. In Cha’s case (clearly evidenced in her book Dictée), it is her own identity as a Korean woman that is questioned. Besides this autobiographical reading of Cha’s work it is clear that the artist deals with the mechanics of language and representation in an attempt to question their very structure. If Cha’s work is particularly significant within the canon of post-war art, especially that of American and French artistic circles of the 1960s and 1970s, it nonetheless retains a timeless quality. Not only does it touch on issues such as language, representation and identity, but her films, more specifically, also seem to deal with the moving image in an almost three-dimensional way. Today, when performance, film and installation art are increasingly adopted unilaterally within contemporary artistic practices, Cha’s work retains much relevance, and it is key to ensure that her legacy lives on amongst future generations of artists, writers and curators.

For footnotes for the Introduction, see page 39.


A Portrait in Fragments: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha 1951 –1982 Bea de Sousa A Portrait in Fragments is an open-ended study of works and thoughts by the Korean-American multimedia artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who studied and worked in Berkeley, California throughout the 1970s and moved to New York in 1980, two years prior to her death at the age of 31. In cooperation with Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) at Berkeley University a number of her structuralist film pieces, film scripts and synopses as well as thoughts from her notebooks, journals and photographic performance documents will here serve to present a fragmented image of the complex identity behind Theresa Cha’s work. In addition contemporary artists Ruth Barker, Sujin Lee, Jefford Horrigan and Bada Song contribute contemporary responses to the material of Theresa Cha. These ‘workstations’ are performance based approaches offering reflections on various elements of Theresa Cha’s growing legacy. Theresa Cha’s body of works and notes was donated to BAM/PFA in 1992 by her family. Since then it has been meticulously archived, studied and in 2004/5 shown in full for the first time in a comprehensive and well documented survey exhibition The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) curated by Lawrence Rinder at Berkeley. A current wave of interest in her work reaffirms the importance of the Korean–American artist as a significant figure in contemporary art and proves the enduring influence of her legacy. Any determinist effect

| 9 |


| 10 |

arising from the institutionalisation of Theresa Cha’s archive however will always contrast with the unfinished and ephemeral nature of much of her work. This tension is, in part, what this exhibition hopes to exploit. Theresa Cha produced an astounding body of innovative works remarkable for their innovation and coherence. Nonetheless, Theresa Cha’s archive remains fragmentary in nature, which may be indicative of a productive urgency as well as the inevitable result of a premature death. Many questions, thoughts and works, although intrinsically linked, remain unfinished and open to interpretation. Posthumous exhibitions have attempted to allocate Theresa Cha a place within the feminist and postcolonial 1, as well as the post-structural film discourse 2. At this time, when the fragmentary works and writings of Theresa Cha are seen as of increasing relevance - both to international art as well as to the understanding of a (Korean) conceptual language - A Portrait in Fragments makes no such attempt to categorise Theresa Cha’s work

Actress Helen Wilkes reading excerpts of the novel Dictée, 2013, performance still from filmed rehearsal, produced by Bea de Sousa and Anne Lacheiner-Kuhn, KCC UK, London


but posits instead an open-ended dialogue. The fact that the selection of original works here is temporarily limited by the BAM/PFA archive’s current change of location lead to further emphasis upon fragmentation as a means with which to craft a presentation of an interrupted and unfinished oeuvre. This approach enables us to focus on details of Theresa Cha’s practice as supplementary to the comprehensive monographic exhibition The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (19511982), Constance Lewallen, Lawrence R Rinder, Trinh T Minh-ha, 2001, which toured from Berkeley to the Generali Foundation in 2004 and the Fundacio Antoni Tapies, Barcelona 2005.3 A Portrait in Fragments also looks further at her legacy and posthumous reception. Theresa Cha’s reliance on language in live performance and film pieces is emphasised here and becomes a catalyst for contemporary responses. The exhibition includes photographic records of her performing, facsimile film scripts and summaries, which speak of realised and unrealised intent and reveal the rare literary format of her film scripts. The construction of the exhibition - which centres around two live performance events with Ruth Barker, Jefford Horrigan and Bada Song – reflects Cha’s emphasis on erasure and its reversal, what she once called ‘the blood on the screen spilled white’4 as a recurring motif in her work.

1. Difference, curator Kate Linker, New Museum, New York, 1985 and Fais un effort pour te souvenir. Ou, à défaut, invente., curators le people qui manqué Kantuta Quiros and Aliocha Imhoff, Betonsalon, Paris 2013. 2. Difference, New Museum 1985 and The Unfinished Film, curator Thomas Beard, Barabara Gladstone Gallery 2011. 3. The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) curated by Lawrence Rinder. 4. ‘the blood on the screen spilled white’, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Performance sur Vampyr, 1976, performed at the Centre d’Études Américain du Cinéma, Paris for a seminar with Thierry Kuntzel, Cha Archive and Lawrence H. Rinder: The Plurality of Entrances, the Opening of Networks, the Infinity of Languages, pp 25-26, in The Dream of the Audience ibid.

| 11 |


| 12 |


Legacy

A current and pervasive reception of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s work overwhelmingly posits her as a feminist. Exhibitions, such as Difference by Kate Linker in 1984, included Theresa Cha’s work Passages, Paysages (1978) into the debate around sexuality and gender two years after her death, alongside Technology/Transformation: Wonderwoman by Dara Birnbaum (1978-79) and Martha Rosler’s Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained. Theresa Cha’s piece was highlighted by a complimentary mention in the Art in America article about the show but seems to have left the writer slightly bewildered. In the context of gender politics it is described as a ‘beautiful, evocative [piece], that alludes to emotional and romantic issues’ and thus appears to escape the confines of its editorial context.5 This example begins to show how Theresa Cha’s work overall does not overtly align itself with feminism, although in her own performances, or as performer/ narrator in her films, she still promotes a purposeful female presence. If the work does not contain a clear alignment with a feminist agenda - even while containing indelible autobiographical traces – then we might ask: what motivates the feminist readings? At the time of her death Theresa Cha was a figure of public repute and it is apparent from posthumous writings, available obituaries and impassioned mentions of Theresa Cha’s rape and murder 6 by a serial killer, that it is impossible to cleanly separate ourselves

| 13 |


| 14 |

from the ‘collective’ trauma of her death. The nature of her death makes it compelling to attach feminist readings as an automatic redress that we wish to impose on the loss of her life and that of the 12 other victims due to the psychotic disrespect for female life. As natural and socially motivated as such a response may be we must be wary of iconising Theresa Cha (herself or her work) posthumously for anything other than the work itself and resist the temptation to dramatise our reading of her work through the spectacle of her death. Commenting on her untimely death as an influencing factor in the reception of another prematurely deceased artist, Eva Hesse, Professor Anne Wagner warns us: ‘She is the “dead girl”, the beautiful corpse who counts for so much in many cultural narratives [...] I am mistrustful of the assumptions and reductions at the heart of Hesse’s reputation, and fearful that they may indeed be detrimental, if not to her work (it seems able to take care of itself, in every sense but the physical), then to our understanding of it. Equally at issue is the continuing argument concerning what it means to be female and to make art. This is an argument that migrates from artist to artist and will continue until women’s achievements are no longer seen as “exceptional”.’ 7 This argument can also be applied to the work of Theresa Cha. Rather than incorporating her personal tragic narrative we might better serve the course of women’s art, if the work itself is seen to carry and deliver the message. Her legacy is a powerful one and one which is not confined to the arts. On the internet a more recent legacy has emerged and is growing. The majority of references which come up under her name tag are blogs, which contextualise elements of her practice with regard to a variety of approaches. An example is a recent post ‘ME FAIL WORDS by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha — Happy b-day, T.H.K.C.’ posted on the artist’s birthday, 4th March 2013 on poetsorg.tumblr.com. Such posts are not alone in nurturing a familiar connection with Theresa Cha, which approximate cultish devotion and affection. Other posts are named, among others: ‘kusamapyjamas’, ‘lesbianseparatist’, ‘the holysea’ and ‘the overwhelming


majority’, and are cultural, feminist or gender studies orientated. We also find references made by KoreanAmerican women who relate to Theresa Cha, mainly through personal identification with the novel Dictée: ‘I was introduced to Dictée in 1998 by Carole Maso, with whom I was studying. I was struggling with writing about my mother’s recent death and about my own coming of age as a Korean-born adoptee raised by first-generation immigrant parents in a working-class suburb of New York City. Cha’s concerns – the limitations of language, separation from one’s own history, the representation of women’s lives and the role of religion and of myth – had powerful resonance.’ (http://mkimarnold.tumblr.com) This cross section of web-based references illustrates a viral and subjective ‘feminist’ reception linked to Dictée in close proximity with the mention of Theresa Cha’s murder - even though they also often emphasise her as a positive role model. Such declarations of emphatic solidarity with a person or a stance are well suited to viral responses on the web. They are often illustrated with reproductions of her works, mostly taken out of context.

5. The author of the article also missed the wordplay between passages (identical meanings in English and French) and paysages (French for landscapes) erroneously calling the piece Paysages, Paysages instead of Passages, Paysages. 6. For example Robert Atkins, Village Voice, Homicide, Homelessness & Winged Pigs, February 16, 1988, p. 107 and Amei Wallach, Theresa Cha: In Death, Lost And Found, New York Times April 20, 2003. 7. Another Hesse, Anne M. Wagner, pg 59/60, October, Vol. 69 summer 1994, MIT Press.

| 15 |


Archetype

| 16 |

There is nonetheless clearly a female archetype, invoked by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha through her work, most specifically her performances. One example is a documentary image of Other Things Seen, Other Things Heard, where the artist herself stands in front of a screen depicting an iconic still of Maria Falconetti as Joan from Carl Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1926).

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Other Things Seen, Other Things Heard, 1978, Documentary photograph, Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive


This would be in keeping with works made by other female artists concurrently in the mid-Seventies. But unlike the work of self-declared feminist artists - such as the New York based Heresies magazine mother collective including Lucy Lippard, Joyce Kozloff, Mary Miss, Mary Beth Edelson, Miriam Shapiro, Joan Snyder 8, who at various stages discussed the importance of female archetypes set against male stereotyping of women - Theresa Cha’s work presents an archetype derived from a personal filial connection with her family, in particular her mother’s story and the history of her families’ emigration from Korea as a result of war. Theresa Cha also adds elements of her Catholic schooling and university education to further create a complex and multifaceted archetype in Dictée. Due to the reliance of many of her works on linguistic foundations, graphics and language we can understand Theresa Cha’s novel Dictée (1981) both as a literary work in its own right as much as a fragment of her overall body of textworks, multimedia and performance pieces. This reading is further confirmed in her own treatment of her unfinished piece White Dust From Mongolia (1980-82), which she presents both as a film script as well as a summary of a future novel. These are also the main works which make clear mentions of female archetypes or female heroines. Neither Dictée, nor the fragments of White Dust from Mongolia were followed up by other works that might have confirmed this direction before Theresa Cha’s demise. During her lifetime she was linked to the beginnings of the feminist movement, but, it seems, only by association. Her friend and fellow artist Judith Barry set up Seven Sundays after the Fall, a series of performances by women held at La Mamelle in 1977. There, Barry presented a work called Past Present Future Tense, which employs dissolve slides on three screens and a sound track dealing with complex interwoven themes of linguistic references and feminist dialogue. Theresa Cha’s work formed part of this event.9 Even though feminism is undoubtedly of contextual importance to her work, a feminist agenda is not overtly present in the visual language of Theresa Cha’s work. However, it is of course legitimate to contextualise her work within a feminist approach to history and art

| 17 |


| 18 |

history – as did the curatorial team Aliocha Imhoff & Kantuta Quiros (le peuple qui manque) in their exhibition Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.10 Betonsalon, Paris, April 2013. This group exhibition featured works by Gloria Anzaldúa, Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, Giuseppe Campuzano, Carola Dertnig, Cheryl Dunye, Renée Green, Marge Monko, Roee Rosen and Monique Wittig. The accompanying text quotes images from the book ExileeTemps Morts and stills from White Dust from Mongolia by Theresa Cha.11 In relation to Theresa Cha the curators refer to the female protagonists in Dictée (which Theresa Cha never saw published). It is here that a connection to an ‘invented’ feminist history is made. This is one of the open-ended tangents that Theresa Cha’s archive leaves largely unanswered. An oblique reference to feminism appears in her unfinished work White Dust from Mongolia. In a note referring to the early stages of developing her unfinished film and book project she writes: ‘I am planning a new work of fiction which involves one female character who loses her memory + also her faculty for speech. I have been working w/memory+memory processes in my previous writings and film work. I plan to explore the phenomena of speech/language as it relates to the loss of memory which will be realized in the death of this character.’ 12 Theresa Cha’s literary writing and film scripts can be said to carry a ‘haunted’ femininity, which might be deemed specifically Korean. Her work consistently echoes the pain of unresolved injustice experienced by her mother, who was displaced to Manchuria China; the fight against the Japanese grip on Korea; and to her own detachment from being (officially) a US citizen. Her work and writing keeps alluding to exile and the displacement of her parents, particularly her mother. There are also a number of allegorical references to martyrdom, both in a Christian and in a political context. In her work there is an all-pervading sense of Korea as an allegory of the violated and saintly/heroic woman. Theresa Cha’s early film Mouth to Mouth, 1975 deals with these concerns in a pared down manner. English and Korean words appear on the screen, a mouth forms the shape of an ‘O’, then opens and closes. Cha isolates


and repeats a simple, physical act, a mouth forming the eight Korean vowel graphemes. The voice is replaced by incidental noises, such as televisual white noise or the deceptively similar sounding background noise of a waterfall with intermittent low birdsong distinguishing the white water from the white noise. The mouth is located in the top left of the screen, barely visible and mostly obscured by the grainy white noise. It leaves the viewer feeling breathless, as if the capacity for learning Korean vowels and speaking itself was even erased. The resulting feeling is one of melancholy rather than protestation, a lament for lost origin, her origin. Any reference to a possibly suppressed femininity is again only implicit, even subliminal, the importance of origin and language being the primary concern. While Theresa Cha’s work features herself and other female protagonists, references to body politics remain elusive and oblique. Instead, a poetic self-referentiality oscillates with a semiotic analysis of language as signs.

8. Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics was a feminist journal published from 1977 to 1992 by the Heresies Collective in New York. The Heresies Collective was a group of feminist artists who brought their different perspectives to the revolutionary New York art scene of the 1970s. The journal Heresies was dedicated to diversity, dialogue and feminist critique of the intersection of art and politics. The journal approached these ideas from a “feminist perspective,” as its first issue explained: initial members of the Heresies Collective included Joan Braderman, Mary Beth Edelson, Harmony Hammond, Elizabeth Hess, Arlene Ladden, Lucy Lippard, Miriam Schapiro and May Stevens. 9. Moira Roth, ‘Toward a History of California Performance: Part I’, Arts Magazine, February 1978. 10. Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères, 1969, translated by David Le Vay, 1973. 11. Aliocha Imhoff & Kantuta Quiros, betonsalon brochure, bs no 14, 2013. 12. Theresa Cha, handwritten note in red marker on pink paper, allocated to White Dust in Mongolia 1980-82, BAM/PFA.

| 19 |


Speech & Speechlessness: the story must be told

‘Thirty - I am not Beethoven. I am not Helen Keller Joan of Arc.’ Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 1981 13 This statement was written by Theresa Cha in one of her more personal notebooks featuring observations on her travels through Korea and Japan, as well as notes from her lectures. It speaks of the normal anxiety during rites of passage; it also speaks of her ambition to supersede mere mortality through exceptional achievements. Curiously, even though the icons she refers to irrevocably contributed to culture, society and religion it is significant that they are also all afflicted; deaf, deafmute and a martyr who was misunderstood in her time. The importance of overcoming a hindrance is a trait which goes largely without comment in Theresa Cha’s reception, yet it seems fundamental to her approach to language and the influence of linguistic theory in her visual work. ‘It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says nothing against the pain to speak. It festers inside. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must void.’ 14 Speech, speaking, the formation of speech and the inability to speak are of great importance in Theresa Cha’s work, appearing in her writings, performances and films.

| 21 |


| 22 |

Much of her work attempts to voice the specific duality inherent in the position of immigrant/foreigner. She was already twelve, with the beginnings of an education in Korea, when her family emigrated in 1963 to Hawaii and then to San Francisco, California. Preceding this emigration is the family’s difficult history as Koreans in wartime and under Japanese rule, a weighty legacy, which Theresa Cha carried with filial responsibility. Her grasp of English as her second language was exceptional and this enabled her to play with the language confidently, oscillating effortlessly between the intonation and semantics of a foreigner and the usual American-English syntax and speech levels. Theresa Cha also added her second learned language, French, which is yet further removed as she only spoke it intensely for the duration of her eight months stay in Paris in 1976 and speculatively with her French semiotics and film theory lecturer Bertrand Augst (1969 onwards). Whilst she rarely used the Korean language at all, Theresa Cha’s works, notes and literary texts are saturated with open and oblique references to the experience of being Korean in her particular history. One narrative she overwhelmingly brought forth in her work concerns the distance to her homeland Korea - as can be seen in Exilée, 1980, a video and film installation, where Theresa Cha’s exile from Korea is explicitly captured through the meticulous measurement of the distance of her current home on the West Coast of America to her lost homeland: ‘following daylight to the end of daylight ten hours twenty three minuits sixteen hours ahead of this time’ Excerpt from Exilée, 1980

15

Here, Theresa Cha was measuring the temporal distance from her current and more permanent home to her homeland, her place of origin. ‘[...] For the foreigner/ exile the lost homeland may, while physically distant, be concernfully what is closest, and for whom the immediate environment is precisely the unfamiliar.’ 16


| 23 |

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-82): A Portrait in Fragments, 2013, Installation View at the Korean Cultural Centre, London, from left: Mouth to Mouth (projected image) and White Dust from Mongolia (facsimiles on whiteboard)

........................................................... The breakdown of familiarity, which ensues from the viewpoint of the foreigner, is precisely the vantage point Theresa Cha utilised to visualise un-familiarity. Even though her language in words and incantations remains fundamentally calm and self-effacing it is invariably imbued with anxiety. This anxiety is as much concerned with the message not becoming (in her writing: Diseuse, Chapter I, Dictée, 1981 and her film piece: Mouth to Mouth, 1975) as it is with the message being read on different levels simultaneously, or with meaning disintegrating to form another meaning. The collapse of what Heidegger called the ‘as-structure’17 and perhaps the collapse of significance itself is a crucial part of Theresa Cha’s method of establishing foreignness and detachment. Reveille Dans La Brume (Awakened in the Mist), performed 1977, is one significant live work, which also shows the careful theoretical underpinning of her actions and scripting of her performance work. ‘[...] As an integral part of the performance, there


| 24 |

would be operative, a chain of interruption, averting the narrative process, and elements that serve as reinforcements to heighten further, the image and sound text, pursuing that which is stated by Roland Barthes as, ‘Plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.’’ Theresa Cha, 1977. 18 The earlier performance work Aveugle Voix (Blind Voice) 1975, is an attestation of the silent yet not speechless performance which involves Theresa Cha, dressed in a white cotton suit, blindfolded and muted with banners that read ‘Aveugle’ over her mouth and ‘Voix’ over her eyes, unrolling a banner which reveals a loose association of French and English words printed on cloth strips.19 The banner reveals itself as speech, an incongruent poem or assemblage about blindness, gesture, lack of words and lack of self. Typical for Theresa Cha’s practice, muteness is reversed into eloquence through writing not speaking, although the final word of the banner is ‘Fail’. This refers to the failure of blindness and voice coming together to form a new meaning, one which merges the impotency of one with the potency of the other. It also misaligns signifier and signified by purposefully jumbling associations, thereby dissolving meaning. Theresa Cha was aware both of Saussure and Peirce’s semiotics which had become a fashionable approach, particularly in American Cultural Studies and which were highly influential in film

Theresa Cha, Aveugle Voix, 1975, performed at 63 Bluxome Street, San Francisco, Documentation, 3 of 8 Photographs, w 6.75 x h 9.5 inches, Photography: Trip Callaghan, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive


theory by the mid-Seventies. They also underpin Barthes’ writings. In Aveugle Voix Theresa Cha positions herself within the stream of signifiers, but allows the audience to identify with ‘me’, as she herself is blindfolded and mute, thereby effectively leaving it up to her audience to ingest the words on her banner and to define their meaning. The conflation of sender and receiver, performer and audience, as part of the same, shared collective consciousness, is of great importance to Theresa Cha as the work Audience Distant Relative demonstrates. The work consists of six white envelopes with text possibly stencilled or printed in black ink. The text reads: ‘audience distant relative’, ‘letter sendereceiver,’ ‘messenger’, ‘echo’, ‘object/subject’ and ‘between delivery.’ The envelopes are empty and unsealed. Audience Distant Relative is a mail art project and artist book by Theresa Cha. The mail art project was exhibited at Galerie Loa, Haarlem, The Netherlands, 1978. At this point Theresa Cha’s knowledge and her own take on semiotics in visual arts were highly developed. The performance work Aveugle Voix is comparatively simple because the performance does not involve other media, except for the text and props. Usually Theresa Cha’s performance involved film, slide projections, sound and directed lighting effects. Wearing white clothes, she became a canvas for a text which then continued on her banner. She is background and central figure, the self in ‘me’, and yet also the vessel for the audience’s collective self. Theresa Cha wears white in the majority of her performances. This is of traditional significance for the Korean people who historically have also been referred to as the ‘white-clad people’ (Baeguiminjok). This is no doubt intentionally symbolic, so her origin identifier is always consciously and explicitly Korean, even when French and English are used as the languages in the performance itself. The importance of ‘an infinity of languages’ is here perhaps at its most apparent. Language also plays a more covert, but nonetheless important role in the structuralist film piece Permutations, 1976. During this year Theresa Cha spent eight months at the Centre d’Études Americain du Cinema in Paris, where she studied with, among others, Christian

| 25 |


| 26 |

Theresa Cha, Still from Permutations, 10 minutes, black and white, silent, 1976

........................................................... Metz, Raymond Bellour and Thierry Kuntzel. Lawrence Rinder points out how Theresa Cha’s encounter with the film theory of Christian Metz and the ‘actantial model’ 20 of communication theorist AJ Greimas shaped Theresa Cha’s own response to the cinematic model. In Permutations a precise number of still headshots of her sister Bernadette Cha are joined via lap dissolves in a systemic manner. The film was shot on 16mm and lasts 10 minutes. One single shot replaces the head of Bernadette Cha with that of Theresa Cha. The script for the piece (which is shown as a facsimile) 21 alongside the digitised version of Permutations (16mm original archived at BAM/PFA), calls the piece Ellipses. Theresa Cha describes the piece as consisting of six shots filmed at one second intervals. Each shot is assigned a numerical value, the horizontal and vertical combinations of which are arranged according to a ‘closed system’. For Ellipses Cha points out that she numbered each shot with the ‘numerical variables’ 0-6, which she arranged in combinations worked out horizontally and vertically. She does not specify the system but writes out the numerical


| 27 |

Dyadic model from Tools for text and image analysis, Louis Hébert with the collaboration of Nicole Everaert-Desmedt, Université du Québec (UQAR), 2007

........................................................... order, as well as meticulously typing out every single shot as a word command. Theresa Cha may refer to a semiotic closed system here, such as dyadic spatial relations, which uses both horizontal and vertical superposition. Permutations does not seek to represent anything, apart from a neutral headshot revealing the three-dimensional spatial representation of a head from all sides. This approach would be in keeping with pure structuralist film. ‘In Structural/Materialist film, the in/film (not in/frame) and film/viewer material relations, and the relations of the film’s structure, are primary to any representational content. The structuring aspects and the attempt to decipher the structure and anticipate/recorrect it, to clarify and analyse the production-process of the specific image at any specific moment, are the root concern of Structural/Materialist film.’ Peter Gidal in Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film, BFI 1976 22 Nonetheless Theresa Cha’s choices also distinguish her from other structuralist filmmakers. For her most


| 28 |

Theresa Cha, Ellipses, 1976 – numeric page from the typewritten script titled Ellipses, for the film (later titled) Permutations

........................................................... rigorous film Permutations she chooses her sister’s portrait, a close relation to herself. Shot 6, which is never written out, is the artist’s self portrait, inserted to complete the system. Permutations essentially represents the head of a Korean woman, which in a midSeventies Western society would have been of some note. A subliminal agenda of defining origin and detaching from


it, employing her own sister as a structuralist signifier emerges in parallel to Theresa Cha’s cinematic concerns. Both Confucianism, a predominant spiritual tradition in Korea and Catholicism play a central role in her works, supporting the ideal of family as spiritual community. This could lead to a more spiritual/shamanistic reading of Permutations, which in turn could be another meaning to explore. This confirms once again the prevalent duality in Theresa Cha’s work of origin and distance, signifier and concept, which she pushes, always to a tipping point.

13. Theresa Cha, from a personal notebook, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Foundation Archive, BAM/PFA 1981. 14. Diseuse, in Dictée, Theresa Cha, page 3, originally published 1982 by Tanam Press, University of California Press, 2001. 15. Lawrence Rinder, sic. 16. Keeping a Distance, Heidegger and Derrida on foreignness and friends, Rebecca Saunders, p.37 of pages 35-49, in: Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Volume 16, Issue 2, 2011. 17. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962. Print. In Rebecca Saunders sic. 18. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, summary of her performance Reveille Dans la Brume, performed at the San Francisco Art Institute Annual, Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA. 10 June 1977. 19. The banner with sewn printed cloth strips is formally derived from her experimentation with concrete poetry but a subliminal reference is undoubtedly also the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Quotes from some of Theresa Cha’s handwritten notes allocated to lectures and preparations of her piece Mouth to Mouth in 1975: ‘sources of imperialism Vietnam’, ‘logical consequence of society - begin of bombing in Germany and Vietnam’. 20. ‘During the Sixties, AJ Greimas (1966, 174-185 and 192-212) proposed the actantial model, which is based on Vladimir Propp’s theories (1928). The actantial model is a device that can theoretically be used to analyse any real or thematized action, but particularly those depicted in literary texts or images. In the actantial model, an action may be broken down into six components, called actants. Actantial analysis consists of assigning each element of the action being described to the various actantial classes.’ Louis Hébert, Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski, Sign o, Theorectical Semiotics on the Web. 21. Facsimile copied from the original in the archive with permission of BAM/PFA. 22. Part one of Peter Gidal’s introductory essay to the Structural Film Anthology, published by the BFI in 1976.

| 29 |


The Workstations

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s legacy is prevalent in a variety of responses to the fragmentary body of her work, particularly in the past decade. They range from internet blogs expressing empathy with her to the variously contextualised exhibitions and written studies. As her fragmentary body of work presents itself as a work-in-progress / an openended proposition, the exhibition A Portrait in Fragments introduces so-called workstations to emphasise a continuum. The workstations offer a platform for the re-consideration of Cha’s work by currently practicing artists.

Sujin Lee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Project, 2013, work in progress, digital video, installation view, KCC UK, London

| 31 |


| 32 |

Sujin Lee’s Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Project (pictured on page 31) is a video piece exploring several subjects that appear in Theresa Cha’s work. The subjects - translation/use of multiple languages, time, mother, national identity and sound (in echo) - are discussed in relation to language through interviews and readings of Theresa Cha’s text. The interviewees including Theresa Cha’s close friends as well as contemporary writers and artists reflect on their own experiences of encountering, reading and viewing her work and sometimes relate to the work in a quite personal way. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Project is presented as a work in progress, which will be subject to future changes. Ruth Barker, Jefford Horrigan and Bada Song present performance pieces which take Theresa Cha’s practice, persona and context into account whilst adhering to the conceptual structures intrinsic to their own practice. The performances are integrated into readings from Dictée, presented by an actress (Helen Wilkes). They could only be experienced live on two occasions during the exhibition. We could call this approach an acknowledged reference to the iconography of Theresa Cha. The workstations pass the

Ruth Barker, Demeter Song, 2013, performance still from filmed rehearsal, produced by Bea de Sousa and Anne Lacheiner-Kuhn


study of her work from the curator to the practitioner and through the performed experience on to the audience, much in keeping with Theresa Cha’s notion of ‘sendereceiver’. Ruth Barker integrates her own recited text into the nonlinear narrative of Theresa Cha’s Dictée. In Demeter Song, 2013 (performance, length 20 minutes) and Barker’s previous works, the oral traditions of storytelling and myth-making underpin her associative performance practice. Referring to the format of the classical epic poem such as Homer’s Odyssey she produces pieces of performance poetry that re-tell ancient myths as resonant current events. Barker merges the research of mythology with autobiography and unconscious association. She performs her own literary texts as a studied incantation evoking a hypnotic state of mind and uses repetitive verse to draw the audience into identifying with her narrative. Recent works have centred on the myth of Gilgamesh. The story of Demeter contains a natural connection to the myth of Persephone, which features in Theresa Cha’s Dictée. The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from Mesopotamia, is amongst the earliest surviving works of literature. The goddess Ishtar in the epic is the equivalent of the Greek goddess Demeter. The most striking similarity between these two fertility goddesses can be found in the myths relating them to the Underworld and the change of seasons. Demeter follows her daughter Persephone to the underworld, Ishtar goes there looking for her male lover Tammuz. Ruth Barker focuses on Persephone, the lost daughter, hereby making the link to Theresa Cha’s use of mythologies in relation to contemporary events and a symbolic self-identification within filial relations. The connection between Theresa Cha and Barker’s approach is a natural one, however, for Barker the recital of a script is essential and the text is not independent of her performance, quite the opposite - as is the case for Theresa Cha. The myth of Persephone leaves the scope for combining Theresa Cha’s reading of the character with the reading of Theresa Cha herself as Persephone, both as she herself intended and in relation to her legacy. Persephone, not as the lost daughter but as the woman abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, and

| 33 |


| 34 |

Jefford Horrigan, Persephone, 2013, performance still, photo: KCC UK

........................................................... kept dead/alive is dramatised by Jefford Horrigan in a complex wordless, unscripted but repeatable ritual with a table, vases, artificial and real flowers. Jefford Horrigan’s performances are rooted in sculpture, often moving and manipulating furniture and household objects until they become different entities. He identifies the objects used in his performance as amphoteric subject/ protagonist. This method allows him to also alternate between performer and object, equal in status to the objects he is moving. By establishing a dense structure, which comes to mean/contextualise the myth, Jefford Horrigan’s performance is able to reach Artaudian extremes by temporarily shifting the significance of the objects through the implication of the object in his actions. For this performance he has worked a complex, wordless but repeatable ritual using a table, the shirt he is wearing, vases and artificial and real flowers to simultaneously evoke the myth of Persephone as well as imagery and characters in Theresa Cha’s writing. Jefford


| 35 |

Bada Song, Yeonji-Garigea, 2013, performance still, photo: KCC UK


| 36 |

Horrigan resists the documentation of his performances; they are intended for live actions only. Some rare footage and approved and directed films exist of his work. Regardless of the presence or absence of an audience Bada Song performs in various media. Hypnotically repetitive gestures create densely layered surfaces on paper and her signature ‘soundpipes’. One of her ‘soundpipes’ is patinated with countless dabs of nail varnish and lipstick. Emanating from this pipe is a recording of an emotively political song familiar to most Koreans. The song’s title Bong Sun Flower refers to a nationally recognised cultural symbol in Korea and the song is a central feature of Theresa Cha’s Dictée as the mark of belonging: ‘Standing in the Shadow, Bong Sun Flower [...]’. The song was forbidden under Japanese occupation. In the live event for this exhibition Bada Song articulates this song concealed beneath a hand-sewn patchwork of red circles, cut from cloth remnants. The red circle - while alluding to the Yeonji (traditional marriage make-up) and obliquely to the Japanese flag is also a form which is hermetic and infinite. In her varied works: the manipulated mis-en-scene photograph of a Korean bride (Yeonji, 2013), the sound pipe (YeonjiBongsunwha, 2013), and her performance (Yeonji-Garigea, 2013) a sense of territory, body and shelter signify a demarking of a ‘Korean-as-immigrant’ identity. The unfamiliar as a means of detachment is a central theme in Theresa Cha’s works and is imbued with new currency in Bada Song’s triangle of performance-led pieces. Currency is one of the leading concerns in the recent reception of Theresa Cha’s archive. Over the decades we have developed a broader understanding of the psychological, linguistic and structural(-ist) elements Theresa Cha applied in her rigorous practice. We have also come to appreciate the value and importance of fragmentation and arbitrary relations posited by the limited resources and partially un-resolved thesis of Theresa Cha’s archive. This will continue to throw up useful and intriguing questions, which will fuel both research and contemporary artistic production, a premise of ‘becoming-iconic’ for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: 1951-82.


Artist Biographies (& Appendices)

Ruth Barker Ruth is a Glasgow-based artist. Her work is primarily performance based, and often involves fabric elements and costume. In her performances the retelling of ancient myths through original poetic composition becomes a gesture towards the ritual understanding of self, gender and mortality. Her performance garments, made in collaboration with designers, become complex ritual objects, containing the artist as she recalls her epic texts from memory. Recent projects include performance commissions for the Camden Arts Centre, London; Sils Projects, Rotterdam; Glasgow International festival of visual art; Cartel Gallery, London; ReMap festival, Athens; the Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies, Newcastle; and Machon Hamayim Gallery, Tel Aviv. Demeter Song features a performance garment by designer Lesley Hepburn.

Sujin Lee Born in Seoul, Korea, Sujin Lee is an interdisciplinary artist who works in a combination of video, performance and text. She currently lives and works in New York. She has earned residencies from the Millay Colony for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, I-Park and Newark Museum. She was a 2012-13 AIR Gallery Fellow. Her work

| 37 |


was included in exhibitions at the Bronx Museum of the Arts; Aljira Center for Contemporary Art; the ninth Art Stays International Festival of Contemporary Art; the third and fifth Off and Free International Film Festival; NurtureArt; AC Institute and many others.

Jefford Horrigan

| 38 |

Jefford lives and works in London. Some recent performances, screenings and exhibitions include: in 2013, The Facilitator: An Organized Love Story (performance) for Buster Keaton for The World Turned Upside Down, a group exhibition curated by Ben Roberts and Simon Faithfull at the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick; Graft, a commissioned performance for the Trienal no Alentejo in Portugal; and Thea and Rotterdam, a short film at the South London Gallery. Further performances include The Actor Who Played Cleopatra for Representing Nothing at the Agency, London 2012; The Dissolve for Katrina Palmer Presents at Transmission Gallery, Glasgow 2011; The Table for Portrait of Space at Clonlea Studios, Dublin; the installation Out of the Corner of the Eye for James Taylor Gallery, London; and Makura curated by Tomoya Matsuzaki at White Deer Projects, London. Selected past performances include The Dissolve, at Clockwork Gallery, Berlin 2009; The Dresser (a Talk Show/Speakeasy) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Sodium Angel/ Teresa at the South London Gallery, London 2008; and The Four Stages of Cruelty, at Tate Britain, London.

Bada Song Born in Jeju Island and raised in Seoul, Korea, Bada Song moved to London to complete her studies in Fine Art. She is an interdisciplinary artist who works with a combination of drawing, performance and installation. She was second prize winner of the Jerwood Prize for Drawing in 2012 and her work is among others in the collection of artclub1563, Seoul and APT.


Bada Song has exhibited internationally and was presented at Art Gwangju 2012. Her photographic work for this exhibition, Yeonji (2013) was enabled with the kind cooperation of the Korea Foundation gallery at The British Museum. Captions for full page images: Page 2: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-82): A Portrait in Fragments, Installation view, KCC UK, 2013: text excerpt from Dictée, chalk on blackboard Page 12: Theresa Cha, Reveille Dans La Brume, 1977, b/w photograph, 8 x 10 inches, performance documentation, San Francisco Art Institute Annual, Fort Mason and La Marmelle, San Francisco, BAM/PFA, Berkeley, California | 39 |

Page 20: Theresa Cha, Aveugle Voix, 1975, performed at 63 Bluxome Street, San Francisco, documentation, 1 of 8 photographs,  6.75 x 9.5 inches, photo: Trip Callaghan, BAM/PFA, Berkeley, California Page 30: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-82): A Portrait in Fragments, Installation view, KCC UK, 2013, right: Permutations, film, b/w, 10 minutes, 1976 and left: Ellipses, script for Permutations, facsimile Footnotes for the Introduction by Juliette Desgorgues (see page 6) 1. Details of these particular projects: Elvan Zabunyan, Penser Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Les presses du réel, 2013; Make and Effort To Remember. Or Failing That, Invent, curators: Aliocha Imhoff & Kantuta Quiros, Bétonsalon, Paris, (April 2013), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-82): A Portrait in Fragments, curator: Bea de Sousa, Korean Cultural Centre, London (Sept/Oct 2013); Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, screening and panel discussion, ICA, London (Oct 2013). 2. Four of her most significant films were screened at the ICA: Mouth to Mouth (1975), Re Dis Appearing (1977), Vidéoème (1976) and Permutations (1976). The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Bea de Sousa and Paul O’Kane. 3. Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness (1943) long precedes Cha’s generation. There is clearly an element of existentialist thinking present in her films, specifically through the collision of notions of the void and representation. 4. See Lawrence R. Rinder, ‘The Plurality of Entrances, the Opening of Networks, the Infinity of Languages’, in: The Dream of the Audience (University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London), pp.1819. Rinder links the film Mouth to Mouth to the themes of displacement and language which the artist struggled with in her own life, and which she explores in her book Dictée.


Design: Lionel Openshaw

A Portrait in Fragments is an open-ended study of works and thoughts by the Korean-American multimedia artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-82). She died tragically in 1982, aged only 31. Her structuralist film pieces, film scripts and synopses and performance documents serve to present a fragmented image of the complex identity behind her work. The exhibition at the KCC UK and the film screening at the ICA in October 2013 are testament to a growing interest in her work - repositioning her within the canon of postwar art. 

A Portrait in Fragments: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha 1951 –1982  

An open-ended study of works and thoughts by the Korean-American multimedia artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. First published to accompany an ex...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you