My introduction to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was a black and white video of a mouth forming inaudible words over bird song and bubbling water, coming through a screen of white-static. A spirit. A premonition. Something unsettling. It reminded me of the ghost stories my mom used to tell me – that she still believes, and that I don’t deny. Growing up Asian in America, there was always the touch of the supernatural, a world of benevolent ghosts, but also of ghosts that punish and haunt. Americans, think of the horror-film adaptations of Japan’s The Grudge and The Ring. I didn’t know what type of apparition Cha was, but that video gave me the same grave feeling of walking into a dark unfinished basement.
We were there on a field trip, all of us from Modern Poetics, led by our course instructor Michael Cross. It was the final semester before summer thesis: one of my last Master’s level courses before graduating from the University of San Francisco.
We walked past Cha’s 8-minute video, Mouth to Mouth, then a small and modest display of Cha’s other work, until we came to a warmly-lit education room with a long conference table in the middle. Our small class lined the walls of the room. We leaned back. We waited.
The librarian arrived carrying a box. She put on white gloves, bantered with us, and then placed the package on the table. She carefully pulled back layers of gauze and revealed a book 46x46 inches, made up entirely of cloth, with words handstitched in thick black thread. At this point, I don’t remember what the words were, and there are no pictures to remind me.
Cha’s portfolio is diverse. She worked predominantly in ceramics, artist’s books, concrete poetry, performance, film, video, sculpture, mail art, audio, and slide projections. She immigrated over to the United States when she was 12 years old. In a 2003 New York Times article we learn:
By 1964, the family had moved to San Francisco. Cha entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1969, just in time for the student protest movement, with its sit-ins and riot police. It was a heady and alarming moment. For Cha, who was born during the Korean War, the uproar echoed the tumult of Korean history. The trauma of the experience is in the fragmentary stories she tells in [the book] Dictée, and the excitement of experimentation is in the inventive ways she tells them. It was also a moment when French film theory and abstract literature were in ascendance on the Berkeley campus, and the feminist movement was beginning.
All of these influences can be seen in Cha’s work. According to the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha website:
The central theme of Cha’s art is displacement. While she occasionally addressed the personal and historical circumstances of her exile directly, Cha typically treated this theme symbolically, representing displacement through shifts and ruptures in the visual and linguistic forms of her works. She developed an approach to displacement based largely on cinematic forms and the psychoanalytic aspects of French film theory. Cha integrated elements of these theories into her own exploration of the processes of memory, communication, and psychic transformation.
Her work is as fragmented and disorienting as my memory is of that particular day. I know the more that I try to remember, the more the memory changes. Our memories are constantly in the process of remaking, of displacing, and distorting. Though my memories are ephemeral, her work continues to haunt.
In the end we left, the echos of our footsteps following us outside, all of us walking back to our various carpooling situations. Someone, maybe my friend Claire, maybe Matt, maybe Lourdes, someone who was there that day, mentioned that she had been murdered at the age of 31. Someone else, maybe the same person, maybe Margaret Ann, maybe Michael Cross, maybe Alex, said that she had had a premonition of her death before she died.
I didn’t know what to think, and, at this point, even though I was a graduate student, I wasn’t in the habit of heeding my confusions as a guiding principle to learning in my life quite yet.
Her book, Dictée, was published in 1982 – the same year as her death. Audiences had a hard time connecting to the experimental nature of the work, and the book went out of print. It was resurrected after it received critical attention in the 90’s, as Asian American studies and third-wave feminism gained popularity. I was too superstitious to buy her book. I didn’t want her ghost with me.
Back in that room, after we were done admiring the threadwork of the book made of cloth, like thin linen used to shroud a body, the flood lights were dimmed to black. We each took a seat at the conference table. We watched another video, this one of her repeating the same action over and over again: the camera zooms in on an unlit candle, a book of matches, hands light a match, then lights the candle, the camera pans upward, Cha with long-long black hair and delicate hands unfold a piece of paper, she reads the poem, and takes one step left (her right) out of frame, the camera zooms in on an unlit candle, a book of matches, hands light a match, then lights the candle, the camera pans upward, Cha with long-long black hair and delicate hands unfold a piece of paper, she reads the poem, and takes one step left (her right) out of frame...
Repetition felt like a conjuring, an obsessive act repeated over and over.