When Words Collide

What happens when language comes apart? That's the question conceptual artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha poses in “The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982),” the most comprehensive retrospective of her work to date. A Korean-American whose family left Korea for the United States when she was 11, Cha expresses the frustrations immigrants experience—some of which are specific to Koreans and women and others that are relevant to all transplants who face a language barrier, prejudice and the loss of their cultural traditions.

Cha's artwork, performances, video installations and writings—influenced by literature and philosophy as well as art and politics—made her a prominent voice in the conceptual art world of the '70s and early '80s. Her death at 31 cut short her career at what might have been its height—or merely the prelude to something greater still. Her most famous work—Dictee, a book about several female icons—is a staple in art and women's studies classes.

The power in her work is slow to reveal itself in the colorless text that lines the installation walls at the Beall Center for Art and Technology at UC Irvine. Perusing the technicolor paintings in the airy Student Union would likely make for a more enjoyable afternoon, but it's the inaccessibility and repetitiveness of Cha's art that eventually draws you in—as close as she will let you come. Words are typed and stenciled on plain paper, rice paper, cloth, envelopes, board and photocopied pictures of Cha's family. They run together and break apart, cross, flow upward, diagonally and backward, recalling the text of the persecuted Arabs and Hebrews. They hop from French to English to Korean, mutate into similar words (“feuilleter, feu, feuillage, feuiller”) and spring forth as nonsense from some inner tongue only Cha can decode.

Standing in the center of the exhibit, surrounded by words in four languages (including Gibberish), you begin to understand how Cha's family might have felt separated from their new homeland not only by geography but also by a wall of indecipherable phrases. What they communicate is their failure to communicate. Even the several stills from Cha's performances, also in black and white, turn their back on the viewer. In A Ble Wail, Cha kneels in front of a semicircle of candles and mirrors, engaged in her own personal ritual, her waist-length hair hanging like a curtain down her back. Another curtain, this one of cheesecloth, divides her from an audience left guessing at the meaning of her gestures. The nearby Barren Cave Mute is as violent and confrontational as A Ble Wail is restrained. The three words are written in white wax, diagonally backward and upward, on large hanging sheets of paper, invisible until Cha begins to burn the sheets. The wax then melts, revealing the bitter slogan that smolders angrily until it is swallowed by the flames.

The performances lose some of their power in their transfer to prints, but their static, choppy nature also reflects the surrounding art and highlights the theme of disconnection. Several works consist of panels of progressive phrases, words or photos that degrade or shift from beginning to end. Their flow is cut into chunks, and their meaning is often obscure. The most coherent dialogues are exercises in Dada-style cut-ups in which lines of poems are cut into strips and placed in small porcelain bowls. Fortunately, printouts of the complete poems have been supplied. The bowls seem to be miniature rice bowls, echoing the poems' theme—the woman's role: “I ain't your/I ain't no I ain't/your Yoko Ono/I just want to/I just want/to be the wife/to be the wife of the/shoe shine man.”

The stuttering and reliance on the male for an identity are an indictment of the Asian stereotype of the timid and subservient woman. Such backward notions certainly would have frustrated Cha, who embraced so many elements of the modern in her work. In the last years of her life, Cha experimented with the latest video technologies and techniques, traveling to South Korea in 1980 to film White Dust From Magnoliawith her brother as cinematographer. After they were harassed as North Korean spies (paranoia was rampant after President Park Chung was assassinated the previous October), Cha returned to New York and turned the project into a book. Stills from this unrealized film and other video projects are trapped under glass, along with handwritten notes.

Despite her experiences in Korea, Cha remained optimistic. She wrote to UC Irvine studio art department chairwoman Yong Soon Min, whom she befriended while getting a bachelor's and two master's degrees (literature and fine arts) at Berkeley, “I am in spite of everything seeing the great presence of woman, the woman's space, the woman holding the weight of all Asian societies, or is that a grandiose generalization?”

In a grotesque twist, Cha was raped and murdered by a security guard two years later while working on projects in her new home base of New York—her potential, her hopes for women and her efforts at communication silenced forever.

“The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982)” at Beall Center for Art and Technology at UC Irvine, W. Peltason Dr. N Mesa Rd., Irvine, (949) 824-6206. Through March 10. Open Sun.-Wed. and Fri.-Sat, noon-5 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m. Free.

I’m a former arts journalist with the LA Weekly, OC Weekly, and freelance. I’m now in Seattle, WA, and getting back into writing after many years.

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