Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Mixes Media to Explore History, Language and Power
If a single word could define the complex work of conceptual artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, intermediality comes to mind. A concept at the centre of the 1960s Fluxus artistic movement, it describes the intersecting of different medias while evading categorization.
Influenced by this practice, Cha crossbred literature with visual culture and performance art with cinema, as well as other art forms, during her artistic career, spanning from 1974 to 1982.
Following her death in 1982, Cha’s artworks and writings were digitally archived by the Berkeley Art Museum. Currently on display at the Phi Centre in collaboration with DHC/ART, the art exhibition Theresa Hak Kyung Cha| Immatériel exposes a selection of Cha’s prolific body of work accumulated over an eight year period. The show focuses on an intersectional exploration of diasporic identities, representations of power, language, translation and poetics.
Curated by Monika Kin Gagnon, professor of Communications Studies at Concordia University, the show explores the ephemerality and immateriality that pervades Cha’s work.
“This is the first time Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is [being] shown in Canada,” stated Gagnon. “When you look at her work there’s an ephemeral quality to it, and you find it in the spoken language, sound works, performances and videos.
“This definition is not only grounded in matter or the world that we know so much, but as well the spiritual realm. Cha’s work speaks with her ancestors. It elevates things to a spiritual realm, which was what I was trying to evoke with the title [of the exhibition],” Gagnon continued.
The art show is centered around Cha’s 1982 experimental historical novel Dictée, considered the magnum opus of Cha’s literary career. The book received praise following its publication because of its unorthodox structure. Written in Korean, French and English, the book combines the genre of autobiography with visual culture. Cha also experimented with the juxtaposition of hypertext in both print and visual media. The plot focuses on Korean colonial history and female revolutionaries while attempting to express the arbitrariness of language and representation.
“The book was really embraced by language poets and experimental writers and artists of the period because it’s a fascinating historical, experimental, partly biographical but postmodern type of book,” Gagnon said.
“It’s a trilingual book that looks at Korean history and uses photography in it. It examines her own personal matrilineal history through her mother.”
“Interest in her work has been successive and embraced by different types of literary and identity communities,” Gagnon continued. “It was also taken up in 1990s by a group of feminists of colour in the US, [who] created a cult around her. Cha can be credited as being pre-identity politics or identity politics avant la lettre […] The forms she was writing and conducting were the most avant-garde forms of the period.”
Also on display are videos and film directed by the intermedia artist between 1974 and 1977. These include Secret Spill, Mouth to Mouth, Vidéoème, Re Dis Appearing and Permutations. Fascinated by her generation’s artistic culture, Cha spent a year studying cinema in France and drew her influences from contemporary experimental filmmakers such as Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard.
“Those filmmakers were playing with language of cinema in abstract and conceptual ways,” Gagnon explained. “What we see when looking at Cha’s videos is dialogue that she was bringing with the experimental work of her period, but inserting a level of questioning around memory and diaspora, identity and subjectivity. This was unique to her.”
Vietnamese-American filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha referred to Cha’s moving image practice as creating a “page-screen.” Cha’s ability to skillfully combine multiple media and disciplines made her work deeply fascinating to many.
Cha was always on the artistic cutting edge of her period, whether it was in literature or film. The artist associated with Fluxus, an avant-garde artistic movement from the 1960s that developed anti-commercial aesthetics and playful subversions of traditional art, under the tutelage of Lithuanian-American artist George Maciunas. Cha was also linked to the populist artistic movement Mail Art, which centered on sending artwork through the mail.
“When you look at Cha’s work […] there’s a prevailing playfulness of media, forms and ideas. Looking at her work today slows things down for us in this hyper-saturated media environment,” Gagnon said. “Cha’s work is non-dogmatic work but political in a subtle way. That’s the mark that she has left in the world of contemporary art.”
Gagnon curated this exhibition in a way for spectators to see the intersections and spaces between media Cha played with.
“Cha’s work is so complex because of the relationship between different works and themes that run through her work. It’s impossible to show everything together,” Gagnon said. I wanted to point people to the digital archive, to allow them to explore her work in more depth. I’ve also been interested in traces and [what the] archive leaves behind.”
Gagnon hopes this first-time exhibition of Cha’s work in Canada will bring greater attention to the artist’s work. Cha’s pieces have been presented in Europe and recently in the USA, during the historical feminist retrospective held in Brooklyn, NY and titled WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution.
“This exhibition could be of particular interest to Quebec because of its bilingual dimension, since we’re constantly playing with wordplay, translation of words and terms, as Cha does,” Gagnon said. “Language, place-work identity, transnational identities, memory and history are the main themes of the exhibition.”
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha| Immatériel // Mar. 5 to Apr. 4 // Phi Centre (407 St. Pierre St.) //Mon. to Fri. 10 a.m.—5 p.m.; Sat. 12 p.m.—5 p.m. // Free admission