Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Emotive Multimedia Work Is Influencing a New Generation of Artists

Ayanna Dozier
Jul 7, 2022 8:38PM

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, still from Permutations, 1976. Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Archive.

In the opening pages of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s experimental novel Dictée (1982), a female protagonist enters a strange place, with a strange new crowd, and feels lost until she develops a new relationship to speech. “She would take on their punctuation. She waits to service this. Theirs. Punctuation. She would become herself. Demarcations. Absorb it. Spill it,” Cha wrote.

Dictée, like the rest of Cha’s rich artistic practice—which included performance, text-based installation, and video work—lacks a clear setting and time period; the characters in the novel simply appear and disappear across geography and time, a metaphor for displacement via forced migration and the difficulties of using language to convey the resulting pain. Yet Cha, like her characters, also found deep, bodily pleasures in the performance of speech.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, still from Mouth to Mouth, 1975. Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Archive.


In Dictée, Cha prophetically wrote: “Until then. Others relay her story.” Cha died from an act of racialized, gender-based violence in 1982. She was 31. Since her death, galleries and museums have told Cha’s story with exhibitions of her work. Artists Space mounted a show to honor the publication of Dictée in the year following her death. Lawrence Rider curated an exhibition of Cha’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993.

In 2001, the Berkeley Art Museum celebrated Cha with a traveling exhibition called “A Dream of the Audience,” which was curated by Constance Lewallen and followed the reprint of Dictée. Audiences have also discovered Cha’s practice through marathon readings of Dictée and a recent retrospective at Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, curated by Min Sun Jeon.

Installation view of “Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It's Kept” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Ron Amstutz. Courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.

In this year’s Whitney Biennial, “Quiet as It’s Kept,” curators Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin have honored Cha with a mini retrospective enclosed in a delicate, cloth-walled, makeshift gallery. Cha’s inclusion has been lauded as a Biennial highlight. Her memory also lives on in the work of fellow Whitney Biennial artist Na Mira, whose 2022 installation Night Vision (Red as Never Been) extends Mira’s long-standing collaboration with Cha’s memory. Night Vision grapples with the gender oppression of Korean women under Japanese colonial rule by offering a queer, anarchic vision of unruly female shamans in Korea.

Cha was born in Busan, Korea, in 1951. The specter of colonialism haunted her family, and her mother in particular, who had lived under Japanese Imperial rule (1909–45). As a child, Cha migrated across Korea several times before settling in San Francisco in 1964. She received four degrees including an MFA in 1978 from the University of California, Berkeley, which helped her develop her own creative practice. As Cha wrote in Dictée: “The wait from pain to say. To not to. Say.” The book, like the rest of Cha’s video work and poetry, is intentionally fragmented. Written in Korean, French, and English, the novel unites stories of the ancient Greeks, classical Western heroines such as Joan of Arc, and Korean heroines such as Yu Guan Soon and Cha’s own mother.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, still from White Dust From Mongolia, 1980. Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Archive.

At the Whitney, audiences can experience Cha’s writing via text-based installations, which are exhibited in vitrines and carefully hung against the sheer fabric walls. They sit alongside Cha’s completed and unfinished video works. In her seven-minute, black-and-white video Mouth to Mouth (1975), audiences view Cha’s mouth in staticky close-up as it makes “O” shapes on screen. As the artist’s lips move, the audience hears a slithering arrangement of liquid sounds, which include running sink water, flowing stream currents, and the movement of the artist’s own saliva. The piece is both erotic and repulsive. It also meditates, more subtly, on linguistic restrictions in Korea under Japanese rule. The audience becomes suspended in utterance with Cha.

Cha’s unfinished black-and-white film on Korean migration, White Dust From Mongolia (1980), is also on view. Stylistically, it takes after such avant-garde New York legends as Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas. We see their influence in Cha’s slow shots of train tracks, trains, and marketplace encounters in Korea, which draw sublime details from quotidian experiences. Other shots intentionally disorient the viewer as Cha plays with editing and composition to trouble the audience’s sense of place and time. This effect echoes Cha’s writing throughout Dictée.

Na Mira, still from Night Vision (red as never been) , 2022. ©Na Mira. Courtesy Parkview / Paul Soto, Los Angeles.

Adjacent to Cha’s ethereal fabric room, Mira’s three-channel video Night Vision plays in a darkened enclosed corner. The video is both inspired by and an extension of White Dust From Mongolia. Mira shot Night Vision in infrared vision on the matriarchal island of Jeju, and the film traces the histories of female family members who practiced Shamanism before it was outlawed by Japanese colonial rule. The piece offers a moving counterpart to Cha’s work. While Mira, like Cha, is focused on language and its limitations in the face of displacement, her work favors spirituality and magic as responses to the trauma of colonization.

Mira was born in 1982 in Lawrence, Kansas, to mixed Korean American heritage. She first encountered Cha’s work 20 years ago, through a zine called external text, which was made by another queer Midwestern Koren feminist named Yumi Lee. It’s important for Mira to note Lee’s influence on her. “I was not taught Cha’s work in school, so I want to cite Lee to underscore these undercommons, because we [Korean women] are the source [of our own history],” she told Artsy. “Photocopied on the cover of Lee’s zine was the first page of Dictée and I immediately went out and got the book and started becoming an artist.”

Na Mira, still from Night Vision (red as never been) , 2022. ©Na Mira. Courtesy of Parkview / Paul Soto, Los Angeles.

Mira continues Lee’s legacy of introducing Cha to new audiences. In addition to Night Vision, she has also honored Cha’s memory with the film Tesseract (test) in 2020, the multimedia installation contrapunctual (2022), and the online piece entitled Tes Heures (2021), funded by Fulcrum Arts. In these works, Mira weaves together archives from her work and Cha’s, developing a new kind of shared language. In contrapunctual, Mira mounts her film work in dark, atmospheric rooms that emphasize the hauntings taking place on screen.

Mira’s feminist practice is especially interested in the racialized sexism that Asian women such as Cha have faced, and how artists can meaningfully communicate about that struggle. “Cha’s recurring themes of memory and displacement lead to a kind of science fiction here that felt sharp and uncanny,” Mira wrote. “Images unravel with her excess threaded across being, the past always already now. The fragments pull open the threads of a human project that would not have us.”

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, still from Permutations, 1976. Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Archive.

Curators, artists, and writers who want to confront Cha’s legacy must embrace her humanity beyond the account of her death. Mira wants us to remember Cha’s capacity for pleasure. It’s evident in Cha’s works, such as Mouth to Mouth and Dictée, where the artist quietly conveyed the ecstasy of silence and the eroticism of breathing and deep pauses.

Cha’s work has helped others, including Mira, to embrace the pleasure, pain, and humor within their own fragmented identities. Getting lost in a strange crowd need not be tragic—in Cha’s hands, it could even be funny. “In her archives there is an outtake from a film of Cha laughing,” Mira wrote. “I want people to know she laughed [that] dry humor and ecstasy burn in her materials. Jouissance.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.