March 23, 2018KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingRemembrances

The Legacy of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Part One


All writers who play with form that have come since are indebted to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, often without even knowing it.

I’m hoping to help out with the whole not knowing it part.

While Cha’s 1982 book Dictee was thrillingly impossible to categorize, those who tried often described it as novel or autobiography–even though it employed techniques of film and poetry, among others, and invoked a collection of women, ranging from the Korean freedom fighter Yu Guan Soon to Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

In Dictee Cha used a kaleidoscopic array of textual and visual strategies, suddenly veering into the land of film still or lineated poetry, in a mode that highlighted the hybridity of her project and the way in which multifaceted female experience can’t be captured by any one strategy.

Cha recognized no borders in her art. In a 1976 artist statement, she wrote, “My video, film, and performance work…are explorations of language structures inherent in written and spoken material, photographic, and filmic images—the creation of new relationships and meanings in the simultaneity of these forms.” Cha was not merely a filmmaker or writer, but also a performance artist who utilized text and image, film, plastic art, and poetic techniques fluidly.

Between 1974 and 1982, in addition to various text works and Dictee, Cha produced five video works and nine performance pieces that involved some sort of film technology (even if it was just a screen made out of a bed sheet).

The element that ran through all these works was Cha’s play with the different registers of text, image (including film stills and film form, for instance), and performance, and the way this play called into question conventional understandings of how time, space, and spectatorship function in an artwork.

In her performances, she repeatedly created, effaced, and then recreated “movie screen” type installations. Like that saying, “home is where you lay your hat,” Cha seemed to say that a book, movie theater, or performance space was wherever she placed her page or screen.

While at the Centre d’Etudes Americain du Cinema in 1976, Cha created a performance piece entitled Sur Vampyr (On Vampyr) for filmmaker and film theorist Thierry Kuntzel’s class. In this piece, she placed a ladder partially in the cloth space that she designated as the movie screen, upon which she’d written the words lumiere (light) and ombre (shadow). She employed a projector without film in it to shed not image but light on the screen.

During the performance, Cha either threw flour at the cloth screen or turned it over so that the words disappeared, and the audience was left with a white screen again and again. The throwing of flour, and the positioning of the ladder (a recurring image from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr) half-in and half-out of the screen space portrayed that place as permeable.

Every work Cha created asked that we upend our understanding of what it means to watch a woman by leaving spaces that invited our questioning minds inside in a mode at once invasive and tender.