BY Lindsay Choi in Opinion | 24 OCT 22
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Issue 230

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Playful Poetics

Lindsay Choi looks at two works by the artist that invite her audience to mutual exchange


BY Lindsay Choi in Opinion | 24 OCT 22

1. MORCELS: between the lines (1976)

Made during a prolific period of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s work with artist’s books and concrete poetry, MORCELS remains one of her lesser-known pieces. While she’s best known for her investigations in seriality, the relative brevity and self-containment of this text-based work belies its potency as a distillation of many of Cha’s formal and thematic concerns that continued across her career.

In MORCELS, Cha’s use of the poetic line unifies the dual aspects of the piece as both visual art and text. The line dynamizes the spatial field of the page, even as it works to produce rhythmic and interpretive tension between the arrangement of words, on the one hand, and the unit of the sentence, on the other. The self-portraits accompanying the text activate her lines. In the first three frames, Cha’s hand positioning corresponds with the reading direction of the adjacent text – from the vertical right-to-left direction of Korean, to a horizontal right-to-left, then horizontal left-to-right. By the fourth frame, her hands seem to signal not the orientation of the text itself, but its relation to the previous segment – that it’s upside-down – and, by the final frame, the relationship between Cha’s portrait and the text re-emerges as a question, which Cha herself posed in an undated artist’s statement, written sometime after 1976, of ‘how words and meaning are constructed in the language system itself, by function or usage, and how transformation is brought about through manipulation.’

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Aveugle Voix, 1975. Courtesy: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; photograph: Trip Callaghan

The subheading ‘between the lines’ then reads playfully. Taking up its idiomatic sense, we discover that to read ‘between the lines’ may mean to follow the transformations that occur – whether spatially, as with Cha’s hands, or across the images evoked in the lines themselves. In the break within ‘We opened our mouths onebyone [sic] / snowflakes’, the transformation of the image – from soybeans going into mouths to snowflakes exiting – amplifies the work of the line as it runs parallel to, but nevertheless disrupts, the sentence.

Cha holds a mirror to the reader’s process of parsing the work: we’re asked to perform, with the writer, the work of spatial shift – to morph from the reading-direction of Korean to English – as it counterpoints the process of grammatical understanding.

2. ‘Diseuse’

Alternately described as memoir, fiction and experimental poetry, Cha’s Dictee (1982) skirts easy classification. The book – structured into nine parts named after the nine muses of Greek mythology – offers a complex account of Korean diasporic experience following the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910–45) and the Korean War (1950–53). Cha investigates the relationship between language, colonization and anti-colonial resistance while working through the connection between the Japanese suppression of the Korean language and her own experience of multilingualism as an emigrant to America.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, 1982, artist’s book. Courtesy: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

‘Diseuse’, the first titled piece in Dictee, preceding the nine named sections, introduces the line in another sense: that spoken by an actor, ‘diseuse’ being the French feminine form for an artist who specializes in performing monologues. In the poem, Cha describes an inability to speak even as voices teem within the subject of the poem. She writes: ‘She allows others. In place of her. Admits others to make full. Make swarm. All barren cavities to make swollen. The others each occupying her.’ As this section precedes Dictee’s ‘invocation of the muses’, Cha weighs the invocation as a site of struggle, prefiguring the parallel she draws between the epic poet and the naturalized speaker of a colonial language, as figures who operate as mediums for the language of others: ‘From another epic another history. From the missing narrative. From the multitude of narratives.’ 

Dictee uses the ambivalence of ‘the line’ as both something one performs – as a mouthpiece or medium for another – and that which one creates, to investigate the limits and powers of language to serve as a basis for personal agency. Across her oeuvre, Cha’s manipulations of form probe at questions of reciprocity and power in the dynamics of language’s production and reception, inviting her audience to a mutual exchange. As she writes in her statement: ‘The audience-spectator is a major consideration, from conception to realization of the piece. She/he holds a priviledged [sic] place in that She/he is the receptor and or activator central to an exchange or dialogue.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 230 with the headline ‘Mirrors and Morcels’.

Main image: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Passages Paysages, 1978, black-and-white polaroid of three-channel video installation. Courtesy: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Memorial Foundation. 

Lindsay Choi is the author of Transverse (2020).