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Translating the Language of Memories

This is one way to tell the story of artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: She was born in Korea, raised and educated in California, and died tragically, murdered in New York City, at the age of 31.

But there is another way to tell it as well: Cha was a prolific and talented Conceptual artist, ahead of the curve, and even though her life and her career were cut short, she created a body of work that continues to grow in impact and resonance.

“Language,” Cha once said, was “the common denominator” that brought her multidisciplinary interests together. A retrospective exhibition titled “The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982),” on view through March 10 at UC Irvine’s Beall Center for Art and Technology, documents the work Cha produced in film, video, performance art and art books.

Organized by the UC Berkeley Art Museum, it is the most comprehensive collection of Cha’s works since a posthumous solo show in 1993 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Beall is the second in a six-stop tour that began in Berkeley and ends in Seoul. Much of the work in this exhibition is drawn from the UC Berkeley Art Museum’s Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Archive, donated to the museum in 1992 by the artist’s family.

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“There’s always an interesting play of language in her work so you can sense all the multiple meanings of words. She loved taking words apart and putting them back together,” said Yong Soon Min, a friend of Cha and chairwoman of UC Irvine’s studio art department. Min, along with former Beall Center director Jeanie Weiffenbach, was instrumental in bringing the show to Orange County. “She was fascinated by language because of her experience as an immigrant.”

Fluent in Korean, French and English, Cha was born in Pusan, South Korea. She moved with her family to San Francisco in 1964. Her Catholic upbringing introduced her to Latin. In her works, Cha often juxtaposed words from the languages she knew with images.

Her 1976 installation “Amer,” on display in the Beall show, focuses on the letters found in the word “America.” It may seem incomplete in English, but in French, the term amer means bitter and a mer means “to the sea.” The visual banter of words and letters is printed on the stars of an American flag with “AMER” hand-stitched on one stripe.

“This is telling in the way she works through signs and symbols we take for granted,” Min said. “It struck me because post 9/11 we see flags everywhere, and here’s a piece she did in 1976.”

Other pieces in the exhibition include art books Cha created out of cloth, fiber and paper, and filled with poetry, rubber-stamped words and Korean symbols. Her slide shows contained images of English phrases rearranged into grammar trees. She stitched the words “Repetitive Patterns” in stenciled letters over and over again on a sheet of cloth. She even invents words such as “Videoeme,” the title of a video project that plays on the word vide, French for “empty.”

Most of Cha’s work is text and image, in black and white.

“Black and white is closer to how text [in] print looks, and since language was such a strong element for her, she used black and white. All of her printed matter was in black and white,” Min said.

Cha began studying at UC Berkeley in 1969 and eventually earned four degrees: a bachelor’s in comparative literature in 1973; a bachelor’s in art in 1975; a master’s in art in 1977; and a master’s of fine art in 1978.

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“She is a unique figure in that she was very mature for her age and intelligent and phenomenally well-read, so she was able to draw from so many different sources early in her work. Her work was very sophisticated and advanced,” Min said.

Cha’s work reflects “the profound developments of her time and place--including the radical changes in art--and her own cultural displacement and alienation,” said senior curator Constance M. Lewallen of the UC Berkeley Art Museum.

Cha studied at Berkeley during heady times. The campus was the scene of Vietnam War protests and a hotbed of the liberation movements among women, ethnic groups, gays and lesbians that resulted in new academic departments in ethnic and women’s studies.

Cha’s art touched on a wide range of disciplines including visual and performance art, ethnic studies, Asian American studies, women’s studies, film, literature and linguistics.

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Times were changing in the art world too. The Bay Area Conceptual art movement was in full swing, and the advent of videos fueled Cha’s enthusiasm for experimental work.

Her influences included philosopher Michel Foucault, video artist Bruce Nauman, French film theorists, Dadaism and the Russian Constructivists. Her interest in language continued, but she also developed an eye for film, spending three years as an usher and cashier at the UC Berkeley Pacific Film Archive, where she watched countless classic and avant-garde movies, and began developing her own methods, constructing almost all her films and videos as a series of stills.

“Alternation and repetition of images and sound, simultaneous narration, and live action are combined or isolated. These methods intend to shift the chronology of events, to displace them spatially and temporally,” explained Cha of her film and video work in 1979, the year she became a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Art Fellow. “The images and language emerge from sources that are highly personal ... to evoke other moments in the viewer’s memory, that bridges the viewer and myself.”

In 1980, Cha had her first exhibition as a professional artist in a group show at the San Francisco Art Institute Annual. Her piece, “Exilee,” was a two-channel video projection of a series of black-and-white still images produced to look like moving images.

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“She creates a strong sense of slowness of time, and there are shadows that indicate the passing of time,” Min said. “The piece is very meditative and attempts to get the viewers to be much more aware of a sense of passage and of time. The images are like traces of memory.”

But it was Cha’s first performance installation of “Other Things Seen, Other Things Heard” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art the year before that caught the attention of San Francisco Bay Guardian art critic Robert Atkins.

“I left feeling suspended between consciousness and unconsciousness, as if I had been dreaming someone else’s dreams,” Atkins wrote in his review. “This feat of near magic was accomplished in a small, darkened rectangular gallery.”

What Atkins saw was a floor covered with sandy powder on one end with a film projector casting grainy black-and-white images of beaches and rocks on a wall. Live and recorded voices solemnly chanted questions. Cha appears in front of the photographed images, sitting meditatively, then dragging ropes tied to rocks with labels such as “Redemption,” “Forbidden” and “Abandoned” stenciled on them.

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Cha moved to New York in 1980, when she began working on her unfinished film “White Dust From Mongolia.” The Beall exhibition provides extensive documentation of the work.

In May 1982, she married photographer Richard Barnes. On Nov. 5 that year, she was on her way to meet Barnes in lower Manhattan at a photo shoot at the Puck Building. But she never saw him. She was raped and strangled by a security guard who worked there. He was convicted, appealed, retried and convicted again in a case that was drawn out for years.

Some scholars say one of Cha’s most important works came out posthumously. A journal-style autobiographical book, “Dictee,” was published a few weeks after she was murdered. It is written in three languages, and combines family history, stories of female martyrdom, poetry and photographs. It was key in establishing Cha’s reputation, Min said.

Now she is studied in university programs in linguistics at UC Berkeley, art history at Hong-ik University in Seoul, film at Claremont’s Scripps College, women’s studies at Portland State University in Oregon, English at Temple University in Philadelphia, English at the University of South Carolina and literature at Duke University in North Carolina.

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“Her work became very influential after her death,” Min said, adding that Cha was highly prolific in the last 10 years of her life.

“People appreciate her for her use of language, but as an artist she was an incredibly rigorous, very detailed and thorough in conveying ideas in her work. She was very demanding of herself, and that level of strength can be seen in her work.”

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“THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE: THERESA HAK KYUNG CHA (1951-1982),” Beall Center for Art and Technology, UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, 712 Arts Plaza. Dates: Tuesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; Thursday, noon-8 p.m. Ends March 10. Price: Free. Phone: (949) 824-6206, or www.beallcenter.uci.edu.

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Vivian Letran is a Times staff writer.


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