Projected onto a white curtain wall, the image of a young Korean girl from “Permutations” (1976), a 10-minute black and white film, announces Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s exhibition at this year’s Whitney Biennial. The diverse artworks (14 in the exhibition checklist) are carefully staged in this “show within the show” in the middle of the Whitney’s fifth-floor gallery. The tent-like space recreates the “environment” that Cha designed for her 1975 performance A BLE WAIL at University of California Berkeley’s Worth Ryder Gallery: “a curtain made from cheese cloth was hung, separating the performer’s space and that of the viewer,” she wrote in her notes, where she also conveyed the reason for the enshrouding: “In this piece, I want to be the dream of the audience.” Forty years after her tragic death at the age of 31, Cha’s premonition of a “dream” informs the Whitney’s tribute to the artist in her “performer’s space.”
Curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards explain that they “organized this Biennial to reflect these precarious and improvised times.” For an exhibition that usually showcases emerging artists (such as Korean-American Na Mira, whose work is installed nearby), their retrospective of Cha — a highly accomplished literary artist, as well as a forerunner of feminist performance and conceptualism — reflects today’s political sensibilities. The biennial’s title, Quiet as It’s Kept, expresses the grief of three years of COVID isolation, inextricable from that of racial injustices in the United States. Toni Morrison’s verse “quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941,” from her acclaimed book The Bluest Eye, refers to the quiet when one mourns death in secret. Invoking poetic imagery to represent grief in Morrison’s narrative — her evocation of a newborn’s death (conceived through incest) — the curators’ thoughtful selection of Cha’s works in the show corresponds with the biennial’s overall attention to mourning. The three years since the last biennial have been especially grievous for Asian women in the United States, raising the stakes for the Whitney’s representation of American art.
In a photographic loop visible from both sides of the cloth screen, “Permutations”’s stills of the young girl —seen with eyes open and closed, and from behind — seem to manifest Cha’s ghostly presence despite the fact that this is the face of her sister, Bernadette. Even here, the artist appears to the audience as a “dream” since she is embedded in the film’s duration: “a single frame of Cha’s own face, eyes open, both ears exposed,” as Soyoung Yoon describes in her essay for the biennial catalogue; “It’s a one-off that barely registers.” This play with misrecognition illustrates a common sexist and anti-Asian stereotype: All Asians look alike. All Asian women are the same. Decades have passed since the rape and murder of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in New York, and yet the violence of Asian profiling and sexual fetishization never seems to change.
On April 13, during the second week of the biennial, a memorial exhibition organized by stephanie mei huang opened at Eli Klein Gallery, just down the street, to pay tribute to Christina Yuna Lee, who was stalked and murdered on February 13 of this year. Asian hate has impacted Asian women inordinately since Trump called COVID-19 the “China Virus” and instigated a torrent of racist aggression and name calling. After his Atlanta murder spree on March 16, 2021, which claimed the lives of eight people, including six Asian women, the killer blamed his sex-addicted violence on the Asian women he fetishized (among them, the Korean Americans Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Kim Grant, and Yong Ae Yue).
At the biennial, the video of “The Word” (1975) questions the meaning of the term “Americanism.” The five color digital scans on a loop present still images of Cha’s T-shirts inscribed with the neologisms: “A! MER IN CAN ISM,” “AMARE…SINASM,” “A MARR CAN ISM.” If “THE WORD (Le Mot)” represents Cha’s speech acts in the context of T-shirt identity, how would she have addressed “Kung-Flu” hate speech as a locus of white power/knowledge?
The poetic meaning of Cha’s life and death resonates throughout her show, expressed in photographs of the artist and her brothers and sisters after exile from Korea in handmade artist books such as Presence/Absence (1975). Born in Busan, Cha and her family fled the oncoming North Korean and Chinese forces during the 1950s war, emigrating to San Francisco in 1964. She was a student at UC Berkeley, double majoring in art and comparative literature from 1969 to 1978, at the moment when student protests on behalf of Ethnic Studies would result in the first-ever Asian American Studies program. She developed the extraordinary breadth of her intellect by studying French film, psychoanalysis, and linguistic structures, reconciling Korean kinship, memory, exile, and emigration through her art.
The 1975 video installation Mouth to Mouth (compiled in 1987 with Vide o me, 1976, and Re Dis Appearing, 1977) is a prime example, composed with images of the Korean alphabet in association with close-up movements of a mouth enunciating the eight Hangul phonetic vowels. Cha conceptualizes the fragmentation of the “mother tongue,” the loss of the embodied process that every émigré experiences when assimilating American English. The artist once wrote that her videos, films, and performances explore the relationships among language structures and written and spoken material. Performance events such as her 1975 Aveugle Voix — “blind voice” in French — addressed the difficulties of assimilating into another language by performing the disabling of vision. The photographic documentation of the performance at the Whitney, hung on the other side of A BLE WAIL, shows Cha dressed in white, covering her eyes with a cloth marked Voix, and her mouth with one reading Aveugle. She ritualistically unrolls a white banner printed with the words geste (gesture), aveugle (blind), voix (voice), sans (without), mot (word), sans (without), and “me.” When language is used in oppression, in hate speech, the result is a loss of voice. Cha communicates this in relation to her displacement in the United States, but also to the memory of her family members, who were banned from speaking Korean under Japanese occupation during the war.
The Whitney’s display of her 1977 artist book Father/Mother acknowledges the intimacy of her familial images in relation to her cultural texts. Alternating with pages of Korean calligraphy, Father/Mother contains manipulated photocopies of photographs of Cha’s parents, reproductions of her mother that were eventually used as illustrations in Cha’s literary opus Dictee, released two months after her death in 1982. Now, on the 40th anniversary of the publication, the images function as a narrative trace in her project of memorialization, foretold by Cha as a remembrance of “names, events, and histories of existing persons, individual personages in history and other fictitious characters embodied in nine female voices.”
Cha intended to write a historical novel in parallel with her unfinished film White Dust From Mongolia, presented as a video installation in the Whitney exhibition. Shot by her brother James in 1980, who returned with her to Korea for three months, the footage captures images of everyday life in Seoul: ubiquitous ceramic pots on rooftops, stalls in the food market, rides at the amusement park, and comings and goings at the train station. In her statement for White Dust, she stated that she wanted “to bring forth in this book all the elements that are historical to lessen the physical geographical distance as well as the psychological distance of the Asian people from other ethnic cultures.” Her grandparents were Koreans who exiled to Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. Their return much later to their homeland during World War II marked them as Manchurian Koreans of ethnic difference. She explained in her postdoctoral prospectus how film, performance, and text could express exile and return: “My work until now, in one sense, has been a series of metaphors for the return, going back to a lost time and space, always in the imaginary […] the realization of the imprint, the inscription etched from the experience of leaving.” With Cha’s death, an important voice in expressing the personal consequences of displacement in the histories of all Asian Americans was lost.
In an interview on the Whitney’s website, Breslin and Edwards explained their rationale for including works like Cha’s in the biennial: “why can’t there be dead artists” in the show “if their ideas are more alive than ever … the spirit of their art is still around?” The ideas of Na Mira are direct descendants of Cha’s. Mira’s Night Vision (Red as never been) (2022) is presented as a three-channel infra-red video installation at the biennial. The artist traveled to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to record the performance in the dark of night. Continuing the matriarchal endeavors of “my great-grandmother, who lived as a shaman under the Japanese Occupation when the practice was outlawed,” Mira performs the animal gestures of the tiger shaman spirit, invoking the traces of the body in the ritual of belonging to Korean nationalisms.
Cha’s imprint is palpable in Mira’s different version of “metaphors for the return, going back to a lost time,” etched from the poetic experience of leaving. Cha’s influential body of work at the biennial is central to the curators’ objective “to map, in an intergenerational way, the artists who are questioning identity … who are comfortable with a lack of certainty around questions of representation, questions of belonging.” Her desire to be the “dream” for the audience foretells her immortalization as her far-reaching vision of identity is here renewed.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is featured as part of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, Quiet as It’s Kept, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan), and continues through September 5. The biennial was curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards.