MAH-UHM, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 2018

Photo by Aleks Slota

MAH-UHM, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 2018

The first retrospective of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in Germany

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (04 March 1951 – 05 November 1982) was an artist, director, and writer. She was born in South Korea during the Korean War. In 1963, she and her family moved to the United States; the emigration from Korea would prove fateful to Cha’s sense of mission. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and over a ten-year period in the 1970s, she received four degrees in Comparative Literature and in Art. Tragically, in November of 1982, Cha was murdered in New York City. Despite the brevity of her life, she created a rich core of conceptual art that revolves around the notion of loss.

Cha’s work focuses on memory, longing, time, history, and especially language. The English, Korean and French languages, in particular, were the key building blocks for Cha’s explorations. These languages provided Cha with the references necessary to create her distinctive, operative linguistic topographies. Cha views language not only as a medium of communication but also as a distinct artifice, an independent structure with focal phonematic and semiotic points that lie within a topology of interpretative elasticity.

One of Cha’s main themes is the notion of loss. She highlights the loss of one’s cultural identity and sense of belonging by demonstrating the disintegration of native language throughout the process of immigration. Visually, she balances the precarious effort involved in acquiring a spanking-new language – with the struggle to establish oneself within a new society. In Cha’s paradigmatic symbolism, the exchange of native communication for a novel language reflects the exile from a stable metric of cultural historicity unto a reappearance of sounds and meanings. The slate, gone blank, becomes free to reconceive. This becomes a part of a new social ontology.

The title of the exhibition, MAH-UHM, is a word that Cha used in her novel “Dictee” (1982), and it reflects the pronunciation of the Korean word heart. Cha, an immigrant herself, sees the suggestions of lingual malleability as another plane on which the artist may move freely. This transportive field refuses subjection and confines that may course between “women”, “Korean”, or “Korean-American”. Cha’s work actively applauds the lingual aura of freeplay as a source of personal vision and power. It releases the grip of rigid identification, and it seeks to collapse the lingual binaries that erect as a logic of subjugation. The mind is living and burns through the stale and unexamined walls of signification.

This exhibition focuses on five video works and selections of literature. The selected works highlight organic elements of language and performance: spoken language, written language, and language as image and representation. They explore the interactions of language, meaning and memory. For example, in the video “Mouth to Mouth” (1975), language is represented as the form of a mouth and the sound of water flowing, when eight Korean vowel graphemes are pronounced. “Permutation” (1976) blends reality, with a recurring image of her younger sister and Cha’s face spliced into one of the film cuts. Her novel “Dictee” (1982) tells stories about different women that characterize feminist struggles, Korean history, colonialism, diaspora, and Cha herself as a third-world woman. The exhibition, MAH-UHM, offers the opportunity to meet Cha directly, and it aims to guide the audience to practice fundamental viewing through her works.