The Art of Conversation in Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (2023)

The Art of Conversation in Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1)

I was recently invited for coffee with Jo-ey Tang, director of exhibitions at Columbus College of Art and Design, and German artist Heide Hinrichs—because, Tang said, "I think you two should get to know each other." I was flattered, but also a little terrified. Teaching at an art and design school, like me, is great in theory, but it means exposing my ignorance on a semi-regular basis. Sure, I took a bunch of art history classes as an undergrad, and I consider myself a huge fan of visual art, but there are a lot of things I don't know, and that sometimes leaves me in a crippling state of intellectual capacity. FOMO.

The night before the meeting, I frantically googled Hinrichs, hoping that by looking at her work, I might have something somewhat intelligent to say to her. It turns out that she is also concerned about learning, but the fear she describes about that learning has less to do with her own ignorance and more to do with how knowledge is disseminated, how it is made available and to whom. Hinrichs' Second Shelf Project aims to bring books by and about queer artists, artists of color, non-binary and women's artists, and other underrepresented voices to college and university libraries—an effort that began with her home institution in Brussels. As a way of introducing me to her dilemma, she told me, “I was surprised to find that there was no book about Agnes Martin!” I felt myself relax a little. I know who Agnes Martin is.

Then the conversation turned to a name I didn't recognize – Theresa Hak Kyung Cha – a Korean-American artist and writer who was deeply influenced by a specific method of analyzing film: she watched one frame at a time. “You should do this withyourstudents,” said Hinrichs. “I think they would kill me,” I told her, but Hinrichs couldn't stop smiling. “Imagine,” she enthused, “a movie for the entire semester, frame by frame, frame by frame! What do you think you would talk about? Where do you think the conversation would go?

Hinrichs has been talking to other artists for many years; she intends to record her responses to their work – and in that work, she finds responses to the work of others. We know objectively that this is how knowledge accumulates, a method as applicable to monks illuminating manuscripts as it is to students poring over books in a university library. It's all aboutconversation-between artists and writers, between readers and books, between one floor and another of a building, between galleries and libraries.

The evocation of Cha's name seemed to me to be evoked with reverence, as a representative of this type ofcommunion.Cha's work, specifically his 1982 bookSaying,it is academic and emotionally present, theoretical and practical. He eschews easy classification and is influenced by filmmakers as well as playwrights, visual artists, poets and critics. How had I never heard of this woman before? I felt my inner neophyte start to panic, but Hinrichs and Tang seemed genuinely excited for me to meet her, to learn about her. This is the nature of conversation, this is why it exists, this is why certain magical things happen when people come together to talk about art and ideas. In fact, that's what the Second Shelf Project is all about.

For Cha, the exchange opens up to include the conversation between generations, between traumas, between countries, between God and His faithful, between images, between breaths. InSaying, Cha is talking not only with his mother, Hyung Soon Huo; 19th-century nun, Saint Therese of Lisieux; the Greek muses; and Korean activist Yu Guan Soon, but also with the genre conventions of memoir and poetry, history, film criticism, and artist's book.

Sayingconfuses expectations at every turn. Specifically, there is something monumental about the text's extreme lack of metaphor, its effort at objective observation, which seems to me - at this point - absolutelypoetic. Artist and critic Paul O'Kane describes his work as “a communication [that] tries to circumvent the limitations of everyday speech in search of a state of Ur that is neither local nor 'global', neither ancient nor current nor futuristic, but which be ill-timed: a type of speech that does not know where or when it originates, that is innocent of what it intends, has no idea where and when it will be received, nor whether it will ever be fully understood.” What Cha aims for, in other words, is expression without authoritative authority, without ego, open and ready to receive transmission.

It is perhaps strange to think of critical writing or even creative writing in these terms. After all, the stereotyped professor is old, white, male, and is distinguished by his original ideas, and the author's imagination is autonomous. ButSaying,like Hinrichs' Second Shelf, emphasizes the collaborative and communicative nature of criticism, applying (in Cha's case) the multimodal qualities of film and theatre, whose precursors are time-based rituals of oral narrative, religious ceremony and historical reenactment.

Cha, however, does not evoke History with a capital “H” to express indisputable facts. What makes it so attractive is the emphasis it places on the incorporeality of memory. She writes: “Face to face with memory, it errs. It's missing. Yet. What time. It doesn't move. She remains there. She doesn't miss anything. Time, I mean. Everything else. All other things. All others, subject to time. Must respond to time except. Still born. Aborted. For very little. Childish. Seed, germ, sprout, still less. Dormant. Stagnant. Absent." What is exempt from time – from the narrative of History – is what was never part of the “official” narrative in the first place. Cha shows us, by employing the language of film analysis, that no matter how much we want to slow down the film and reflect on individual images, no matter how close we get in “EXTREME CLOSE-UP”, so that the image of the face is divorced from the body, the body of narrative, the language of meaning – we are no closer to capturing the character , the life, the essence of the lost person.

The act of looking at one cinematic frame – a single image – at a time reduces the desire to characterize the overarching story. Cha's hyperfocus on the material facts of the event and almost devotional reverence for its details boil memory down to biomechanical processes. It's not so much a matter ofwhatsays a character, but rather the language he uses, or if he is forbidden to use it, and the muscles of the face during inhalation and exhalation:

Then you, as a spectator and guest, enter the house. It's you who are
coming in to see her. Her portrait is seen through her things, which are hers.
The layout of her home is laid-back, delicate, subtly accentuating,
the words. She forms the words with her mouth while the other pronounces
in front of her. She shapes her lips accordingly, softly she blows
who is and why and what is. In truth. About. Verrah. Verre. Oh. About
verra-h. Si. Si. She listens, we'll see. If we will have to see if. If.
We would wait. Wait to see, we would have to wait to see, wait and
See if. For the second time. For another time. For the other overlay

Cha uses his training in academic research and academic conversation on film to convey the memory, nay, to convey theimpossibilityof memory – memory that avoids easy summary or sentimental evocation, stripping it of what Foucault callsmemory,a concept Lauri Siisiäinen, in his bookFoucault, Biopolitics and Resistance,describes it as “made of the dynamics of references, which does not materialize and is consumed in any ‘memory’ through which the lost past would be recovered and present again”.

Memory does not belong to a person, just as an idea does not belong to a person. Rather, it is a collage, a hypertext, a collection of documents and images, quotes and voices, of iteration, of democratically reproduced copies of letters, graphics and photographs that, once clicked, lead to more and more. Indeed, Cha's stark juxtaposition of intimate interior monologue, letters between government officials, grainy photos, and photocopies of handwritten notes works to simultaneously anonymize identity and individualize it. For example, inSaying'With photographs included, faces are pale and difficult to discern. In monologues, the voices are difficult to differentiate. Is it Cha herself who is speaking, or her mother, or Yu Guan Soon, or Santa Teresinha?

“I have the documents,” writes Cha, “Documents, proof, proof, photograph, signature. One day you raise your right hand and you are an American. They give you an American Pass door. The USA. Somewhere someone took my ID and replaced it with this photograph. The other. Your signature, your seals. Your own image.”

Identity, like memory, is changeable, ephemeral, at the whim of language and circumstances, and this incorporeal absence, like the absence of color, is repeatedly evoked inSaying:“She opens the cloth again. White. The whitest of beige. In the whiteness, subtle hues outlining the phoenix below, the phoenix above, face to face in the weave, barely showing. Fading into whiteness.” Cha's use of “whiteness” points not only to the memory wash, but also to the degradation that an image shows after multiple reproductions. In her essay “Diasporic Object Lessons”, Alison Fraser says: “Xerography has another political implication, embraced by Cha: it both confronts the idea of ​​the original or unique item, and places the power of duplication and distribution (and therefore of publication) in the hands of the individual, effectively presenting the opportunity for the general public to assume roles formerly occupied by editors and publishers, much to the ire of those in traditional places of power.”

For Cha, there is a palpable tension between the process of assimilation and the desire to retain memories of past places, identities and languages. The outcome of the conflict, however, does not seem to be the main point. Instead, Cha seems interested in the conversation that takes place when these two desires come into contact – the striving towards “wholeness”, if not its fulfillment, that occurs when we try, when we pay attention, one frame at a time.

Tag:Saying,Theresa Hak Kyung Cha


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