A retrospective of Korean artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's work is now in its final week at the Henry Art Gallery. The Dream of the Audience consists of grainy, obscure videos and wall-mounted text (in English, French, and Korean) arranged on paper and cloth like existential word puzzles with no solutionsall of it in the artist's harsh minimalist idiom, chastely free of anything that would offer the conventional pleasure of looking. The work would be of little interest at all if not for the facts of Cha's life.
Having grown up in a post-WWII Korea still recovering from the Japanese proscription of its languageand later made to learn English and French as a teenager when her family emigrated to California and enrolled her in a Catholic schoolCha had good reason to regard words as an arbitrary, alien, and potentially malevolent force. Her deconstructions of language, informed by her study of French literary theory at Berkeley, are not therefore sterile exercises in intellectual wankery; rather they have a fierce urgency, expressing Cha's own divided self and affirming what they teach in those lit theory classes: Language is no neutral conveyor of truth, but always furthers some power agenda. For Cha, a teenager caught between various kinds of cultural colonialism, this must have had a more vivid reality than for most of her classmates.
Or at least so I imagine as I look at the work in the light of the artist's biography. In one piece, the names for the different forms of a French verb are laid out like a rack of torture, and in another, a Korean poem of filial love (helpfully translated on a placard) is rendered in bold, thick strokes, as if Cha is defiantly hammering to the mast the flag of her cultural identity.
But it takes an effort of will to see the show this way. Lose your concentration, and it again devolves into a bunch of words on the wall that range from oblique to literally unintelligible (unless you happen to know all three languages used). And even when viewed through the filter of the artist's turbulent identity, some of the work is just plain bad. One early video shows the artist slowly lighting candles and portentously intoning Jim Morrison-style profundities; a performance piece, documented in photos that were used to publicize the show, has Cha donning, like crowns of bathetic victimhood, a blindfold and gag that read (in French) "voice" and "blind." Another part of the hype on Cha is that she transcends genres, but this turns out to be a less-than-thrilling spectacle, comprised of, for example, words chopped up and put in a jar (it's like literature, see, but it's 3-D, so it's also kind of like sculpture).
The essential problem is that putting words on the gallery wall is simply not all that compelling, and the text-based conceptualism of the 1970s (when most of Cha's work was created), like a lot of things of its era, was never a great idea. I will never believe that anyone is truly excited to see this stuffthere is deliberately almost nothing to engage the eye, and picking away at its cold cerebral pleasures is scratching for chicken feed in a gravel driveway. Yes, it's "challenging," but so is sword swallowing. That alone doesn't make it worth my time.
Cha published her first and only book just before being murdered by a stranger in 1982 at the age of 31. Dictee (University of California Press), a work that has become a staple of ethnic studies and comparative literature classes, is written in her familiar elliptical style and has many of the preoccupations of her gallery work, incorporating graphic elements and multiple languages. But the book, weaving together the stories of several women, including her mother, Joan of Arc, and a Korean dissident, has a definite shape, sustained narrative, and clearly recognizable themes. Its strength, in other words, comes from the discipline of maintaining a genre rather than trying to burst its bounds. "What a lot of conceptual artists really want is to be writers," the illustrator Kip West once observed to me, and even if get-no-respect illustrators have more reason than most to resent conceptual artists, the observation rings true. Cha's death is all the more tragic for coming just as she had discovered her true calling.