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Cha’s portrait remains in fragments

We follow the white hoody into the KCC multi-opurpose space

What is one supposed to do when a scary woman in a white hoody comes up to you and declaims an impenetrable text at you in a threatening manner? Well, what we all did at the opening evening of the group show at the KCC which pays tribute to the artist Teresa Hak Kyung Cha, was meekly to follow the woman, like some pied piper, into the multi-purpose space of the KCC where she continued her declamation.

Part of the opening performance – a mysterious and plaintive song

A less scary woman rose up from under a red cloth on the floor and sang. It was a mysterious, plaintive song, part lullaby, part lament, sung in a thin, vulnerable style. This was something you could begin to relate and engage with. What were the untold sorrows hinted at in the song? The song came to an end, and then a man stuffed his jacket with meticulous care into a flower pot, then plastered it with equal, almost loving, care onto the wall, and the mood was broken. What on earth was going on?

Tomorrow, I will bring you the Spring
“Tomorrow, I will bring you the Spring.” Quickly, please

The scary white woman returned; and then a new woman, dressed in what looked like one of Choi Jeong-hwa’s inflatable black lotus flowers, chanted a poem in an unwavering monotone. “Tonight, I will bring back the Autumn”, was the first oft-repeated refrain; then “tomorrow, I will bring you the Spring”. The words were more meaningful than before, almost poignant, the lament of a mother who was mourning a dead daughter. If only it had not gone on for such a toe-curling length of time.

As an introduction to the works of Cha, it was all somehow appropriate. Cha’s Dictée is similarly fragmentary, episodic, elliptical, requiring considerable effort to get behind the words into the meaning and intention. Some of the material grips you because of the subject matter – Korea’s traumatic past under Japanese colonial rule – and you are tempted to be more accommodating to the book because of this. But overall it is impenetrable.

The day-glo red of the KCC's video wall was replaced by a sombre black
The day-glo red of the KCC’s video wall was replaced by a sombre black for this extract from Dictée

The exhibition of “workstations” related to Cha’s work also demanded a lot of an audience. Bits of paper stuck to a display board representing an unfinished project that Cha was working on at the time of her death, videos playing seemingly at random, a small screen which seemed to be playing a documentary consisting of people talking about Cha, and an extract from Dictée written in chalk on a blackboard running the full length of the video wall. We needed a bit of help with all this.

Bada Song's workstation
Bada Song’s workstation

Perhaps the most approachable of the pieces was in the end space – a bridal portrait in which the bride’s face is obscured by a big red disk, making her anonymous and preventing her from speaking. On the floor are two red tubes, and a soundtrack faintly plays the song that had been sung in the opening performance.

The screening of some of Cha’s work at the ICA on 26 October was much more helpful in terms of piecing together some of the fragments of the portrait. Artist and writer Paul O’Kane together with curator Bea de Sousa responded to Cha’s work in a conversation which was almost a meditation on her life and achievements. And things started to make a little bit of sense.

But the timing of the conversation was unfortunate: on the very last day of the exhibition. By the time the conversation was over – and you were inspired to return to the KCC to try to make sense of the fragments presented there – so was the exhibition.

As a project, then, this was ambitious. But maybe reflecting the fact that Cha’s life and artistic practice was cut short, or the fact that her work was arguably ahead of its time, as an overview of her output it left the audience puzzled. The title of the exhibition was well chosen, and the portrait was indeed in fragments.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-82): a portrait in fragments was at the KCC 24 Sep – 26 Oct 2013. The screening of her works at the ICA, followed by discussion, was on 26 October 2013.

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