SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.
Kyung Cha & Gestural Poetics
THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE:
THERESA HAK KYUNG CHA (1951-1982)
THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE: THERESA HAK KYUNG CHA (1951-1982) is an exhibit catalogue for a retrospective of Cha's work featured at the Art Museum or the University of California, Berkeley, where Cha was a student from 1969-1978. This hardcover - 167 pages of sharp black-and-white photographs, biographically insightful essays, descriptions of Cha's work, and an extremely helpful bibliography of writings on Cha - is a treat for the eyes comparable to the recently-released YES by Yoko Ono.
Most of THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE consists of pictures of Cha's work, and anyone who enjoyed DICTEÉ's multimedia mnemotechnics will appreciate the variety of work presented here. Cha combines family photos with scattered letters for an even more experimental approach to recording her struggles with identity politics than the reader witnessed in the typographically inventive, albeit publishable, DICTEÉ. One gets a fuller sense of Cha's need to express herself across multiple platforms, a sense that, for Cha, using just one language omitted things that could be said in others. Here the mix is not just linguistic (French, English, Korean, and Japanese) and visual (type, calligraphy, and photographs) but includes the moving image and art object as wekk. The dreamt-of audience will be intrigued by stills from her video-performance piece OTHER THINGS SEEN, OTHER THINGS HEARD (AILLEURS) (1978), where Cha interacts with a montage film composed of stills from Bresson's LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC and rocks with words like "redemption" and "abandon" written on them. Also included are typed poems, pictures of small objects made with words, and annotated family photographs.
The only drawback to this beautiful collection is the scope of the critical voices it presents: all of the writers included with the volume have a personal connection with either Cha herself or with Berkeley. In that the articles give priority to "recollection" over theory, Cha's work is presented as a sort of minor discourse. Although Cha created work that addresses categorizations of minority, circles of association, and modes of recollection, her work problematizes these territories of identity. The close-knit assemblage of voices presented here does not do enough to mirror Cha's rupturing of personal and artistic boundaries. Non-biographical analyses of specific pieces seem to happen only incidentally. Contrast this assemblage to the anthology prepared for the Guggenheim Museum's 1997 retrospective of Arakawa and Madeline Gins' REVERSIBLE DESTINY (NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications), which presents a mix of responses to the exhibit, personal recollections, and hard theory, allowing Arakawa and Gins' strange avant-garde architectural works a place in major "postmodernist" discourses. THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE presents Cha's work as never before, but perhaps the task that remains is to read Cha's work as inventive, masterful, politically complex art, and not merely as the work of a woman "born in Korea" (page one, sentence one) whose "sparkling trajectory was tragically cut short" (back cover). To disregard Cha's biography in relation to her work would be irresponsible, but to read Cha's artistic production in purely biographical terms circumvents many other possible critical approaches.
One way to approach Cha's multimedia works is to look at them alongside similar works such as Cecilia Vicuña's PRECARIOS (which are similar to Cha's carefully arranged rock piles in OTHER THINGS SEEN, OTHER THINGS HEARD (AILLEURS), 1978) 1 and Yoko Ono's early Fluxus pieces (note the similarity between Cha's UNTITLED, a jar with five elements typed on slips of paper inside, and Ono's early obsession with recording and labeling the air and sky). 2 It is no surprise that, as we have few ways of talking about these cross-genre art forms, books that focus on one of these three women's art often rely on biography over analysis. In contrast, I propose to conceptualize these art objects and performance pieces under the rubric of "gestural poetry."
Historically, language has been regarded as primarily oral, so that the words on the page are a score for future aural performance or a record of past performance. This notion of language surfaces in even the most avant-garde poetics as a concern with the "line break," the search for the minimal unit of sound that makes sense, the "destruction" of poetic sense into sound poetry, and so on. In more conventional poetry it surfaces in the ideas of "meter," "rhyme," etc. Poets are often loathe to admit that the word on the page is seen before it is sounded; indeed, even approached with a text as multilinear and fragmentary as Steve McCaffery's CARNIVAL, many a poet will defend the idea that the poem sounds at the same time as it is seen.
Disproving the primacy of orality is not my interest here; 3 instead, I want to demonstrate how to interpret certain poems in terms of how they occupy space and time. Instead of recording time in space in the usual way, where the poem is a spatial score waiting to be fulfilled or realized by oral, temporal performance, Cha's cross-genre works reveal that syntax is always both spatial and temporal. The poem exists spatially (visually) only insofar as it exists temporally (in the reader's sense of time or sound) and vice-versa.
The "gestural poem" does not record sound (like a normal poem supposedly does) and does not, indeed, record discourse as text. However, it does record space in time, or time in space, and thus functions as a syntax just as linguistic poems do. Take, for example, Cecilia Vicuña's PRECARIOS, 4 which are miniature, ritually produced masses of material. Five sticks, a shell, and a feather are tied together with beaded thread: this made thing is a language not of words, but of gestures in time and space. It has been made in a more physical way than we normally think of poetry, but the syntax-a logical relation of things that can be interpreted so that the "reader" remembers the space and time of the gesture by proxy, i.e., through the syntax itself-is there. Instead of showing where sounds happened in time, gestural poems like the PRECARIOS show where movement happened in space; if writing were a record or score for sound, these objects would analogously be records and scores of choreography. However, it is less interesting to once again posit an analogy between poetry and music (writing as score) than it is to say that gestural poems, like linguistic poems, require the reader to perceive an order of signifiers over time, and to remember her temporal travels in the space of her mind.
The same phenomenon can be seen in certain works of Cha (see A BLE WAIL, 1975, in THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE) and Yoko Ono ("Cut Piece" 5 or "Painting to Hammer a Nail" 6 ; fragmentary signature pieces such as "sky," and pieces that require active participation as in the recent REMEMBER LOVE exhibition 7 ). In Cha's OTHER THINGS SEEN, OTHER THINGS HEARD (AILLEURS), 1978, a film of rocks with words stenciled on them runs behind Cha, who performs in front of the projection with large branches. The branches and her body cast a shadow on the wall, a negative silhouette against the positive projected image. In this piece, both the choreographed body with branches and the projected pictures participate in a gestural poetics. First, Cha's body moving with the branches creates a choreographed language. The three branches and her positions look almost like ideograms and seem to contain mysterious messages, even if the messages are only "Cha's body and the branches are, at this time, in such-and-such a position." But this movement is already divided, as we can see both the performer and her shadow, and the shadow seems to become a part of the projected image. The shadow, then, is read differently: it is the trace of Cha's movement (while it is at the same time Cha's movement itself, since it is concomitant with the movement in time). This disjunction calls attention to the inscription of the gesture: the trace left behind, which is in this case the shadow, is the story of what happened. On a second level, the projected images also participate in the story told by gestures. The rocks with stencil-painted letters testify to a gestural imprint: the choosing of the stone, the placing of the stencil, the painting of the words, the filming of the rock. Like Vicuña's PRECARIOS, Cha's stones bear witness to the poet's hand that made them, reminding us of a syntax of gestures (first find, second place, third paint, fourth film) that occupied a certain space at a certain time and now let us share in that space and time by proxy.
To say that a gestural conceptual work is a poem is not to say that everything that follows an order (syntax) is a poem. However, the conceptualization of a non-linguistic syntax of poetry calls attention to the ordering of spatial entities across time (impressions, memories, writing itself) and to the more fundamental inscription of memory. To see the non-linguistic gestural text as a poem is thus to re-imagine reading itself as a choreographic experience of spacetime.
1 Compare Vicuña's webs of thread, as in the short film CLOUD-NET, with Cha's tent-making ritual in her short film SECRET SPILL (1974). Stills from CLOUD-NET can be found in CLOUD-NET, trans. Rosa Alcala (NY: Art in General, 1999). Stills from SECRET SPILL can be found in THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE.
2 In a short cut-up poem given to her sister in a bowl - Surplus Novel of 1980e (DREAM 101) - Cha calls, "I ain't your / I ain't no I ain't / your yoko ono." Of course this is true. Cha is not Ono, and by bringing Ono into this review I do not mean to make the comparison based on race (indeed, the two women are of different racial backgrounds) but on the similarities between the works. In a note on page 13 of THE DREAM OF THE AUDIENCE, we learn that in 1976 Cha made a trip to The Netherlands and encountered Fluxus artists. It would be hard to maintain that she had not encountered Fluxus work or theory before, living, as she did, in the experimental Bay Area arts community in the 1970s. Although my DREAM of a sustained reading of the influence of Fluxus on Cha's work is not fulfilled in the book, I think that reading the inflection of Fluxus upon what might otherwise be a pleasantly complex family album is crucial for understanding Cha's work.
3 For a deconstruction of the assumed primacy of orality and its consequences for aesthetics, see Jacques Derrida, DISSEMINATION, trans. Barbara Johnson (IL: U of Chicago P, 1981).
4 Cecilia Vicuña, QUIPOEM/THE PRECARIOUS,THE ART AND POETRY OF CECILIA VICUÑA, ed. M. Catherine de Zegher, trans. Esther Allen. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1997).
5 Yoko Ono, YES YOKO ONO (NY: Harry N Abrams, 2000). This 352-page tome was released to accompany the first major retrospective exhibition of Ono's work (YES YOKO ONO, beginning at the Japan Society Gallery in New York and running from 18 October 2000 through 14 January 2001). This exhibition catalog, like the REVERSIBLE DESTINY catalog mentioned above, treats the historical and artistic significance of the artist's works through a wide range of critical approaches.
6 http://www.dareonline.org/themes/play/ono.html as of 11October 2004
7 Stockholm, Sweden, 29 May-8 August 2004
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