Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982) was an artist, poet, and thinker who is best known for her striking performance works and posthumously published novel Dictee. Cha was born in Busan during the Korean War and emigrated to the United States in 1963, when she was 12. Fascinated by the persistence of past trauma in the present and the magic of language, its ruses, and misunderstandings, Cha drew on influences as diverse as Korean shamanism, French New Wave Cinema, the five elements of the universe, Greek mythology, Korean post-war history, and religion and revolution in her visual and performance work as well as her writing. Just weeks before her novel was to be published, Cha was violently raped and murdered in New York City in 1982 at the age of 31.
She didn’t say exactly that, but in her poética sugérica, the suggestion of her poetics, a cloudy, foggy reading of her matrix, the image came forth.
I felt its reality as Rain forming in me.
This is what the Rain feels when we call Her by Sound.
This is what happens when musicians pray and dance with Sound for Rain.
Then, Rain comes to a thirsty, dry land.
She was praying for the Rain of Memory writing Dictee, a dictation that came from nowhere, the place where exiles dwell.
“The longing of return.”
The place where “the tongue that is forbidden is your own mother tongue.”
Diseuse, she began, naming the one who speaks, the speaker.
The one that “mimics the speaking. That might resemble speech.”
“It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside the pain
of speech the pain to say.”
“She allows others. In place of her.
Admits others to make full. Make swarm.”
“She waits inside the pause. Inside her.”
“She waits to service this.”
And she asks the muses to be the speakers, to help in
“The pause. Uttering. Hers now. Hers bare. The utter.”
And with these words we enter Dictee, her naked journey towards speech. The book she published a week before she was murdered.
“Mother” she said.
“Mother, the first sound” she said,
and she was murdered.
As if speaking thus, naming the mother, she was endangering herself.
Because it is not allowed to speak truth, to sense the silence within words.
Wikipedia says: “Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s novel Dictee was published in 1982. On 5 November 1982, Cha was raped and murdered, only a week after her novel was published.”
I heard her drowning, like a refugee while being raped.
I heard her falling as a white stone on a pool of light reflecting the stars.
I heard her in the murmur of hands receiving her card saying
D I S T A N T
R E L A T I V E
I heard her listening for the rustle of shadows not there.
I heard her as a distant relative coming home to nothingness.
I was just about to meet her when she was murdered.
I was just a few blocks away, with other Heresies women, but her cry didn’t reach us.
We couldn’t hear the cry coming from the soul of all raped women.
The cry that was becoming a wave, a wave of sorrow asking us to stop
the next crime.
When alive, she performed handing people a white card saying:
D I S T A N T
R E L A T I V E
“you are the audience
you are my distant audience
i address you
as i would a distant relative
as if a distant relative
seen only, heard only through someone else’s description.
neither you nor i
are visible to each other
i can only assume that you can hear me
i can only hope that you hear me.”
She felt “the audience is the ‘Other’ whose presence establishes, completes, any form of communication.”
Distance created the ocean for us to swim towards each other, to swim till we meet en el mar de penurias, el mar del dolor, the sea of sadness, ocean of pain.
“The present reveals the missing. The absent.”
“The remnant is the whole.”
After she was gone I re-enacted her work in homage at Exit Art.
I brought a large clay pot, filled it with water, and lit a fire in its heart.
Fire over water, said the I Ching hexagram.
You will need to be especially vigilant just before success.”
I dreamt of Fire over Water when I was 8 years old.
I saw a world on Fire, rivers and oceans on fire, and I knew I was seeing
not a dream but a reality seen, heard before seeing.
I think of you, Theresa, drowning in a sea of pain, so close to us,
and I see the dream coming true.
I travel through scorched land, dead rivers, dead trees and dead streams and
I see eyes not wanting to see us drowning in a sea of fire.
Our eyes drown without tears
Our eyes not wanting to see us
as distant relatives
to the trees and streams
to the ocean and to each other
Not wanting to see us as refugees.
You wrote: “the eyes have not been condemned,” and yet why do we chose not to see the dying web of life, the dying tongue, the dying weaving of tongues?
“The seed of the message.”
“There is no destination other than towards yet another refuge from yet
another war. Many generations pass and many deceptions in the sequence in the chronology towards the destination.
I am in the same crowd, the same coup, the same revolt, nothing has changed.”
“There is no surrendering you are chosen to fail to be martyred to shed blood to be set an example one who has defied one who has chosen to defy.”
“She waits inside the Pause.
New York, January 2020
Cecilia Vicuña is a poet, artist, filmmaker and activist. Her work addresses pressing concerns of the modern world, including ecological destruction, human rights, and cultural homogenization. A partial list of museums that have exhibited her work include: The Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Santiago; The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) London; Art in General in NYC; The Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; The Berkeley Art Museum; The Whitney Museum of American Art; and MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Vicuña has published twenty-two art and poetry books, including Kuntur Ko (Tornsound, 2015), Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), Instan (Kelsey Street Press, 2001) and Cloud Net (Art in General, 2000).