Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was born in Korea in 1951. Together with her family, she emigrated at the age of thirteen to the U.S. She grew up in San Francisco, and from the end of the 1960s to the end of the 1970s, studied art and comparative literature, at the University of California in Berkeley, as well as film theory at the Centre d’Etudes Américain in Paris. She first returned to San Francisco, which was a center of experimental performance and video art at the time. Although the San Francisco Museum of Art already invited Cha to present one of her works in 1981, her oeuvre has first experienced increasing recognition in the past ten years, for example, by retrospectives at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Generali Foundation in 2004. The artist tragically died at the young age of thirty as the victim of an act of violence in New York City in 1982.
Shaped by the experience of migration, Cha was occupied with themes such as cultural and linguistic dislocation, alienation, and memory. Her performances, film and video installations, paper and textile works, as well as writings bear witness to her conceptual and poetic confrontation with language, which she considered the most important base of her work. Her comprehensive, intellectual education manifested itself in the attempt to realize structuralist language theory and French film theory through art. In Apparatus, Cinematographic Apparatus, an anthology that she edited in the 1980s, for example, she published one of her own text pieces, Commentaire. Cha’s thoughts are characterized by her special interest in beholders, with whom she wanted to enter into a conversation in her works, allowing them to participate in the production of meaning. Cha, who spoke Korean, English, and French, commonly worked in several languages simultaneously. Her works deconstruct language, literally dismantling words into small parts and in doing so, finding other meanings and new relationships between them, or combining them to new creations—often beyond the borders of languages. Her works aspire to opening thought. Cha sounds out the meaning of language in the formation of identity: she makes being foreign, the threatened loss of self of the subject, tangible in a new language and investigates memory composed in language with regard to its identity-fostering dimension, for example, in Dictee, her most well-known literary work. In this artist’s book, which presents the apex of her work’s dense cultural references, she links her own fate as migrant to the fates of other Korean, European, and American women.