A ritual for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha at BAMPFA

Dohee Lee performs a ritual for the late artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha on Tuesday as part of BAMPFA's "Full:Adapt" program. Photo by Pak Han.
Dohee Lee performs a ritual for the late artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha on Tuesday Dec. 13 as part of BAMPFA’s Full:Adapt program. Photo: Pak Han

Though Theresa Hak Kyung Cha spent her formative years in Berkeley, the innovative Korean-American artist is most often associated with New York City. It’s where she made an indelible impression as a polyglot writer in the early 1980s, and where her life was so cruelly cut short by a depraved rapist.

On Tuesday Dec. 13, Oakland performance artist Dohee Lee presents a ritual at BAMPFA “to bring her spirit back to her home,” she says. Part of the museum’s monthly series focusing on experimental music and performance that coincides with the full moon, Full:Adapt also features a performance by Congolese-born San Francisco choreographer Byb Chanel Bibene’s Kiandanda Dance Theater and taiko drummer Jimi Nakagawa.

Cha is best known for 1982 book Dictee, a wildly ambitious and unsettled work often inadequately characterized as a novel. With an array of fleeting characters including Joan of Arc, the Greek goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, and the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, the book was influenced by the experimental film and video work Cha did during her years at UC Berkeley.

Video still of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
Video still Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1976  film Permutations.

She received four degrees from Cal (BA Comparative Literature, 1973, BA Art 1975, MA Art 1977, and MFA Art 1978) and spent three years working at the PFA as a cashier before completing her studies. A decade after her death in 1982 BAMPFA became the repository for her archives, and three of Cha’s pieces are now on view as part of the exhibition “Mind Over Matter: Conceptual Art from the Collection,” which runs through Dec. 23. Lee’s performance is the first glimpse of a larger work inspired by Cha, who is the subject of a winter 2018 BAMPFA exhibition, Avant Dictee.


Lee encountered Dictee shortly after moving from South Korea to the Bay Area in 2002, and like many readers, she was initially daunted by discontinuous structure (not to mention the juxtaposition of English, French, and Korean). But eventually she was drawn in by their shared interest in mythology and shamanic influences. Struck by the relative lack of attention paid to Cha’s death “I felt it was really necessary to do some ritual for her,” Lee says. “I went to New York in November, to the building where she was killed to do a ritual there. People talk about her art a lot, but not her death.”

Coming of age in South Korea, Lee immersed herself in the study of traditional Korean dance, music, percussion and vocals. Over the past 15 years in the Bay Area she’s forged an extraordinary array of creative alliances, performing with musicians and choreographers such as Kronos Quartet, saxophonist Larry Ochs, the string quartet Ethel, cellist Theresa Wong, Anna Halprin, Amara Tabor-Smith, and inkBoat, the butoh-inspired company led by Shinichi Iova-Koga (who curated Full:Adapt).

Visceral and exquisitely wrought, Lee’s work erases distinctions between traditional and avant garde, primordial and futuristic. At a time when there’s so much to mourn in the Bay Area, she’s an artist who fully understands the role of ritual in coming to terms with grief. Too often, she feels, we’re told to “just move on,” Lee says. “We just hide. We need to grieve and be aware of what’s happening and to connect with our ancestors. Digging into the roots of music and dance from shamanism I felt so many rich elements and resources in the ritual form. It connects to the land and how we relate to people, things and nature.”

She presents her next major work, “ARA Ritual III: Time Weaves,” at Oakland’s Eastside Cultural Center on Jan. 20-21.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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