Kimberly K. Lamm
Formally austere but dense with sensation and longing, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s single-channel video Mouth to Mouth (1975) is an eight-minute meditation on the significance of language in Korea’s colonial and diasporic history. Composed of three parts that feature English letters, the vowel graphemes of Han’gŭl (the phonetic script of the Korean alphabet), and an image of a mouth moving in and out of visibility, Mouth to Mouth unfolds into an intensely physical reflection on the Korean language as a mother tongue – a language linked to maternal care, the affective experience of home, and the feeling of national belonging – that has lived in the body and the psyche despite imposed silences. Cha’s title suggests the intimate touch that the image of the mouth embodies, but her spare arrangement of text, image, and sound also transmits a sense of distance and alienation.1 A visual poem that proceeds from writing to speech, Mouth to Mouth evokes the desires for belonging that the concept of the mother tongue might encapsulate for a woman who has inherited the losses written into Korean history. At the same time, the video contributes to Cha’s work eroding the fantasy that women symbolise the affective plentitude with which the mother tongue is associated.
Mouth to Mouth begins with a loud rush of heavy static and the camera slowly panning across the English-language title of the artwork, ‘mouth to mouth’, which appears in black, lowercase, and sans serif letters (Fig. 1). Cha has placed the title against a grey background and at the center of the screen. The video camera pans slowly across the letters, creating a horizontal line that is slightly jagged and replicates the act of reading. Cha set the letters far apart from each other so there are large spaces of grey between them; these spaces provoke viewers to notice the letters as visual objects to be ‘looked at’, in the words of Robert Smithson.2 Aligned with Conceptual Art’s engagement with language as a subject matter, material, and system, Cha makes seeing a process of reading. After the camera finishes moving across ‘mouth to mouth’, the screen fades to black and the static slowly dissipates into silence.3
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