Words often find a way to grant qualifications and designate meaning. For quite some time, those of the artist, in particular, have left a salient mark on how we appreciate their work. This begs the question of whether one must necessarily lean on what the artist has to say in the process of taking in or expounding on a work of art—or whether they should fence off the work from the artist and search for the substance ingrained within it. Ever since Barthes snuffed out the (mythical) author in the 1960s, the work has ceased to have its meaning anchored to the source of its creation, existing instead as text interpreted according to its surrounding context. Nonetheless, Barthian theory holds no categorical answers as to the relationship between author and work when the author himself addresses the audience through his work.
Cha Ji Ryang’s work communicates that very quandary by means of the words which compose their backbone. For example, Cha describes 〈Only People Who Have Decided to Leave Can See Everything〉 and 〈Personal Barriers, the Individual’s Wing〉—his contributions to the 19th SongEun Art Award Exhibition—as collected correspondence with the multitude of individuals whom he encountered while migrating through different times and spaces. Both pieces feature a series of letters written between 20 December 2012 (the day he left the place where he was born and raised) and 20 December 2019 (the day before the opening for the exhibition). The resulting composite of video, sound, and text is admittedly more journal than letter. Cha’s work is as good as a record of everyday routine, juxtaposing self-revelations sans an explicit recipient with images of foreign landscapes. The artist likewise attests to the fact that this stretch of his past was not catalogued with the intent of dissemination, as demonstrated by the deeply personal and unpolished footage of 〈Only People Who Have Decided to Leave Can See Everything〉. Despite all appearances, however, this equivalent of a garden-variety travel diary becomes a letter by virtue of its being sent out into the world.
The diary is an intimate receptacle of private life. If Cha’s most recent work divulges that dimension of his existence to whoever might be listening, the words of the artist accordingly function as a form of transmission for the work itself. Records and reflections which might seem antiquated or tedious in most circumstances assume a certain allure as their reach exceeds the confines of the artist as individual. One of the walls in Cha’s exhibition space reads, “In an unanswered world of resignation, the number of people living alone surrounded by their own walls increased. When people get used to that kind of world, they forget the wall at some point in various ways. They even don’t know who they are.” The declaration renders Cha’s work an endeavor to “fly away from . . . personal barriers” and to examine that which these fortifications have cut off from our perception. His inquiries have no intention of finding their resolution in an ‘us’ superceding the differentiations of ‘you’ and ‘I.’ Rather, Cha contemplates our means of finding singularity within a mass of names—of seeing the extent to which an ‘us’ simplifies our understanding of the persons whose edges have been sawed off to fit a haphazard mold.
From 〈Temporary Enterprise〉 (2011) to 〈New Home〉 (2012) and the K-Refugees series (2014-), Cha has been involved in numerous projects which focalize systems and the social structures and entities which adapt to them. The former sheds light on individuals driven to the peripheries of corporate culture and urban housing, while the latter directs itself toward those who reside within or decamp from the ideological framework of nationhood. Though fundamentally cut from the same core, the pieces included in the SongEun Art Award exhibition set themselves apart from this body of work on a surficial level in that they do not involve participation from the audience. Where he once told individual narratives subject to a specific social order, Cha now somewhat glosses over the clear-cut borderlines of the system to pinpoint a particular individual and the many individuals in their vicinity through a story that begins with a person from one side addressing a person from the other.
Cha self-identifies as an inhabitant of an erratic sense of time. 〈Only People Who Have Decided to Leave Can See Everything〉 overlays the temporalities of the diverse countries that the artist has encountered. As for the question of whether Cha’s erratic sense of time constitutes an intermingling of assorted times, the best avenue to puzzle out this quandary may very well lead us to the viewing of his work. Under careful instruction to buckle up as they watch the upcoming footage, the members of the audience pass an azure curtain, beyond which they are greeted by the sight of a TV and neat rows of chairs glinting under the pale blue lighting overhead. The video rolls on the hour regardless of whether or not all seatbelts have been fastened. Cloud imagery floats behind the television and window-like monitors hang from the walls alongside the seats, echoing the layout of an airplane. The correspondence between the setting for the piece and the average in-flight experience brings to mind the temporality of migration and bodies set constantly adrift. Cha subsequently prompts his audience to traverse time zones and perceive the swell of movement itself, while at the same time identifying the junctures at which the individual lingers within a certain temporality.
The individual emerges in response to the challenge of the other. The other, in turn, recurrently materializes in the colossal name of systems, institutions, laws, and fathers, demanding that we apprehend each other and consummate a sublime macrocosm of empathy—but to slip into an understanding of another, one can only project the self onto the object at the expense of that individual as a distinct entity. Cha stays wary of the convenience in such self-projection and struggles to establish himself as a singular agent unconsumed by the totality of being espoused through social structure. From this corner of existence, he hovers in the hollow temporal space between earth and sky and dispatches a note absent the knowledge of when, where, and into whose hands it will land. In some place midair, Cha’s letter waits for a corresponding apprehension to reverberate with its anxious spiral.