In this vital commemorative portfolio “The Muse: Dictee at 40,” edited by Porochista Khakpour and Jee Leong Koh, 12 writers, scholars, and artists respond to the continuing influence of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s groundbreaking work. Read Porochista Khakpour’s introduction here. For the full portfolio, click here.
It’s been forty years since Dictee debuted quietly, and sadly forty years to the month that the world lost Theresa. We were together for six years, having met in a drawing class at UC Berkeley. My recollection of our first conversation was in class, initiated by Theresa, about the relevance of drawing in light of new technologies and advances in video and photographic processes. Although I had been aware of her presence, I had never spoken to her and was unprepared for the singular quality of her voice. The quietness of that voice—matched, paradoxically, by an intensity coming from a deep, resonant place—was captivating and simultaneously unnerving. One can hear her voice in her videos and recorded texts. I can only speculate that had she lived longer and recorded Dictee in her own voice, or better yet had she been able to read it in person, what a rich experience that would be.
Four decades on and Dictee and Theresa’s body of work has garnered the attention it rightly deserves. I am thankful on her behalf for the accolades and the following her work has been met with, albeit, some would say, far too late. The work is astounding in its spareness, vivid in its imagery, and dense in its allusions. It will live on and grow as subsequent generations come upon it and understand its timelessness and clarity.
The series of images, titled “Murmur,” accompanying the texts were done while I was on an arts fellowship at the American Academy in Rome in 2005–6. They depict the flight patterns of thousands of birds over Rome, patterns which ornithologists refer to as a gathering or “murmuration” of starlings. Nobody knows for sure where this term comes from, but I think Theresa would have appreciated not only the double meaning of the series title—a murmur being an expression of the sound made by the beating wings of thousands of starlings in flight—but also the abstraction and mark-making that I refer to as a form of calligraphy in the sky, depicted in the images.
I met and lost Theresa while I was still in my twenties. One moves on, time heals, memory fades, but never completely, and I remain grateful for all I learned from her in the years we had together.
Richard Barnes is a New York–based artist and photographer. For his series “Murmur,” which he produced over the course of two years, he photographed hundreds of thousands of migrating starlings in the skies above Rome as they coalesced in formations known as murmurations. Barnes’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions that include the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego; the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, MI; and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. His photographs are held in numerous public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum in New York; SFMOMA; LACMA; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Barnes was the recipient of the Rome Prize in 2005, and in 2006 his work was featured in the Whitney Biennial and awarded the Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Photography. His monograph, Animal Logic, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2009.