Exploring Discomfort with Artist Xavier Cha

Andrew Durbin

Photography by Sarah Muehlbauer

Xavier Cha wears vintage choker, Helmut Lang Spring / Summer 2002 top, Craig Green Spring / Summer 2015 pants. Styled by David Casavant.

On a brisk Wednesday in mid-November 2015, 47 Canal, a gallery located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was unusually empty except for a single gym bleacher, placed in the center of the exhibition space. On it, 20 fidgety men and women sat in nervous silence, bristling with a kind of repressed energy, as if looking for something to do, somewhere to go, while audience members slipped into the room for Feedback, a performance by the artist Xavier Cha. The press release had given almost no indication as to what one could expect (it featured a screen shot of the Wikipedia entry on animal echolocation and another of a selfie from Cha’s Instagram), only a few start times, staggered at 15-minute intervals. It was Cha’s first show at the gallery in three years, and so anticipation was high for an artist whose work often challenges, upsets and upends notions of audience expectation in the first place.

Within minutes, the gallery’s stillness broke: the performers stood up and began to clap and cheer, their faces contorting with elation, enthusiasm, excitement. For what, exactly? They were staring at a blank white wall, their gazes trained just past those of us who stood before them. Cha was nowhere to be found, and would not make an appearance. Performance, she told me, “leaves me preoccupied,” hence her absence, and she relied on the gallery to send her updates throughout the run. The clapping slowed. Then, sighs of relief, awe. A few more cycles of cheers, then a mood of disappointment, followed by contemplation. And again: for what? For the next 15 minutes, the performers, acting in near unison (Cha described them to me as “autonomous audience”), cycled through these emotional flights until they stopped and Feedback promptly ended, the audience left, and the performers went out for a cigarette or fresh air.

Born in Los Angeles, Cha has been a fixture of the New York art scene since she first showed at Taxter and Spengemann Gallery in 2006, with a curious debut exhibition called “Holiday Cruise!” For that show, Cha created three online personas—Horn of Plenty, Cornrow Hairbraid and Polyhedra, each with their own unique social media following—that were made real in the gallery through performance and sculpture made in collaboration with each persona’s online fan base. (They each had surprisingly popular MySpace pages.) It was the start of a curious, inquisitive practice that would place—and continues to place—audience and performer dynamics under winking scrutiny, through complicated productions at a wide range of institutions in the U.S. and abroad, including the Whitney, The New Museum, the Hammer and the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf.

Cha wears vintage Helmut Lang top, Helmut Lang Spring / Summer 2002 top, Junya Watanabe Comme des Garcons pants. All pieces from David Casavant Archive.

Of Korean descent, Cha is soft spoken and, noticeably, athletic, with a reserved focus—in performance and in conversation—that belies her work’s own intensity, which often coolly attends to the dynamic between the audience and the performer, the performer and the performance, where the distances that shape and separate the individual from others, both within the space of art and without, through media and the imprecise divisions of the stage, come under scrutiny as Cha tests the strengths and weaknesses of those various borders. This work is often demanding, both physically and emotionally. Often these demands are made with cold humor, as in her 2015 commission for the Frieze Art Fair, abduct, a film that featured several discomfited actors struggling with a seemingly uncontrolled range of emotions: joy, fear, sadness, happiness. As with much of Cha’s work, it makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing, where the big, broad human condition seems to mock itself.

In Cha’s work, such feeling becomes identity’s burden: a weighty aspect of lived experience where the self and its images (self- produced or conferred by impersonal social media and surveillance networks) seemingly overwhelm. In December 2013, a crucial moment of such overwhelming occurred for Cha with her performance Fruit Machine 2 at the New Museum, which she created “as a platform” for deaf and blind actors, working in coordination with American Sign Language interpreters, to play a telephone-like game of “open composition” randomized by a slot-machine of digital fruit. The performance, which ran for two nights, sought to investigate the linkages between perception and interpretation, with words and phrases shifting along a chain of performers who, each in turn, produced unique, deeply personal responses to language and the senses.

Fruit Machine 2 elicited intense emotional responses in the performers and the artist, especially over the complexities and challenges in communication between people who are differently abled, and Cha told me that, for months afterwards, she felt a kind of depression that led her to pick-up kickboxing as a kind of mental curative. “I often feel a sense of post-pardum after putting so much energy into a performance,” she told me, “then afterwards, it’s over, it all kind of disperses and evaporates, and it can be difficult to gauge how the work exists, whether it has a positive, effective afterlife.” The performance had been a success, but an uneasy one—and one that had pushed her further than she had expected to go. “I realized I was a human,” she told me, plaintively nodding to a central question her work continues to raise: And what is a human?