If refraction reorients boundaries and shapes that we take for granted, then this literal impulse lies at the center of the well-known cut-paper silhouettes of Kara Walker, which I now examine through the lens of translation and refraction. In Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), the title itself is an off-center re-naming of Gone with the Wind, the famous romance novel set in the South during the Civil War. What do the contents of such an intentionally unsettling translation entail?
This week I continue considering the implications of refractive poetics for artists who address issues of social identity. Cybele Lyle works with sculpture, photography, video, and projection, addressing themes of architecture, location, and space:
The spaces I create—queer, safe, architectural, and emotional—form a critically reconstructed mirror of reality, an alternative environment in which all forms of intimacy are allowed to be visible. I use social and visual material of my own life to represent spaces of transformative potential and desire.
This week, I consider the video art projects of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who is well-known in the literary community for her hybrid book Dictee but less famous for her other body of work. Born in Korea in 1952, Cha emigrated to the U.S. when she was nine years old, so it is not surprising that much of her art centers on issues of language, voice, identity, and the unsettling or loss of these. She spent her adult life invoking, like prayer, physical representations of silence and disruption; the breadth of her art—spanning written texts, film, slide projections, and performance art—is filled with empty spaces, broken language, and images and terms of silence.
In considering the implications of refractive poetics for artists in the margins who address issues of social identity, this week I explore the work of Christine Sun Kim, an artist who was born deaf and whose primary investigation is sound. For Kim, what is most palpably at stake is access to a part of the world she cannot experience the way most others do. “How can I learn the idea of sound and silence from [others’] perspective?” she asks.
As an introduction to alternative modes of meaning-making through the lens of refraction, the notion is most directly embodied, perhaps, in the work of Francesca Capone, who explores the materiality of textual language by literally warping and distorting it (she even has a piece entitled Refraction). Such treatment converts text into a new mode of visual information that one experiences bodily and viscerally, most exemplified in her series Oblique Archive.
Other ways of seeing: The poetics and politics of refraction