“She Creates Her Own Language”: Christine Sun Kim’s Unique Sound Art | Art

Au Queens Museum, artist Christine Sun Kim’s recently completed mural features the words TIME OWES ME REST AGAIN, scribbled in black, spanning a pristine white wall 40ft high and 100ft wide. Familiar action lines you’d recognize in the comics set the words in motion: “TIME” hops along a pair of bouncing curves; “OWES” closes to the ground with a splashes!; and “REST” pulls up into a pair of clouds. Poof poof!

These comedic references are a new development in her work, Kim tells me in American Sign Language, logged into Zoom from her home in Berlin. (Its interpreter, Su Kyong Isakson, translates on a separate screen.) “They are so dynamic in showing movement,” adds the artist; each bounce and zip represents how these ASL words bring the hands into contact with the body. “TIME” is two slaps on the wrist, she explains, and “OWES” is the index finger that lands on the palm facing up. “REST,” which is arms crossed over chest with fists clenched, becomes a focal point of our conversation. In the mural, he describes both a collective fatigue under the burdens of capitalism (“It’s killing us all slowly,” Kim recently tweeted), as well as his own exhaustion navigating a world designed for the audience. “As a deaf person,” she says, “you have to conserve your energy.”

Time Owes Me Rest Again, on view through January 2023, is the genre of visual poetry innate to Kim’s practice, where for more than a decade she has played with the structures of language and notation to describe its relationship to sound. Born deaf in Orange County, California to a family of hearing parents and a deaf older sister, she experienced sound by closely watching its effects on hearing people. His art, which encompasses performance, video, and naïve style drawings in charcoal and oil pastel, distills sound to its essential qualities – its moods and materiality, emotional frequencies and social baggage.

Time still owes me rest
Time still owes me rest. Photography: Hai Zhang

“There is a freshness to his work that represents a new type of voice,” says Francois Ghebaly, director of the Kim gallery in Los Angeles, Gan Uyeda. “She really creates her own language.” Combined with features of ASL, including rhythmic spacing and repetition, ordinary English text finds movement. In The Sound of Temperature Rising, for example, a 2019 mural about impending climate change, the title accompanies four musical notes that float upward and multiply, illustrating a boiling crescendo. Facial expressions, “which represent grammar in ASL,” Kim says, also play a prominent role. In her 2016 video, Classified Digits, she plays specific conversations — Skype over spotty wifi, for example — solely through the awkwardness on her face, while artist Thomas Mader, her husband and sometimes collaborator, plays them with her hands as if they were hers.

“Humor is such an important part of the job, and I see how she uses it in a very tactical way,” adds Uyeda, describing how cartoons like Shit Hearing People Say to Me and Degrees of Deaf Rage are serious tempered grievances. by jokes. The first is a pie chart of misguided comments Kim has heard over the years: “You’re smart for a deaf person” or “I’m sorry you can’t hear.” The latter, his 2019 Whitney Biennale breakout charcoal series, provides measures of frustration on a scale of 1 to 360 degrees: Museums without deaf programming elicit a 360-degree circle of “Full on Rage ”, while in-flight entertainment with no caption only elicits 180 degrees, a semicircle of “Straight Up Rage”.

Kim was initially worried that the piece would make her look angry, but “the humor brings a level of access, kind of like a meme,” she says. “If I was just angry without the humor, I think it would be uncomfortable and people would leave. They wouldn’t do the complex contemplative work that I want them to do.

Christine Sun-Kim
Photography: Lexi Sun

Underlying the artist’s penchant for laughter, data visualization, and other universal modes of communication is a general distrust of being misrepresented and misunderstood; Kim knows very well how language barriers, as well as poor language choices, have the power to marginalize. Prior to our interview, she sent me an access endorsement with links to resources on the deaf community and some gentle reminders – that ASL is not a “series of gestures”, and if it please refrain from referring to her as a “deaf artist”. or “an inspiration”.

“I wanted to start off on the right foot,” she says, recalling the frustration of previous studio visits where “I spent 45 minutes explaining deaf culture to curators and museum directors, leaving the last 15 minutes to talk of my work.” In response, Uyeda wrote the rider to stem the tide of ableist language that would inevitably appear in media coverage and museum texts. “I felt like he was really watching my back,” Kim recalls, “It saved so much time and energy without having to do all that tracking and explaining.”

The artist finds his work in high demand these days, with works now in the collections of the Tate, Museum of Modern Art, Lacma and more. Queens Museum scale works also became the norm; even in the midst of a pandemic, Kim was actively working on murals for institutions in Europe, Asia and North America. His most important work to date was Captioning the City, a series of installations for the 2021 Manchester International Festival. For around two and a half weeks, his texts adorn the heights of buildings and banners unfurled from planes:[THE SOUND OF SEARCHING FOR SEATING]» read the main facade at Selfridges, with «[THE SOUND OF INTERMISSION THICKENING]in the windows of the Royal Exchange.

To do work on this scale is “to amplify the volume of her expression,” says Hitomi Iwasaki, the exhibitions director who commissioned Kim’s mural for the Queens Museum. “Visual art is about maximizing communication and expressing something beyond our language system. For me, Christine’s work is like artistic expression 2.0.

Christine Sun Kim, Studio for a Composer to Work in, from Available Spaces for Composers, 2016
Christine Sun Kim, Studio for a composer to work in, in Spaces available for composers, 2016. Photography: Christine Sun Kim/Courtesy of the artist and Green

For Kim, her work has created a vital and growing platform for advocacy and visibility for the Deaf community, sometimes in surprising ways. In 2020, she kicked off the year by signing the national anthem at Super Bowl LIV, which she followed with a New York Times op-ed. She criticized Fox Sports’ decision to air just a few seconds of her performance as a failure of accessibility, to a sea of ​​positive responses.

Yet, she says, the term “political artist” seems too specific a label for her practice. “I want the privilege of being able to experiment with, say, butterflies and flowers,” she says. “But I have a strong connection to political issues and social issues because it impacts my most basic human rights, and I can’t help but talk about that in my work.

“As an artist,” she adds, “I can decide and assign meaning to ideas in things. There’s a lot of power in there.