The Shape Of Sound: How Christine Sun Kim Is Reimagining Sign Language As Art
Sound has populated art for a long time, but it has predominantly adhered to a narrow definition – that of the audible. In 2008, the multidisciplinary artist Christine Sun Kim noticed that while galleries in Berlin, where she is based, were lacking visual art, there was an abundance of sound. She wanted to change established narratives and carve out more space for the Deaf community. So, she said in her celebrated TED Talk, The Enchanting Music Of Sign Language: “I decided to reclaim ownership of sound, and to put it into my art practice.”
Kim – who communicates in American Sign Language (ASL) – began by exploring the similarities between musical notation and ASL. Now her work resides in major collections such as those of the Whitney Museum Of American Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London, and she continues to investigate the social implications and politics of sound through visual media.
I meet Kim at the opening of her newest exhibition at Somerset House Studios in London, Edges Of Sign Language. It marks a shift in her career towards a more minimal approach, through canvases whose shape – rather than content – is representative of the ASL words and phrases they depict. Score (2023) is a slanted shape with an ambiguous beginning and end, which “refers to a [musical] staff”. “It’s about working with ASL interpreters,” Kim tells me. “I am the ‘score’, providing information. At the same time, the interpreter is also my ‘score’; their voice influences the way mine is expressed.”
These new works are a natural progression from Kim’s earlier mural and public art. In 2021, she installed ‘open captions’ (automatically present subtitles) across the city of Manchester in England. “As my visual vocabulary increased, I felt constricted in space,” Kim explains. “If you make something as big as possible, it forces someone to see it; we’re imposing our lives on you.” One caption, which was displayed above the city as a plane banner, read: THE SOUND OF NO FIGHT. Another, situated on the façade of the National Football Museum, read: THE SOUND OF AGREEING NEVER TO CALL IT SOCCER. “Humour is a tool for my survival,” she explains. “I am so pissed off. I’m angry. But how can you be mad and not push people away? Humour!” After all, wit – like all the visual data used by Kim in her work – is bound by neither culture nor language.
Alongside foregrounding a new understanding of sound and language, Kim highlights the exclusion and ableism embedded in society. “Deafness has never had a place in history,” she says. “In my work, I want to force that place.” Kim plans to dip her toes back into performance art and continue her work with shaped canvas. “In the beginning [of my career], it was really easy to be pigeonholed, so I avoided using sign language in my work,” she says. “But now, I’m ready!”
Edges Of Sign Language runs at Somerset House Studios in London until 21 May 2023
Ella Slater is an art and culture writer based in London
Captioning The City (2021) ⓒ Lee Baxter; How Do You Hold Your Debt (2022), JTT NYC; Too Much Future (2017), Whitney Museum Of American Art ⓒ Ron Amstutz; The Star-Spangled Banner (Third Verse), (2020), François Ghebaly; All Day All Night ⓒ Reinis Lismanis. All: Christine Sun Kim; François Ghebaly, LA; White Space Beijing