In a sheer, silver gown with black line tattoos and “art kid bangs,” Christine Sun Kim does not look like the average Super Bowl attendee. So, it was to everyone’s surprise when she stood upon the field and performed the National Anthem in American Sign Language. For the near 100 million viewers of the National Football League’s Super Bowl LIV, this may have been their first time seeing the Asian American, Berlin-based artist. Nonetheless, Kim has been featured in art museums around the world for her transformative pieces. 

Born in California, Kim, 39, earned degrees from the School of Visual Arts and Bard College. Growing up deaf, she had to develop certain behaviors to adapt to a society catered towards the hearing. Now, Kim’s art explores the materiality of sound as a different means of understanding “communication” without auditory conventions. 

face opera ii, 2013

face opera ii is a performance piece by Kim that starts with seven performers mimicking one performer as they display different emotions. The “opera” of facial movements correspond with words that Kim holds up on a display pad, from “face glow” to “technology.” 

Kim explains that less than half of American Sign Language is manual production, the rest has to do with facial and body expression. All of the performers are Deaf people; they take turns conducting the rest of the group through their visual nuances. Notably, none of them use their hands. Through face opera ii, Kim demonstrates that communication does not solely rely on language. In many ways, human expression is universally understood. 

six types of waiting in berlin, 2017

six types of waiting in berlin is a series of six paper pieces. Upon the paper, Kim draws musical notations in charcoal accompanied by a descriptive setting. The notes capture ordinary experiences such as “waiting in line at a bank” and “sitting in a doctor’s waiting room.” 

Kim notes that every culture’s sense of pacing is different. In New York, everything is fast-paced with face responses, while a long wait is expected in Berlin. Therefore, Kim’s piece shows the anxiety of being aware of time and the fuzziness of losing track of it. Although musical notes are usually played to the listening ear, Kim chooses to leave them on the paper. Therefore, the viewers are left to interpret and feel the beat themselves. 

In tandem, hearing is usually perceived as a mindless and universal ability. The charcoal series opposes that notion by requiring the viewer to actively engage with a different form of communication. 

spoken on my behalf, 2020

In this performance piece, Kim stands before three screens. While she expresses different emotions with her face and body, text and voices appear behind her. 

With spoken on my behalf, Kim visualizes the experience of having people “speak for her.” While some of the voices demonstrate trust and allyship, others come involuntarily. As a Deaf person, Kim realizes how vocality translates to platforms, privileges, and hierarchies. 

The performance piece puts hearing allies in the spotlight. It urges us to question whether our desire to “help” stems from the subconscious belief that deafness is a defect. Also, it calls attention to everyday ableist structures that hinder Deaf people. 

Read also:
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Unlearning Art Shame: Learning To Create To Heal
Taking Back The Word Disabled