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In Conversation with Christine Sun Kim: Part 2

Sign in the sky saying "The Sound of No Fight"
© Lee Baxter for Manchester International Festival, UK

Since Christine Sun Kim's first language is American Sign Language (ASL), much of her earlier works paid homage to her personal experiences as a Deaf individual - Kim channelled ASL, body language, and graphic and musical notations as mediums by which she communicated her Deaf ideas and relationship with languages. Her art has become distinguishable by the black-and-white sketch-style murals that use direction to emulate movement and sound.

In recent years, Kim has been graduating from sound artwork and delving into new areas of interest, demonstrating her boundless nature. Whilst her work might begin to transform visually, what remains core is the theme of language, posing questions such as: How do we communicate with one another? And more importantly, how can we do that better?

In the second part of the interview, we dug deeper into what it means to be not only a female artist, but also a mother, Kim's most meaningful pieces, and what she wants people to feel when they view her artwork.

With special thanks to interpreter Denise Kahler-Braaten. 

By Lucy Rowan

As motherhood evolves as a theme that you are eager to explore in your own work - How do you find balancing motherhood with your artistry? What improvements would you like to see in our society to help artist mothers? 

Well, two things come to mind. First of all, I have an amazing partner. He's my teammate. He's amazing. He's so helpful! We try to take turns and share child care. I feel like if it wasn't for him, then my life would be a disaster. So discombobulated. My partner is Thomas Mader, and he's also an artist, and we occasionally will collaborate together on different pieces. So it's nice to have him here in London with me as well. So that's one thing. 

The second thing is in Berlin, child care is free or very affordable. When I first found this out, I was like, “Whoa! I don't have to worry about putting a dent in my bank account?” So that gives you some ease of mind. The cost of living is also more affordable so I feel like both of those things are so helpful. 

I sometimes find it hard not only as a mom but as a Deaf person or disabled person. I might ask things twice like, “Would you mind helping out? Could you get a babysitter? Could you take care of Roux? (our kid)”. From an institution's perspective, I know I ask a lot, I get it! They have budget cuts and the impacts of covid. I get that it can get complicated, but I'll never really stop. I'll never stop asking!

Beyond motherhood, this residency was made especially to support female identifying artists. Why do you believe it's important to have programmes like these? Have you experienced this gender gap in the art world personally? 

That's an important question. Okay, so my experience when my career started taking off, I was more focused on sound art. Now it's really widened, but I was really hyper focused on that. That world was full of hearing white males. And I see that in painting and other mediums, and I always had this feeling that they were like: “Yes! She’s a person of colour. She’s disabled. She checks all of the boxes. Let's put her here. She fits our quota of who we need to show!” I always felt like a token in that way. Like I had the winning tick box, so to speak, and I get it, sometimes that's the way it works. That was the worst kind of oppressive experience than others.

But I did feel that there was some progress being made over the past few years. People seem to be maybe more aware. Collectively, there seems to be more of an awareness, and maybe it's still not changed where we'd like it to be. But I feel it's more in the people's faces. It's like they can't avoid it. I think both of them could still play a big feature in my artwork. The fact that I'm disabled and the fact that I'm a woman. 

When it comes to the gender gap - I think it's great to have a programme for female-identifying artists. Society needs to encourage this and continue to support these kinds of programmes where all of us are viewed as equals. Nobody is less than. Yet there's still a lot of places, like museums, that rarely had a female artist solo show. But not only that, with the different economic classes that are out there in society. I feel here in Europe, there’s more of a class system - I find it interesting that there's one in America too, yes, but I feel like it's a little more obvious here. 

How do you stay hyper vigilant in your artistry to ensure that we are receiving the same message as you want us to receive? Or do you have a more freestyle approach? 

I guess my internal struggle is that I always want to make sure that I'm as clear as possible because especially when I work with other people, they have to experience my voice through someone else. Sometimes my voice gets lost along the way, and not only as an artist, you know, art can be, can be very flexible and relaxed - I don't have to be so worried about it. But in the past, I’ve experienced people not being clear with what I need or what I want and in the end, which affects my ideas and my basic rights. So I do continue to be vigilant and anxious about that. I guess I'm at a point where I'm able to do whatever I want now in my career, which is nice. But I still always have that little bit of fear of being misunderstood. 

So I think it's not “ASL means this this and this”. No, it's more like I want to make what's interesting to me. And then I may delve into that. And at the end, I'm thinking about always asking myself “What access point can I make for the audience to take in my work?” Because being who I am, not everyone has the same identity or experience right. So sometimes my experiences about being a mother or being a Deaf person, or sometimes it's very specific and very closed off in that way. So I need to find a way to open it up, find the correct format so that the audience can access it. 

Once they can access it, then they can make their own interpretation. For example, I made a series of drawings called Deaf Rage (2018), and I was a little worried about that because I felt it was too specific. But so many people responded like, “Yes, I've had similar experiences”, even though they weren't deaf. As a woman, they felt angry and unheard, for example. So I think it's more important to somehow trigger an experience or feeling within individuals. It's not necessarily about the language I use or don’t use, but if you find that experience or feeling relatable, then I appreciate that. 
Loss of voice comes in many different forms, that’s what makes your work meaningful for so many. Can you think of a particular artwork that was particularly meaningful to you and why? 

Just recently, I went to the Queens Museum in New York City. There's a huge mural, probably the largest one I've done to this date. And the concept behind it comes a little bit from, like, motion lines from comic books if you're familiar with them - they are reflective of how much energy is being used to maybe strike a ball, to punch or even to walk and run. So I used that idea of motion lines and thought about sign language - how much energy is used as we sign and use the space. I felt like that's a pretty good one that I'm proud of that I did recently. 

And I'm still proud of this old piece, I think it was from maybe five years ago, “One week of lullabies for Roux”. At that time, I had just become a mother, and I had bought one of those baby monitors making sure she was asleep and I could see her in her room. And many of the monitors, I guess, come ready programmed. They have these different features where you can click a button and it will play a popular lullaby and help the baby to sleep. I was like, well, I don't like the idea of playing something that I don't even have access to and I don't really care about.

So I had some thoughts, and I decided I wanted to write a score. I created a list of instructions, and I asked seven artists who are also parents to make me a lullaby based on my score. No lyrics, low frequency and so on. I had different parameters that I asked for, and it became a project that you can go to when you can listen to the seven different lullabies. Of course, it's supposed to be conducive to putting your child to sleep but I think they actually do the opposite if you actually heard what the recordings were, ha. But it was more about the concept itself. The idea of asking people who are already parents to make music based on “our” idea rather than following the mainstream idea of what an appropriate lullaby for “our” children is. So that was something I'm pretty proud of. 

For those interested in following the evolution of Christine and Roux’s Goethe flag and her exhibitions, keep an eye on her residency page and social media in the upcoming weeks.