Through her art, Kim encourages audiences to attend to the links between music and meaning, sound and other senses, perception and interpretation, and various modes of communication. She uses scores, graphical notation and text, and performance and media installations to explore how she and the larger Deaf community establish their own relationships to the world of sound.
Kim wrote a text score for One Week of Lullabies for Roux, guiding seven friends (who are also parents) as they composed original soothing soundtracks for coaxing her own newborn, Roux, to sleep. Kim’s instructions called for lullabies without lyrics that emphasized low frequencies, so she would be able to monitor and feel comfortable about the audio she was introducing into her baby’s “sound diet.” The artist-designed bench evokes a color-coded weekly pillbox, suggesting these songs are daily medicine.
For Close Readings, Kim edited together clips from five movies, removed the sound, and partially blurred the visuals. Then she invited four Deaf or hard-of-hearing collaborators to write unique captions, which she added to each channel above the existing studio captions. The four screens play in sync, showing vastly different verbal interpretations of the same scene and soundtrack, and underscoring how different approaches to captioning significantly impact viewing experiences.
Please note, the video captions contain mature language.
In 2020, Kim was invited to be the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for that year’s Super Bowl, performing these two patriotic songs alongside pop star Demi Lovato and gospel singer Yolanda Adams. Kim’s monumental charcoal score drawings, made later that year, reflect her careful preparation. The graphic staff lines, clustered notes, and reordered, spatialized lyrics map her ASL translation, designed to match the singer’s rhythmic and dynamic range with her own. The compositional arrangement and word choice also reveal Kim’s continued engagement with this moment and material, conveying a perspective that is both critical and hopeful. This intentional historical positioning is further articulated in the artist statement at right, which she asks accompany this work whenever possible.
Kim felt conflicted around the Super Bowl invitation. Intended as a gesture of patriotic support for disability visibility and intersectional solidarity, her appearance also pointed to gaps between promised and actual equity. These subsequent drawings, scaled to the human body, ask us all to consider our relationship to these songs, their histories, and their promises.
Christine Sun Kim, born 1980, Orange County, CA
The Star-Spangled Banner (Third Verse), 2020, charcoal on paper
America the Beautiful, 2020, charcoal on paper
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase and purchase through the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and through the Julia D. Strong Endowment, 2021.31.1-.2
Hung on the wall are Kim’s two works, on the left, America the Beautiful and on the right, The Star-Spangled Banner (Third Verse).
America the Beautiful is a line drawing in black charcoal on square white paper that is almost five feet on each side in a white frame. Centered at the top in all handwritten capital lettering is the title “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL.” Kim’s ASL translation of the song is drawn below in sheet music style, delicate music notes with single-word lyrics symmetrically arranged over the page. Most lyrics are huddled along the two sides of the paper, sitting above notes that are connected by long lines to mimic a musical staff. These words are mirrored, reading “Harvest”, “America” or “Collab” on both ends of the line. Other words sit above shorter note clusters; at the top of the page, these include “amazing,” “look,” “purple,” “mountain,” and “wave.” Just below those is a line of tightly linked notes that all have “grow” written above them. In the bottom third of the page, floating notes have “grace,” “group,” “sea,” and “shine” written above them.
The Star-Spangled Banner is a similar line drawing in black charcoal on square white paper of the same size. Centered at the top in all handwritten capital lettering is the title “THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER.” Kim’s ASL translation of the third verse is drawn below in sheet music style. At the top, clusters of delicate music notes are paired with the words “tap” and “look.” The rest of the page is filled with a symmetrical distribution of lyrics hovering around three distinct bands of parallel lines. These evoke musical staffs even though each line is actually part of a note-pair, connecting the top of two notes that are on opposite edges of the page. Single words—“stripe,” “glare,” “stars”—sit atop these notes along the edges, while others are emphasized by being paired more centrally between the lines—these include “where” and “band,” “hireling” and “slave,” “gloom” and “grave.” Scattered in the middle of the page are the words “war” and “bomb” above individual notes. Underneath the three line bands, individuals notes float in a V-shape toward the bottom, with words like “free,” “land,” “wave,” and “brave” lettered above them. A separate panel with the artist’s statement is hung to the right of this piece.
This is a notation drawing of the American Sign Language (ASL) translation of The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States, which I signed during Super Bowl LIV in February 2020 in front of millions of viewers. Accepting the invitation to give such a performance was not an easy decision; however, it was vital for creating visibility for the Deaf and disabled communities in America. While I initially dissected and rearranged the anthem in a way that suits ASL and my vantage point as a disabled performer, I have since learned that Francis Scott Key, the anthem’s lyricist, actively defended the rights of slave owners, owned slaves himself, and cultivated an openly anti-Black and anti-Abolition attitude. With this information in mind, I wish for the work’s potential visibility to now be extended by highlighting the fact that Black disabled people are disproportionately targeted by the police: Half of people killed by police have a disability (David M. Perry and Lawrence Carter-Long, 2016) and more than half of Black people with disabilities will have been arrested at least once by the time they reach their late 20s (Erin J. McCauley, 2017). Systemic racism permeates American culture so deeply that it becomes a norm and it goes unchallenged, and often unnoticed—much like the country’s anthem. We must all support the movement by practicing both anti-racism and anti-ableism. Black Disabled Lives Matter.
The full song of The Star-Spangled Banner consists of four stanzas; only the first one is used for the national anthem. The following is the third stanza:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Upon reading all four stanzas, I found them to be heavily tainted with racism and mockery. I selected three phrases (above in bold) and placed them under the beams of the stripe notes, as if they’re part of the flag. Analyzing the text, a number of experts have suggested that “Where is that band” refers to the Colonial Marines, a group of enslaved Black Americans that fought for Britain in order to earn freedom. “The hireling and slave” is Francis Scott Key’s way of mocking both British soldiers and the Colonial Marines. “The gloom of the grave” is perhaps his reaction to them as a slave owner, cursing both to the grave. I added this focus on the third verse in response to racial injustices that have been inflicted for centuries, and I support the growing call to replace The Star-Spangled Banner with Lift Every Voice and Sing of 1899 by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, which is considered the Black national anthem.
—Christine Sun Kim
To the right, at a 90-degree angle to the wall with Kim’s drawings, is a shorter wall with four monitors playing a silent video work. Turning away from the wall with Kim’s drawings or videos, in the center of the gallery, is a low-lying interactive bench that is seventeen feet long and three feet wide.
Christine Sun Kim, born 1980, Orange County, CA
One Week of Lullabies for Roux, 2018, mixed-media sound installation
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2020.79.1
Close Readings, 2015, four-channel video (color, silent); 25:53 min.
In collaboration with Jeffrey Mansfield, Ariel Baker-Gibbs, Alison O'Daniel, Lauren Ridloff
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2020.79.2
A low rectangular bench divided into seven square seats by different colored cushions. These cushions shift chromatically from a bright red to a light magenta to muted maroon and blue, and ending with a deep purple. Each seat has a set of over-ear headphones resting in the center, its wire plugged into the bench. On the headband of each is a printed name. From red to blue side, these read: Juan Cisneros; Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson; David Horvitz; Carmelle Safdie; Sonja Simonyi, Nico Van Tomme, and Niels Van Tomme; Lotti Sollevi; and Alex
Waxman. A different low-frequency song plays through each set of headphones, ranging in duration from less than thirty seconds to over eleven minutes long.
On the wall closest to the purple side of the bench is the other work. Four monitors are hung in a line on the wall, screens synced, playing the same twenty-six-minute edited sequence of film clips. The top two-thirds of all the images are slightly blurred to highlight two sets of captions along the bottom of each screen. Stepping back to view all four monitors, one set of burned-in captions remains standard and synced across all screens. These are less detailed, portray little emotion, and are very sparse. Above these captions, are bolder, brighter, white captions that are different from monitor to monitor and appear with more frequency and density, each conveying a unique linguistic sensibility. The first four minutes of appropriated movie clips feature a disembodied, animate hand—the character known as “Thing” —from The Addams Family. The next two minutes show a family confrontation from the Greek film Dogtooth, followed by seven-plus minutes of actors Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Swayze, and Demi Moore in Ghost. Kim’s edit concludes with five minutes from Disney’s animated film The Little Mermaid and a little more than seven minutes from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Take as an example the scene from Ghost, around ten to eleven minutes in, when lovers played by Moore and Swayze, realize they are sharing space, even if he is dead. Close-ups of their faces appear across all four screens as do the lower captions, as given by Hollywood. These indicate no background noise or music, transcribing only bits of dialogue. In this same stretch, the upper captions across the four monitors, as written by Kim’s collaborators, are rich with information. The left two screens note “soft, sustained gasp” and “the sound of air passing through the lips of a comely young woman” as Moore’s mouth opens. A moment later, the third screen’s captions read: “It’s a brave and bold move to ask the audience to suspend their disbelief about demi feeling swayze through whoopi.” The fourth screen, on the right, next chimes in, imagining “music formulated to biologically stimulate mirror neurons to trigger uncontrollable weeping.” Then the leftmost and rightmost screens notice Swayze’s ghost is moving a penny up a door, and describe scraping sounds that such an action likely makes, but which the movie-studio captions do not signal. A few seconds later, all upper captions take turns underscoring the scene’s emotional intensity, adding “intense stare,” “bitten lip,” “trickling tear,” “feel stuff,” and “she is C.R.Y.I.N.G.” to the imagined sonic landscape.
Turn away from the video wall, so the screens are to your left. Straight ahead is the next gallery space, which has slightly dimmed lighting. To your right is a bench and a projected video work. Straight ahead, about eighteen feet after the Kim video wall ends, is the glass door entrance to an enclosed video room and the wall text to both works is to the right of that doorway.