ASL as Art

I am currently enrolled in American Sign Language here at Penn. It has been a very interesting and enlightening experience. ASL is such an expressive language, and completely different from spoken language in its structure and grammar. Obviously, sign language is a very visual language. Every idea that is portrayed must be seen and understood through sight alone. For example, tense is portrayed through where in space a person’s sign is oriented. By gesturing behind you before signing something, you are letting the viewer know that it occurred in the past. Similarly, you can physically place the subjects you are talking about in space (e.g. one subject on the right side of your body, the other on the left side) so that the viewer can differentiate between them while you are signing about them (you simply gesture or point towards the spot where you initially placed the subject when referring to them).

With all this being said, it’s no surprise that Christine Sun Kim, a deaf artist, can make such interesting work about sign language. The following three works are artistic representations of the concept of time in ASL. The first representing “day” and the second representing “night” (see video at 10:00). The third represents “a long time ago,” “the past,” “used to,” and “once upon a time” (see video at 11:11).



Christine Sun Kim_022914_Wednesday-28

Christine is known as a sound artist. She believes that sound is something that can be experienced visually and as an idea, rather than just through the ears. In the work above, she portrays signs as visual cues and likens them to pieces of music with their direction and length. Here is another piece of her work. As a deaf person surrounded by hearing people, Christine has to be on guard about how the sounds she makes affects others. She thinks about sound more than most hearing people, and this work represents her constant anticipation of “what’s next” in her world of “sound etiquette.”


See her Ted Talk here:




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