For six years, Christine Sun Kim (American, born 1980) and Thomas Mader (German, born 1984) have collaborated on works that encourage viewers to consider the riches and restrictions of contemporary communication. In their videos, the artists speak in American Sign Language (ASL) but with varying degrees of fluency: Kim was born Deaf and is a native ASL speaker while Mader is an ASL learner. The exhibition’s title comes from a humorous German reprimand commonly directed toward children (Man zeigt nicht mit nacktem Finger auf angezogene Leute, “Never point a naked finger at people who are fully dressed!”).
The handsigns and fingerspelling that are often the most visible part of ASL to a non-deaf audience are only the beginning of this language. For example, specific movements of the head and neck as well as more subtle motions of the eyes, eyebrows, and lips can dramatically alter the meaning of a given sign or even serve as signs themselves, as in the case of non-manual signs. Both videos on view in To Point a Naked Finger help to demonstrate such possibilities and surface some of the complex nuances of the deaf communication landscape.
The two-channel video LOOKY LOOKY takes its name from a non-manual sign often used to start covertly a conversation about a third person. Without using his hands at all, Mader employs numerous variations on this one sign to reference, among others, a person beside Kim, a person on his phone, and one between the two artists. Kim fluently responds using other non-manual signs, communicating a variety of opinions on the unseen people in question, from exasperation to sly appreciation. In Classified Digits, Kim and Mader each enact just one part of an ASL conversation, with Kim using non-manual signs to give inflection and context to Mader’s handsigns. The artists repeatedly introduce an “every person,” represented by the index finger, into a series of increasingly awkward and often ridiculous social situations.
In To Point a Naked Finger, the artists fail to heed the reprimand that inspired the exhibition’s title. But, ironically, even if they don’t mind their own business, they do avoid literal “pointing.” In LOOKY LOOKY, they evade using their hands entirely, while in Classified Digits the “naked” index finger personifies the “fully dressed” subject in question. Through these eminently relatable parodies of language lessons, which are translated for non-ASL speakers through subtitles, Kim and Mader illustrate a few of the ways this unique language constructs its own universe, rather than just describing it.