Better sound captions, stricter gun regulations, less gentrification, and more Hawaiian Pizza options – in IOU 4 USA, Christine Sun Kim expresses her critique of and aspirations for the USA in a humorous way through the redrawing of a frame from The Simpsons. The work contains both a good measure of nostalgia as well as a pressing contemporary relevance anno 2021. Through different layers of repetition, a recurring tool the artist employs in her work, Kim structures 10 manifesto-like statements for the improvement of American society as a whole that are grounded in her own experiences and activism.
Inspiration struck Kim one day when she came across a scene from an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson discovers an IOU note (short for “I owe you”) he has left himself in his usual emergency donut hiding spot. Kim created an earlier work with this frame for the 2021 AAPI billboard campaign by For Freedoms, and went on to develop this 2-minute video to express an additional set of IOUs. Redrawing the frame in charcoal for IOU 4 USA, Kim replaces Homer’s note with her own propositions of hypothetical IOUs from her home country to itself, revealing the inequalities and double standards embedded within its social institutions through her satirical wit.
While the reference to The Simpsons — a TV show filled with satirical commentary on American society and consumerism that has aired across the world — is likely to be understood almost internationally, some of Kim’s statements are more specific to the USA and her own experiences as an artist:
The IOU above, for instance, refers to Kim’s activism in the art world. In 2019, she was among the eight artists to request the withdrawal of their work from the Whitney Biennial. This gesture was precipitated by the activist collective Decolonize This Place’s call to boycott the Whitney Museum on account of the involvement of the museum’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders, who profited from the sale of chemical weapons used in the suppression of protest movements.
Layers of Repetition
Although the topics IOU 4 USA touches upon are serious, Kim manages to keep the tone of the work light-hearted. (Fun fact: “D’oh!” was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001–truly a pop-culture moment of the 90s.) In the repetition of the format from Homer’s life, the work contains a nod to the internet’s favorite pastime of creating memes based on snapshots from popular media to express thoughts, feelings, and relatable situations. However, where memes usually rely on a reusable template (and a haphazard Microsoft Paint edit), each of Kim’s drawings of the IOU slip in Homer’s hands is unique.
Kim’s video also embeds another form of repetition: the sheet of paper held by Homer in the drawing is echoed by the artist’s own hands holding the drawing itself. For Kim, who usually communicates using American Sign Language, this echo of the visual is a self-referential moment: “Part of that comes from my experience—when I am on a platform and I’m engaging—I’m actually being echoed and repeated through the use of an interpreter, [and] that’s how people also process my work, and so I like to recognize that,” the artist explains.
Kim’s experiences as a Deaf person are also reflected in several of the IOUs. “DEAR USA, I.O.U. ACTUAL DEAF UBER DRIVERS SIGNED USA,” for instance, is a statement about hearing drivers who choose to indicate that they are deaf on the ride-sharing app. According to the artist, who is often disappointed upon discovery that this isn’t the case, these drivers had used this indicator to avoid having to engage with passengers or speak English (in the case of it not being their first language, for example). The pointed observation raises interesting questions about deafness being used as a convenience or appropriated as a privilege by hearing individuals.
It is almost too much of a coincidence that we sat down with Kim for our acquisition interview on July 20th, the very day Jeff Bezos launched himself into space. The question remains whether any of these debts will be fulfilled, or only acknowledged fleetingly, to be found again and again under the exclamation of an annoyed grunt.