Podcast: A personal version of a dead language

Artist Helen Lee discusses glass, language, and her Wisconsin Triennial Piece, “OMG.”

Artist Helen Lee discusses glass, language, and her Wisconsin Triennial Piece, “OMG.”

Helen Lee's

Helen Lee’s “OMG,” as seen from outside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. 


From early on in her career as an artist, Helen Lee has used the medium of glass to explore language and identity. If you walk past the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art at night, you might see three Mandarin Chinese characters blazing out at you in pink neon. That is one of Lee’s newest works, “OMG,” and it’s on display through January 8 as part of the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial.

“OMG” is Lee’s first piece in neon, and was inspired by her discovery that there is a Chinese equivalent of the phrase “oh my god”—but, like most idioms, it gets a bit twisted up in translation. Lee, whose parents were immigrants from Taiwan, at once feels connected to and very distant from the Chinese language.

The contradictions and disconnects of language have also inspired Lee to use sound in her work. In one earlier piece, “The Sound Of Displaced Periods,” she wittily used a bunch of wooden balls to comment on the chaos that comes when one removes punctuation. In another, “My Grandmother Watched Wheel of Fortune Every Day For The Last 20 Years Of Her Life Not Knowing A Lick Of English,” she touchingly captures the isolation and effective silence that results when communication can’t cross the language barrier.

Lee joined me recently to talk about “OMG” and her evolution as an artist. Give our conversation a listen below.

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