Song Dong 宋东, “Stamping the Water (Yin shui 印水),” 1996. Set of 36 digital color photographs. Gift of the Jack and Susy Wadsworth Collection of Contemporary Chinese Photographs, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art–University of Oregon. 2018:28.14a-aj. © Song Dong, courtesy Pace Gallery

“Turn of Phrase: Language and Translation in Global Contemporary Art” at Bowdoin College Museum of Art (through June 4) is, quite simply, the most eloquently curated show I have seen in years. It examines, through visual (and, in one case, audiovisual) media, the ways language can take infinite forms, functions and uses – as an articulation of identity, as manipulation of message, as a poetic vehicle and spiritual guide, as transformational medium, as protest, as a cue for creative inspiration and, at least in one very powerful work, its utter inadequacy to fully describe the dynamic aspects of nature and reality.

There is so much exquisite work here that you’ll want to give this exhibition plenty of time. I spent two hours and barely scratched the surface of its content and implications. Its gifts unfold in new ways with each viewing. But you’ll also want to read every word – in the artworks themselves, but also the excellently articulated wall labels. The show is the work of Sabrina Lin, who graduated from Bowdoin’s curatorial studies program in 2021. With “Turn of Phrase,” she lays the foundation for a hugely promising career.

Where to begin? Well, why not with metaphorically just burning the whole damn house down? Botswanan artist Meleko Mokgosi contributes six panels of inkjet printing and charcoal on linen that collectively comprise a defiant indictment of the Anglo-European way of framing art from other continents. This alone is worth hours of contemplation. Taking wall label texts written for works by Matisse, Picasso, Stieglitz and “unidentified” African artists, Mokgosi fundamentally dismantles the hegemony of the Anglo-European perspective by striking through, scribbling over and circling certain words and phrases, pointing out their culturally “superior” presumptions and their outright racism by adding his own notes in the margins.

For instance, a label accompanying a seated figure by one of these “unidentified” African artists, which was exhibited at the University of Pennsylvania, boasts that the museum “was the first American institution to purchase African art for its aesthetic qualities and not solely as ethnographic records.”

Mokgosi goes to town on this phrase, pointing out that “Yes, acquired out of pure difference that by chance had aesthetic appeal.” He observes how the word “acquired” in itself is “Passive; distancing from colonial violence and history,” and says the reason the artist is unknown is because “the people who took them did not care to take down the names of the authors.”

A wall label for a bronze female torso by Henri Matisse shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York claims it relates to the artist’s “early ‘interest’ in African art” (the latter two words incredulously circled with charcoal). Mokgosi responds that the circled phrase is guilty of “cultural specificities amalgamated into the label – ‘African’ ”). Think about this. We have all sorts of nuanced terms for classifying Anglo-European art: traditional, modern, Fauvist, Impressionist, French Baroque, English Romantic, Dutch Renaissance, abstract. Where is that nuance here? You get the picture.


Luis Camnitzer, “This is a poetic statement. Identify the elements that construct the poem. From the series ‘The Assignment Books,’ ” 2011. Brass plaque with mixed media. Dimensions variable. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2022 Luis Camnitzer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Luis Camnitzer’s work also subverts, among other things, what the wall label calls “pedagogical frameworks.” Clearly, with his extravagantly titled “This is a poetic statement. Identify the elements that construct the poem. From the series ‘That Assignment Books,’ ” he sets his sights on many of these: the arts education system’s emphasis on fixed interpretation rather than conceptual and emotional intention, the objectification of knowledge in academia and general culture versus the unfiltered experience and enjoyment of it, and even the museum institution itself.

The centerpiece is an artfully stacked pile of books held together by tape and, beneath it, a brass plaque bearing the instruction of the title. Camnitzer then encourages viewers to use a pencil affixed to the wall to write their impressions of the work. The reactions range from the funny (“I can’t believe the museum is letting me write on the wall”) to coy (“I have many stories, but you can only read one”) to poetic (a haiku that reads “Empty/Space/Makes/Meaning/or/Takes It”).

Thus, the piece goes through various transformations. Literary works containing words become a physical art object that obscures their subjects. Object becomes a representation of an intellectually critical concept. Finally, viewers interact with the work and record their responses to it. It’s in the realization of all these parts that the piece comes fully alive.

There are some inclusions you’d expect – Barbara Kruger, Lorna Simpson, Glen Ligon – all of whom have used words as a provocative artistic vehicle. But it’s interesting to see how the impact of them has changed over the years. Simpson’s work, for example, has gained power.

In “H.S.,” a Black female figure holds an open high school yearbook, over which she lays Plexiglas and, into it, engraves the words “subjugation” and “indoctrination” repeated several times. Made in 1992, the work examines her signature subjects of gender and race.

Simpson crops out the face to suggest a kind of cultural anonymity (as both Black and female) and also bisects the Black female figure and constrains her within the framing. Simultaneously, the words suggest that our education system not only subjugates certain histories and points of view, but indoctrinates students to think certain things about the histories that do get taught. Against the contemporary backdrop of arguments about critical race theory and the banning of certain books in schools, the work has only gained relevance and urgency.


Ann Hamilton, “Untitled,” 1992. Paper on altered book with polished pebbles in a lacquered birch and glass case. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Archival Collection of Marion Boulton Stroud and Acadia Summer Arts Program, Mt. Desert Island, Maine. Gift from the Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud Foundation, 2018.10.139. Courtesy Ann Hamilton Studio.

Conversely, Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (We will no longer be seen and not heard)” from 1985 has lost, to my mind, some of its initial confrontational immediacy. Kruger is arguably the most familiar of the feminist artists who criticized the marginalization and exploitation of women by appropriating the images and graphics from advertising, an industry then rampant with abuses of both.

This work was a feminist affirmation of power that demanded visibility and equality for women, as well as an end to the pervasiveness of patriarchy. While these issues persist today – shockingly perpetrated not only by men (need we cite women who supported the vulgar misogyny of Donald Trump) – much has changed. The appropriation of advertising language feels less effective too in a world where the field is now flooded with images of plus-size and various generations of women, a rainbow of cultures and races, and many flavors of gender nonconformity.

There are artworks of breathtaking lyricism and beauty. Ann Hamilton partially obscures the text of eight book pages with tiny pebbles, which call our attention to what is “written” between the lines. Yet the pebbles themselves are wonderfully unique and tactile natural forms that conceal the meanings of words much less implacably than a black marker (we could decipher the letters if we really tried) and beckon us to consider what intelligence they themselves hold that might amplify or embody the words beneath them.

Chinese artist Wang Tiande does something similar by rendering Chinese inscriptions in ink onto one layer of paper, then covering it with another paper in which he creates Chinese characters by burning them into the paper with a cigarette. The wall label talks about burning information into digital drives. But my mind went spinning in another direction: how one message can be read two ways, or how what is voiced or written might be obscuring hidden meanings below.

“Stamping the Water (Yin shui)” by Song Dong assembles 36 stills from an hourlong performance piece in which the artist sat in the shallows of Tibet’s Lhasa River repeatedly hitting the surface with a wooden block carved with the Chinese character for water. Language in this case is utterly inadequate to record the natural phenomena. The human obsession with object permanence cannot apply here. He can stamp all he wants, but the water keeps shifting and flowing.

Hung Liu, “Western Pass,” 1990. Oil with silverleaf on wood, ceramics on canvas, 60 x 60 x 10 in. (152.4 x 152.4 x 25.4 cm). Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund, 2021.53. Courtesy Nancy Hoffman Gallery.

I end this review with “Western Past,” by Chinese artist Hung Liu. In the base painting of this piece are two prisoners about to be executed for participation in the Boxer Rebellion. Their grisaille rendering makes them already seem half living-half ghosts, as does the way the linseed oil wash dissolves the image, which appears to be vanishing into time. A Tang-dynasty poem hovers between them like an incantation, its characters imploring someone setting out on a journey to stay for one more cup of wine.

Words here become a chant or a prayer that literally helps transit the men’s souls into the afterlife. This is but a smattering of examples. Just go.

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