Danh vo goes in search of history

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The Vietnamese artist takes loaded cultural symbols và materials, such as the Statue of Liberty và the same walnut wood used in the manufacture of gun stocks, và creates new realities for them. Joe Lloyd meets hyên in London.

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Danh Vo photographed by Benjamin McMahon for longmon.vn Issue 42

“I was never the kind of artist who thought I should be an artist,” says Danh Vo. “I studied art,” he explains, “và I operate within the art world. And I think I’ve been fortunate in that some of my works give me the chance lớn make exhibitions.” ‘Fortunate’ is a characteristically modest turn from 44-year-old Vo, who over the past decade has steadily soared to prominence. He represented Denmark at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Last year he was the subject of a mid-career survey, Take My Breath Away, at New York City’s Guggenheyên. When we meet, Vo is in London lớn open two exhibitions. One of them, Untitled at South London Gallery (SLG), is his largest in Britain to lớn date.


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Danh Vo, Untitled (install), South London Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist

This success is all the more remarkable give the unconventional nature of his practice. With a few exceptions, he doesn’t bring new objects inkhổng lồ existence. Much of his work instead involves the collection and presentation of objects that already exist. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has called hyên a ‘hunter-gatherer’, who tracks his quarries through auctions, private sales & eBay. He could equally be compared to an archeologist, scouring the debris of time for buried histories. The potency of his art often stems from the stories these artefacts represent.


“Vo’s art constantly interrogates the individual’s ability khổng lồ define themselves against stifling sociopolitical systems”


A prime example is Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stochồng, which ran at Marian Goodman Gallery in London concurrently to Untitled. It consisted of the eponymous installation, a colossal assemblage of walnut wood arranged over the gallery’s two levels. There were severed trunks, processed planks, chairs, stools & carved American flags, as well as a functioning carpentry workcửa hàng. In both sight và smell it resembled less a contemporary art show than a woodworking factory, which relates lớn Vo’s long-standing appreciation of ‘lower’ forms of cultural creation: “I’ve worked with cabinet makers that make better things than most artists,” he tells me when we meet.


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Danh Vo, Cathedral Bloông chồng Prayer Stage Gun Stock, Marian Goodman Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist và Marian Goodman

Yet, as with everything in Vo’s work, the timber has a story. It came from an orchard in California, on the site of an organic farm owned by Vo’s friover Craig McNamara. Craig is the son of Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defense whose policies in the 1960s exacerbated the Vietnam giới War. Prior to lớn the younger McNamara’s purchase of the l&, the walnut wood was used in the manufacture of gun stocks, placing it within the cycle of US-mandated global conflict that persists today. By transmuting it inkhổng lồ art, Vo opens up the potential for this cycle to break.


“Over time, Vo’s work has drifted further away from spotlighting himself as artist & more towards the actors who shaped the objects he presents”


Vietphái nam is a recurrent presence in Vo’s work. Even the seemingly throwaway term Untitled carries a hidden charge: ‘Vo Danh’, the reverse of his name, means ‘without name’ in Vietnamese, và is carved on the graves of the country’s anonymous war dead. A lot has been made of Vo’s own connection to Vietnamese history. When he was four, his father built a boat for over a hundred people, intending khổng lồ emigrate from South Vietphái mạnh. It was intercepted by a Maersk cargo ship, and after a winter in a Singaporean refugee camp, they settled in Denmark.

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Danh Vo, Photographs of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962-1973 (detail), Installation view at SLG (2019), 2010. Courtesy the artist

This story has become a constant feature in discussions of Vo’s practice. Though he is usually relaxed about how people interpret his work—“I learnt early on that you can’t control the way people look,” he explains. “We all look differently at things depending on the information we carry”—he admits to lớn being irritated with the way it has sometimes been received though a particular lens.

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Take We the People (2011–16), a full-scale reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, made using the same materials and techniques, albeit fractured into lớn more than 300 pieces & fabricated in a Shangnhị workshop. It was a truly Herculean undertaking. “I don’t know how I would vì chưng it today,” says Vo, “it was like creating a Frankenstein’s quái vật. It has its own life.” It is also a nexus of his concerns: “I wanted to take an inhỏ,” he continues, “that everybody—or, rather, a lot of people—have sầu a relationship to. An icon that we all cốt truyện.” For Vo, this shattered allegorical feature represents the present-day ambiguity of liberty, và of the USA’s role in the world. “I grew up as an artist,” he says. “After September 11. When countries go khổng lồ war in the name of freedom—that’s when you don’t want to be không lấy phí.”


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Danh Vo, Massive Black Hole in the Dark Heart of our Milky Way, (Install at Guggenheyên ổn NYC), 2018. Courtesy the artist

Vo was disappointed that the reaction went baông chồng to immigration, and so implicitly his own past. “Everyone,” he says, “started to write again about immigration, whatever bullshit, & that was when I thought ‘Ok, fuchồng that, I don’t make work about that anymore.’” When he did, he was less concerned with the exodus itself and more with its aftermath. Pieces lượt thích Oma Totem (2009) gathered objects owned by his family members khổng lồ reflect their adaptation lớn the West.

But though these works drew on his family’s experiences, they were also about the power structures that shape these experiences and can come to lớn transkhung the self. Vo’s art constantly interrogates the individual’s ability khổng lồ define themselves against stifling sociopolitical systems. “When the framework of morals and ethics that is given to you doesn’t fit,” he explains, “you have sầu to lớn tìm kiếm for these things. And I think that is what has constituted me và is reflected in my work. I hate this idea that if you come from corners you should fit in corners, you know? I think you should break those conventions.”

Vo has played with such tensions from the start. The early piece Vo Rosasco Rasmussen (2003–05), saw hyên ổn marry & then subsequently divorce two friends và display the paperwork in a gallery (his full-name is now Trung Ky-Danh Vo Rosasco Rasmussen). Vo thus turned a system geared for heteronormative couplings into lớn one for platonic friendships, thus reshaping the marital power structure to his own advantage.


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Isamu Noguđưa ra, Play Sculpture, 1975-76 (Install on Pelican Estate), Collection of Danh Vo, 2019. Courtesy the artist

In compounding various names inkhổng lồ one, it also evoked the process of assemblage that has come lớn characterise many of his recent works. Sometimes, Vo physically draws objects together: a piece at the SLG show, Untitled (2018), clasped fragments from Roman sculptures of Venus and a satyr together into a hybrid khung. He also dissembles: for Lot trăng tròn. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs (2013) he stripped the upholstery from two seats used by McNamara Sr during the Vietnam War & hung them from the wall lượt thích a flayed hide. Vo is drawn khổng lồ these parallel processes in part because they work against each other. “I think my main strategy is always khổng lồ work in opposition,” he says. “If you vày small things you should also be able khổng lồ vị gigantic things. If you cut things up, you should also try to put things together.”

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Danh Vo, Untitled (detail), Installation view at SLG (2019), 2018. Courtesy the artist

Recently many of Vo’s exhibitions have sầu come lớn involve sầu a pulling together of works by disparate makers. At the SLG, the main chamber placed two works credited to lớn Vo amidst a profusion of art produced by others: photographs by his lover Heinz Peter Knes; abstract paintings by his erstwhile tutor Peter Bonde; và calligraphic drawings by his father Phung Vo. In doing so, Vo seems lớn refute the idea of the artist as a discrete author of artworks, who is apart from other people. “I think that things talk with each other,” he explains. “I was never interested in artwork that was isolated. We know by now that things have sầu relations, and for me it was just a natural process khổng lồ make constellations of things that have sầu the ability lớn connect, or not connect—both have meanings.”


“For me it was just a natural process to make constellations of things that have sầu the ability khổng lồ connect, or not connect—both have meanings”


In this he echoes his “mentor & good friend” Julie Ault. “If anyone has had an influence on my work,” Vo says, “it’s her. The way she has worked with art is extraordinary.” Ault’s practice blurs the boundaries between the roles of artist & curator, advocating group exhibitions và activist-led art. One room in Untitled contained a miniature group show consisting of works from Ault and Vo’s personal collections, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rebecca Horn & Andres Serrano’s controversial 1987 photograph Piss Christ.


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Danh Vo, We The People (detail), Installation view of Public Art Fund New York (2014), 2011-năm nhâm thìn. Courtesy the artist

How does this practice accord with the idea of the artist as creator? “Most artistic production,” Vo explains, “if it’s not thinking or working, is related lớn other people. But it’s structured within the art world to lớn always emphasise the artist. My main concern is that you create a certain way of thinking.” Over time, his work has drifted further away from spotlighting himself as artist & more towards the actors who shaped the objects he presents, which range in scale from personal letters between Henry Kissinger và the theatre critic Leonard Lyons, khổng lồ the sumptuous chandeliers that hung in the Parisian hotel where, in 1973, the US agreed to lớn withdraw from Vietnam.

The manner in which Vo does go about collecting these items stems from research. He sometimes begins with an object, or with an idea. “I think a big part of being an artist is to lớn look at things,” he continues. “You learn, you observe sầu, you are alert. And sometimes it goes one way, sometimes it goes the other way, but I have sầu a fluid process.” Happenstance is sometimes involved too—Craig McNamara gifted his timber, for instance, after he noticed that Vo had been amassing his father’s documents và effects.

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Danh Vo, Untitled (detail), Installation view at SLG (2019), 2019. Courtesy the artist

Sometimes objects elude Vo’s grasp. What does he most regret letting get away? He is quichồng to answer, “I wish I’d gotten Elizabeth Taylor’s tear-shaped pearl.” Said pearl, known as La Peregrina (‘the wanderer’), has a convoluted provenance. It was taken by conquistadors and handed to lớn the Spanish Hapsburgs. “The queens wore it for all their Velázquez portraits,” Vo informs me. It was then looted by Napoleon’s brother, sold khổng lồ a Northern Irish duke, & eventually bought by Richard Burton in 1969 as a gift for Taylor, who had it placed into lớn a necklace by Cartier. Unfortunately, it was too expensive sầu for Vo; it sold for $11.8m at auction in 2011.

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Danh Vo, Bye bye, Installation view at SLG (2019), 2010. Courtesy the artist

The artist is not immune lớn the sensual appeal of La Peregrina, but it also represents a crystallisation of his investigations into power structures, as successively embodied in European colonialism, royal dynasties, military might, celebrity glamour và, finally, sheer wealth. To own it would be lớn snatch it from such systems—though perhaps also khổng lồ place it in another structure of might & power: the art world.

“nguồn is always an issue,” explains Vo. “It’s not like the fight is over. It is a continuous, circular struggle that returns all the time. And we forget about that và sit in our own comfort. But you need to lớn jump out into lớn the deep waters.” Vo seems unlikely to stop taking such audacious leaps any time soon.






Issue 45

Spring/Summer 2021, longmon.vn’s first biannual issue with a brand-new look, features a double interview between cover stars Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe and Kwemê mẩn Botchway. They discuss the new age of portraiture, their encounters with the art market, và the language of Blaông xã representation. Quaicoe’s striking self-portrait features on the main-release cover, while a detail from Botchway’s Metamorphose in July appears…


Chuyên mục: BLog