Queering Colonialism: Danh Vo at the Guggenheim

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Danh Vo’s Take My Breath Away at the Guggenheim presents troubling histories through lyrical sculpture by Kerr Houston

I can’t stop thinking about Danh Vo’s current show at the Guggenheim. Organized by Katherine Brinson (the museum’s curator of contemporary art) and on view through May 9, Take My Breath Away is a masterful combination of seemingly disparate tones and artistic strategies. It’s at once calculatedly vulgar and touchingly lyrical, and aesthetically restrained even as it’s outrageously ambitious. It’s an affecting exploration of the consequences of colonialism and of the circulation of historical objects in a global marketplace – but it’s also gently humorous. And, somehow, it manages to do all of this in beguilingly simple ways, like a Zen parable that abruptly opens onto unexpectedly profound complexities.

The 42-year-old Vo (his name is pronounced Yon Voh) is a relatively recently minted star in the firmament of contemporary art. Born in Vietnam and raised – after a harrowing exodus in the late 1970s – in Denmark, he studied the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1990s. Soon abandoning painting, Vo began to create inventive pieces that might be described as sly meditations on his complicated position as a gay man and immigrant. In one early performance, for example, he married and quickly divorced two friends (one female; one male), permanently adding their names to his own. To this day, he thus signs documents with the ostentatiously promiscuous name of Trung Ky-Danh Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, challenging easy stereotypes and bureaucratic filing systems alike.

Installation view: Danh Vo, Take My Breath Away
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (image: Kerr Houston)

The Guggenheim show, though, focuses primarily on more recent works, many of which involve appropriated or purchased objects. In several pieces, for example, Vo fuses fragments of ancient marble and medieval wooden figural sculptures, creating eerie hybrid figures built around stylistic, material, and functional dissonances. The initial effect is jarring, as the works seem to imply a bald irreverence for the past; they call to mind Ai Weiwei’s infamous destruction of a 2,000-year-old ceremonial urn. But just as Ai’s gesture involved a subtle critique of conservative values, Vo’s works open onto a form of pointed commentary. Many of the wooden sculptural fragments derive from Catholic churches in Vietnam, and thus recall the aggressive evangelism practiced there by French missionaries. In such works, you can thus feel Vo (who repeatedly watched The Exorcist as a child) willfully exerting a sort of control over a religion that once imposed itself on his native land. The end result is at once violent, provocative, and unexpected: an effort at a complicated catharsis.

In other cases, though, Vo opts for a more understated approach. A number of works in the show consist solely of historically resonant objects, unaltered and installed with little or no explicit commentary. Here, for example, are nibs from the pens used by members of the Nixon cabinet as they signed orders to escalate the bombing campaign in Vietnam. Here is the typewriter, purchased at auction, on which the Unabomber composed his manifesto. And here, remarkably, are the three chandeliers from the Hotel Majestic, the site of the 1973 Paris peace accords. In displaying these objects, Vo complicates any easy distinction between collector, curator, and artist: he is all of these, at once. Or, as Marion Goodman recently told Calvin Tomkins, Vo “is a hunter and gatherer.”

Installation view: Danh Vo, Take My Breath Away
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (image: David Heald)

Yet this is not simply a reframing of artistic activity. It’s also an implicit examination of what Walter Benjamin once famously referred to as aura: the unique and irreducible physical facticity of an original thing. These objects are literal indices – physical traces, that is – of brutal, disruptive events, and their sheer presence is fascinatingly disquieting, for they make the past concrete but cannot ever quite communicate the entire reality of that past. Loaded with associative significance, they are in the end also only inert things that seem incapable of supporting such weight. Did this typewriter, which seems so humble and contingent, really produce a screed with such disruptive consequences? Can a nib really have led to the wholesale destruction of life and landscape? The idea is both laughable and horrifying: the punchline to a dark joke about history.

Importantly, though, Vo’s interest in history is not simply abstract; it’s also personal. Indeed, Vo often uses his own family’s history as a sort of readymade, exhibiting objects associated with his parents and grandparents in affecting arrangements. One of the largest objects in the show is the actual engine from a Mercedes that was purchased by Vo’s father shortly after the family’s arrival in Denmark: a sign, we understand, of material attainment and symbolic status. Nearby stands Oma Totem, a 2009 piece in which we see a washing machine, refrigerator, and television set – appliances given to Vo’s grandmother by relief organizations upon her arrival in Europe, in the 1980s – stacked upon each other and faced with a crucifix given to her by the Catholic church.

The formal idiom is cool Minimalism: cubes on axis. But the title of Vo’s piece suggests a deeper and even spiritual significance, as the word totem evokes heraldry, and family histories. Then, too, there seems to be an element of institutional critique, as Vo gently foregrounds the awkward combination of human generosity and formulaic logic implicit in the objects: can these appliances, and that cross, really be said to constitute the staples of a new life, in a new land, in any meaningful sense? But, apparently, they did, for the surfaces of these objects display the incidental marks that testify to years of consistent usage. And so any facile Minimalist associations now seem misguided; if anything, Vo’s work feels like a rejoinder to Tony Smith’s claim (made in the ‘60s) that “Something obvious on the fact of it (like a washing machine or a pump) is of no further interest.” In Vo’s work, the washing machine is interesting precisely because it is where global and the personal meaningfully overlap.

Danh Vo, Christmas (Rome) 2012
(image: Kerr Houston)

Evident, in all of this, is Vo’s abiding interest in the quotidian and the easily overlooked. He is at heart a materialist, enchanted by the potency of what Alain Jouffroy once called “the degree of virulence of the lived, the real, the palpitating, the true.” But Vo clearly has an abiding poetic side; he is attentive to the numinous qualities of things, and senses significance where others might not. For example, Ephemoptera, a large photograph, was taken during to a visit to the grave of Gericault – but instead of focusing on the painter’s tomb, it depicts dozens of mayflies that dance about in the light above, complicating any pat assertions about death and the passage of time. And in Christmas (Rome) 2012, Vo exhibits swaths of velvet that once served as the rich backing for valuable objects in the Vatican Museum. Over the years, they were discolored by light – but recorded, in the process, the negative impressions of the objects that stood on or before them. Like photograms, then, or the Shroud of Turin, they testify to the passage of time and the former presence of things. And they reveal, in the process, something akin to the quality that Walker Evans once discerned in Atget: a “lyrical understanding… special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail…”

\Strikingly, though, Vo can also be quite funny. His is a wry humor that combines a profane bawdiness, an adolescent’s love of provocation, and a knowing sophistication. Hence his ridiculous titles, which are frequently lengthy and brazenly vulgar: Your Mother Sucks Cocks in Hell, for instance, is named for a phrase drawn from The Exorcist, and Vo has acknowledged the simple pleasure that he derives from forcing art world professionals to utter it, repeatedly. Funny in a more alarming way is a piece that consists of a 16th-century sculpture of Saint Joseph, sawn into six crisp pieces in order to conform to easyJet’s hand luggage requirements. The sacred yields to rote bureaucracy; historical significance is overwhelmed by the indignities of air travel. But Vo’s brand of humor can be creative, as well as merely provocative or destructive. One installation includes a copy of an obituary that Vo composed for his late grandmother, in which he eschewed the typical mention of surviving relatives and accented instead the losses weathered by his grandmother during her lifetime. The result is a warm rethinking of a received form.

Installation view: Danh Vo, Take My Breath Away
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (image: Kerr Houston)

Clearly, then, Vo can be many things. He’s a collector and a magpie, scouring auction house listings and eBay for salient finds – like a paper dress issued during one of Nixon’s presidential runs.

He’s an arranger and a curator: the newspaper featuring his grandmother’s obituary is displayed on a cabinet once used in an art school, and the random stickers, labels, and scratches meaningfully relate to the theme of a difficult life, lived. He’s also a delegator, and a facilitator. In a number of works, he has worked with traditional artisans – Thai gilders; Chinese experts in bamboo – to produce objects that recall long, local histories of manual production even as they also depend upon the increasingly complex networks of globalized capitalism. That interest in interchange is also apparent in a series of works that Vo has commissioned from his father, Phung Vo, who learned calligraphy while a child in French-controlled Vietnam – but never mastered French itself. In these pieces, Phung Vo copies, in a sumptuous script, a letter composed by a French missionary who was awaiting execution at the hands of anti-Christians in 1861. Neither the admirable stoicism of the letter nor the tight, swirling forms of the calligraphy can conceal the legacy of violence underlying the text and its rendering.

Interestingly, the Guggenheim turns out to be a terrific venue for Vo’s work. The series of softly divided calls around the spiraling ramp neatly accommodates his practice, which comes to resemble a series of forays, or discreet items knit by a common set of themes. Strikingly, too, the show’s installation is almost aleatory: several of the roughly 100 pieces feel haphazardly placed. But this, too, works effectively. For instance, the massive fragments of We the People – a remarkable life-sized casting of the Statue of Liberty, in hundreds of pieces now collections around the world – lie at odd, jumbled angles to the walls. A comment on the fragile contingency of the democratic project? Maybe. A meditation on globalism and the disorderly spread of ideas? The sprawling installation fosters a variety of related interpretations.

But that’s typical, perhaps, of Vo – who doesn’t seem as interested in insisting on specific positions as in trying out possibilities and challenging conventional ideas. This is a show of work ultimately built around the tension between opposite concepts – violence and beauty; simplicity and complexity – and their partial reconciliation. Familiar forms are queered; demonic slogans are rendered beautifully. Catholic iconography and Hollywood films seem to share a common, violent border; personal and global overlap and blur together. And, always, the past leaves its mark, but is also mere prologue: raw material, in Vo’s capable hands, for the taking – and for creative, affecting re-making.

Dahn Vo: Take My Breath Away is up at the Guggenheim through May 9, 2018.

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