Chicago UP UNTIL THE 19TH CENTURY, it was a well-accepted theory in literary circles that deep knowledge of an author’s biography would enhance understanding of the work. This concept, which made linking the facts of writers’ lives to their artistic creations a regular practice, was called into question by the French poet- philosopher Paul Valéry, a strenuous advocate of the notion that the most efficient way to absorb a book is to skim through it without getting lost in details, and by Marcel Proust, who in his posthumously published book Contre Sainte-Beuve (written 1908-09) maintained that a work of art is the product of a different self from the everyday person that people know. “The more perfect the artist,” T.S. Eliot argued in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”
The art of Danh Vo (born in South Vietnam; now based in Switzerland) has emerged over the past few years as a vivid challenge to these anti-personal principles. Vo’s life is so utterly fused with his creative process that biography provides the only possible entry point to full comprehension of his work—a principle that Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), father of the centuries-long tradition of art biography, would surely have endorsed. Yet, once embarked on this path, viewers soon find themselves confronting a thematic duality, in which individual experiences, like Vo’s childhood in Viet- nam and his family’s flight to Europe in the late 1970s, combine with collective ones like mass migration and cultural displace- ment. Vo is certainly not the first artist to view historical issues through a personal lens. What makes his approach remarkable is his lack of overreliance on either perspective. A poor history student by his own admission, yet dubious about seeing his own story as entirely autonomous, he strikes a narrative balance. Vo says, “I see myself, like any other person, as a container that has inherited these infinite traces of history without inheriting any direction.” He was left to his own devices to develop an interpretation of himself and his times, and this is where his art came to his aid.1
VO WAS BORN ON the evacuee island of Phu Quoc in 1975, the year of the fall of Saigon, which ended two decades of civil war exacerbated by American military intervention. In 1979, his family fled Vietnam in a boat Vo’s father had built to hold some 100 people—a hazardous move that might have ended in disaster but for the intervention of a Danish ship that rescued the refugees and conveyed them to Denmark, where they were granted political asylum. Vo grew up in Denmark, attended the Städelschule in Frankfurt,2 and eventually moved to Berlin and then Basel, following a three-month residency at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles in 2006.
The artist—who has lately grown fascinated with a war and a country that he never really knew—frequently references that psychologically fraught past. He alludes, for example, to the futile 1973 Paris Peace Accords in his installation Chandelier from the former ballroom of the Hotel Majestic, Paris (various versions, 2009-present), featuring a dismantled chandelier from the room where, after five years of negotiation, the ceasefire agreement was ratified—only to be violated almost immediately.
Vo’s brief American sojourn proved to be significant. After he delivered one of the talks that residents routinely give to local community members, Vo was approached by a 79-year-old man named Joseph Carrier. Carrier made an impression on the art- ist by pronouncing his name correctly on the spot (a rather rare occurrence, as in Vietnamese phonetics the letter D sounds like a Y). After further inquiries, the man revealed that he had spent 11 years in Vietnam as a military consultant, studying such issues as defoliant use and the effects of propaganda on Viet Cong defection. For Vo, who grew up in a family that had decided to physically and mentally leave Vietnam behind, the idea of learning more about his own heritage through a stranger in California had a profound effect. Their friendship resulted in a trip to Vietnam some time later, and during a stroll on a crowded street in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Carrier made a casual comment about the custom of Vietnamese men to walk hand in hand, and how, when he first visited the country 40 years earlier, this shocked him to the point of immortalizing it with his camera. At this, Vo raised an eyebrow, and when they returned to Los Angeles he discovered that Carrier had indeed amassed boxes of prints and negatives from the 1960s. With Carrier’s permission, Vo exhibited some of the images, along with recent ones he took himself, in “Good Life,” his solo show at Bortolozzi in Berlin in 2007. The issue of authorship—whose “art” was this, and of what exactly did it consist?—was thus richly problematized here, as it so often is in Vo’s projects.
Three years later, in another one-person Bortolozzi show titled “All your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble,” Vo included Last Letter of Saint Théophane Vénard to his father before he was decapitated, copied by Phung Vo (1861/2009). The artist’s father, a skilled calligrapher who does not speak French, had carefully transcribed the amazingly poised text, composed in 1861 by a French missionary on the eve of his execution for proselytizing Christianity in a Vietnam not yet under French colonial domination. To this day, Phung Vo still repeatedly handwrites the work, now offered as a multiple, for collectors who commission their own copy. These attempts to erase the time gaps between the 1860s, 1960s and 2000s, and to illuminate a semi-obscure chapter of Vietnamese history, exemplify Vo’s drive to question personal and collective history from the inside out.
Some time ago, while Vo and his parents were searching for his brother’s grave in a cemetery in Vietnam, the artist was Germany. (The clan had fled Vietnam in two separate boats, enhancing the odds that the bloodline would survive.) The work features a washing machine, a refrigerator, a television set, a wooden crucifix and a casino entry card. Tombstone for Nguyen Thi Ty (2009), shown nearby, translates the surfaces of these objects into a floor relief in marble, granite, wood and bronze. Upon Vo’s grandmother’s death, it will serve as her grave marker in the family’s plot in Denmark.
GIVEN VO’S TENDENCY to situate his work in a suspended chronological dimension, it’s no surprise that two more of his principal efforts are currently open-ended. For the first one, Marriage Project (a.k.a. Name Project), begun in 2003, the artist a request his parents felt entitled to make because, once Vo came out, they assumed he must lack any interest in getting married. Rather than taking offense, Vo became fascinated by the rationale. Marriage Project, viewed from a romantic perspective, is fundamentally a labor of love—a literal enactment of the desire to carry something of the beloved perpetually with us. In more practical terms, it touches on the sticky subject of immigration law and how official papers can determine the fate of human beings.
Vo’s other ongoing project, We the People, begun in 2011, is arguably his most ambitious work to date, and an unusually monumental one in comparison to the rest of his oeuvre, which comprises a wide variety of relatively small objects, including flowers, cardboard boxes, photographs, crosses, books, flags and domestic items. We the People, slated to eventually replicate the entire copper shell of the Statue of Liberty, was launched in the solo exhibition “JULY, IV, MDCCLXXVI” at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, in 2011. (The title commemorates the date of American indepen- dence, as inscribed in Roman numerals—sans commas—on the tablet held by the Goddess of Liberty in New York Harbor.) The original 19th-century figure, designed by Frédéric Bartholdi (with internal structural engineering by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Gustave Eiffel), is made up of multiple plates, whose copies Vo displays in elegantly jumbled installations.
Vo’s version, presenting the statue in unassembled form, turns the clock back to when the sculpture was initially fabricated in Paris. Last winter, several components of We the People reached U.S. soil for the first time. After extensive European exposure, they finally appeared in the latest triennial, “The Ungovernables,” at the New Museum in New York. A much larger selection can presently be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago. The work’s fabrication by some 100 workers in China reflects the global economic realities of our day. Meanwhile, its fragmentation lays out the alarming idea that liberty is, perhaps, more a vulnerable construct than an unalienable right.
Vo’s constant digging into the past in order to come to terms with the present involves a lot of boundary-crossing, and observers, including his father, have inquired about his motivation. “The question still haunts me,” Vo says. “I still don’t have an answer.”3 Perhaps that is why he makes art in the first place.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW
“Danh Vo: Uterus,” at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, through Dec. 16. Danh Vo’s sculptural installation We the People, at the Art Institute of Chicago, through Oct. 28.
1 See Francesca Pagliuca, “No Way Out: An Interview with Danh Vo,” Mousse magazine, no. 17, moussemagazine.it.
2 German artist Tobias Rehberger, once Vo’s professor in Frankfurt, later evoked the Vietnamese refugee boat in his stylized sculpture American Traitor Bitch, which debuted at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York in 2006. Some commentators have interpreted this conceptual collaboration as agency at one remove on Vo’s part.
3 “Danh Vo: (Cruising),” Art It website, www.art-it.asia, Feb. 20, 2011.
“Vo Danh” was on view at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria, Apr. 21-June 24.
MICHELE ROBECCHI is a writer and curator based in London.