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PRINT February 2010

TERRA INCOGNITA: THE ART OF DANH VO

Photograph from Danh Vo’s artist book Hic Sunt Leones (in collaboration with Julie Ault; Kunsthalle Basel, 2009).

OFFICIALLY SPEAKING, the Vietnam War concluded in Paris on January 27, 1973, at the Centre de Conférences Internationales—an imposing belle epoque edifice that had begun its stately life as the Hôtel Majestic. There, in a grand ballroom furnished with baize-covered tables, the Paris Peace Accords were signed by representatives of the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Vietcong. These dark-suited dignitaries went through the motions in silence—indeed, according to a reporter for the New York Times, “the scene was as glum as the drizzly, gray Paris sky outside.” The mood stemmed from widespread doubts as to whether the peace would hold. And, of course, it didn’t.

The conference center has remained largely unchanged in the more than three decades since this ill-fated ceremony. Last year, however, the space was finally closed for renovations, and during this time the artist Danh Vo managed to borrow three of its chandeliers for his own work—calling them “mute witnesses” to an event that was in fact not the end but “the beginning of a tragedy that affected millions of lives all over Southeast Asia.” The first he placed on view at Paris’s Kadist Art Foundation in May. (The statement above—alluding to the fact that, in 1973, the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pathet Lao lurked in the future—comes from the show’s catalogue.) Another appeared at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in the fall. Most intriguing, however, was the chandelier on view as part of Vo’s larger exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel last summer, hanging from the vaulted ceiling of a vast, nearly empty room, and more provocatively ambiguous than any historical summation would suggest. Unlit in the pale sunlight filtering into the gallery, the object had a melancholy presence, presiding over a stripped-down show composed mainly of curios—nineteenth-century photographs, looped strands of hair, a few panels of botanical wallpaper. With such objects, spread thinly across three galleries, Vo created enigmatically evocative tableaux that both solicited and thwarted the narrative impulse.

The key to unraveling the intricate interconnections among these works was the show’s checklist—as terse and telegraphic as any checklist, but nevertheless far from conventional. For example, the entry for 16.06.1974, 2009—an assemblage of trinkets in a glass cabinet, with a gnarled tree branch propped nearby—read as follows:

Vitrine; photo of the missionaries Th. Vénard, G. Goulon, J. Perrier, J. Lavigne and J. Theurel leaving Paris on September 19, 1852; branches from the tree in An Thoi, Vietnam that was used as a marker for the now lost grave of Võ Trung Thành . . . ; a hair relic of the Saint Théophane Vénard decapitated in Tonkin on February 2, 1861—his body is in the Missions-Etrangères in Paris, his head remains in Vietnam.

Nowhere was the fact that Võ Trung Thành was the artist’s brother mentioned. Instead, the viewer, like a historian, was left to sift through a welter of uninflected information, to discern—or not—the significances buried in the archival surfeit of the past. Among the materialist certainties that characterize the typical exhibition checklist—this object was created on this date and is made of these substances—Vo had interjected the contingency of history.

A clue to the significance of this thematic of effacement and estrangement was given by the title of the exhibition, “Where the Lions Are,” which placed Vo’s work within a specific frame of reference: the long, long durée of Western colonial expansion. The famous notation Hic sunt leones (Here there are lions) was used by the Romans in antiquity to identify the blank places on their maps, and the Romans in turn handed the phrase down to the cartographers of medieval Europe. Thus the civilized West for centuries divided itself from the savage Rest. The only catch was that, in order to internalize this soothing representation of itself as central and, indeed, as existentially primal, the West had to internalize the empty places and their phantom beasts as well. It could then be said that Vo’s practice, employing an intricate combination of appropriation and reconfiguration, inscribes itself in this ambiguous void that is at once outside and within Western modernity. (In fact, the artist, who was born in Vietnam in 1975 and raised in Denmark, plots a course around the shoals of oblivion and conquest, exoticism and the everyday.) As his treatment of the checklist’s evacuated institutional rhetoric suggests, Vo’s empty spaces are the blanknesses and blind spots, the tacit elisions, the gaps in meaning, that percolate through institutions of all sorts—those that govern the relations of state and individual, state and state, artist and spectator, public and private.

View of Danh Vo, “Where the Lions Are,” 2009, Kunsthalle Basel. Foreground (wallpaper): Danh Vo, Flowering branch, fruiting branch and fruit of Rosa soulieana; fruiting branchlet of Salix souliei; fruiting branches of Prunus tomentosa var. souliei; distal portion of flowering plant of Lilium souliei; basal leaves, fruit, carpel and flowering plant of Anemone coelestina var. souliei; cauline leaves of Aconitum souliei; fruiting branch of Berberis soulieana, 2009. Background (chandelier): Danh Vo, 08:03:51, 28.05.2009. Photo: Serge Hasenböhler.

BASED IN BERLIN, Vo has no studio and is much less a maker of things than an arranger and stager of them. In many cases, the artifacts he uses have a highly personal significance—even a talismanic quality, as the title of one work, Oma Totem, 2009, admits. This towering collection of stacked merchandise—a TV set, a washing machine, a refrigerator, a wooden crucifix, and a card granting admission to a casino—represents the gifts Vo’s maternal grandmother received from the immigrant relief program and the Catholic Church on her arrival in Germany as a refugee. Aestheticizing this array of goods by turning it into a teetering monolith, Vo highlights the almost comical blatancy with which the gift givers sought to socialize his Vietnamese grandmother in the image of modern capitalist standardization—and this new, normalized identity would, Vo implies in other works, persist unto death and beyond. Consider a related untitled sculpture from 2009, installed in Basel in the same gallery as the Centre de Conférences chandelier: Manufactured to the artist’s specifications, the work is a horizontal bronze and granite representation of Oma Totem’s stacked objects—worldly possessions as permanent memorial. (The slab is, in fact, an actual tombstone; it will eventually be placed on Vo’s grandmother’s grave.) And in a similar vein, for If You Were to Climb the Himalayas Tomorrow, 2005, the artist uses an array of his father’s possessions—a glass display case contains a Rolex, a Dupont lighter, and an American military-academy signet ring—to explore the ways in which objects or commodities function in soft-power strategies of control and indoctrination. The items, all coveted status symbols in ’70s Vietnam, posit a suave, prosperous, and explicitly Western vision of masculinity, unmasking a colonialism of desire that directly undermines the allegedly intimate logic of taste. Here Pictures-generation appropriations acquire new sociopolitical weight and nuance.

Indeed, pace autobiographical readings—which would see these explorations of his family’s past as a search for an authentic, rooted self—Vo’s almost clinical dissections of his closest relatives’ lives in fact work to expose the inescapable negotiations between public authority and private subject. They posit identity as a conjunctural collage, a matter of inevitable inauthenticity. The artist’s own discussion of one such work, Ngo Thi Ha, 2008, illuminates the role such investigations of personal history play in his practice very well. A sort of counterpart of the untitled tombstone, this piece, which was shown in Vo’s 2008 exhibition “Package Tour” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, consists of a simple whitewashed cross propped against a wall; the words MARIA NGO THI HA are emblazoned across it. The artist’s father made the cross for the grave of Vo’s paternal grandmother; as Vo explains in a videotaped interview produced by the Stedelijk, his bereaved parent could not bear to wait the requisite year for the soil to settle enough to support a tombstone. In fact, Vo continues, laughing in the rueful manner people often adopt when talking about their families’ foibles, his “totally bourgeois” relatives were mortified by the homespun cross; yet when the earth was finally ready for the permanent stone, they couldn’t bring themselves to throw the cross away. So they gave it to Vo, who, he says, kept it on his balcony for “seven or eight months”: It was only then that he was able to “depersonify” the object enough to see it as an imperialistic trace. And yet as a work of art, the cross still holds these two poles—intimate and affective, political and collective—in an oscillating relation, an ambivalence that cannot be resolved but must be perpetually renegotiated. After all, while it is true that the Catholicism represented by the cross and the Roman alphabet used to spell the name of the deceased were crucial tools in the colonization of Vietnam, the very fact that the artist tells the story shows that the cross is far from depersonalized; it remains charged with poignant and personal significance.

Further, and more reflexively than most of Vo’s work, Ngo Thi Ha evinces ambivalence toward its own status as a readymade. The cross, with its bottom carved into a point, is also a stake—similar to those that marked imperial claims in the age of expansion. Vo’s gesture of propping it against a gallery wall, embedding it within the genealogy of the Western avant-garde, is staking a kind of claim, too, perhaps—at once a reappropriation of a tradition whose encounter with the exotic other was decidedly one-sided and a rather mordant questioning of that tradition’s viability. Naturally, such an interrogation has implications for the contexts in which Vo’s work is shown and into which the artist never relaxes uncritically. Rather, he acknowledges and engages the fact that art institutions do not merely frame but are also enfolded within the historical narratives he traces. In so examining the colonial structure of power that lies behind cultural phenomena, he could be said to question the politics of what anthropologist Walter D. Mignolo calls the “locus of enunciation”—the place from which power exerts its rule, imposes its narrative, and asserts the ownership of meanings.

Grave marker on the artist’s balcony, Berlin, 2007.

While in Amsterdam for his Stedelijk show, for instance, Vo purchased a wooden sculpture, allegedly dating to the sixteenth century and depicting Saint Joseph—the type of devotional object that was once widely exported, an icon of Christian virtue. Here, too, a profound ambivalence comes into play: In an interview, the artist says that as soon as he saw the handsome oaken statue, he “fell in love with it,” yet for him, the sculpture epitomized the instrumentalization of culture in the service of the spread of Western values. He sliced the statue into six parts, so that he could fit it into his suitcase and display it in art venues around the globe—a gesture that registers less as critique than as revenge. Dismembered and disintegrated, the statue is robbed of its status, exposed to a symbolic death. “I think of the slicing up as a response to world history, to the dominance of Western cultures,” Vo says in the interview; he has thus far shown the disarticulated statue at the Busan Biennale in South Korea. “We have always brought these items around the world,” he concludes, before drawing an analogy to the circulation and distribution of contemporary art, of which his own efforts inevitably partake: “The exportation of religious relics is similar to the transport of art for today’s international biennials and art fairs.”

WHETHER AN ICON in a suitcase or a chandelier hung on a garment rack like a disused ball gown, objects in Vo’s work are never static: They move, transmute, perform, and are performed; they insist on their own status as both matter and energy. Analogously, Vo’s practice holds itself in a kind of suspension between the object-based and the performative, in large part via the medium of the document, which, for him—per his cryptic statement “I always saw the passport as the ultimate performance piece”—seems to occupy a kind of liminal space: an unreliable mediator between thing and action, subjects and systems.

Perhaps such a quality is to be expected. After the fall of Saigon, Vo’s family fled Vietnam in a boat fashioned by his father. And so in the artist’s work the strange vitality that “papers” acquire in the lives of refugees—their power to dictate whether an individual will be included among those with the “right to have rights” or excluded and relegated to the status of bare life—is often examined via a kind of bureaucratic absurdism. For one ongoing, untitled piece, Vo’s father, who has exquisite handwriting but cannot read French, periodically copies and recopies an 1861 letter from the sainted, executed missionary Jean-Théophane Vénard; the ever-growing corpus of letters is a beautiful but ineffectual interface between epochs and languages. More provocatively, Vo has elsewhere created a series of “self-portraits” that each consist of a single bit of ephemera certifying some kind of encounter with authority: a letter from a professor advising him to stop painting, a DNA test. His work Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, 2002–, meanwhile, is essentially an archive relating to the artist’s marriages to people to whom he feels personally, though not necessarily romantically, attached. After each marriage (so far, there have been two), Vo immediately gets divorced but retains the surname of his ex-spouse. The legal documents generated by the various nuptial and divorce proceedings constitute the work. Thus the actions are reduced to their juridical essence, emphasizing bureaucracy’s role in regulating the most intimate aspects of life by bestowing or withholding privilege. (Often this happens capriciously, as in the case of Denmark’s granting gay couples the right to marry but denying them the right to jointly adopt children.) Vo Rosasco Rasmussen attacks this system at the level of semantic logic; the artist will keep generating surnames ad infinitum, until, theoretically, his name grows too long for any single document to contain it. His own name will then become a source of disorder, small but persistent, propagating itself across the state’s information infrastructure, and Vo himself will become more and more difficult to keep track of, as the set of legal documents confirming each new name, each new identity, grows and grows.

The name Danh Vo by itself attests the highly mutable quality of nominal identity. When Vo was initially registered as a citizen, Danish officials recorded his first name as last and vice versa, and the order stuck. This was just the last in a series of aleatory events that had shaped the artist’s life up to that point; it was only because his family was rescued from the ocean by a Danish tanker that they had wound up as Danish citizens in the first place. Yet here again, it becomes very clear how Vo Rosasco Rasmussen suggests the upside to the frighteningly arbitrary nature of identity: Just as identity is subject to random fate and bureaucratic caprice, it is also subject to individual will and can be a site of resistance. Vo uses the Danish marriage system for his own purposes—in taking the names of loved ones, he gains a permanent, intimate connection to them, using the state’s exclusionary civil laws, which divide the citizenry into those who are fit to adopt children and those who are not, to construct his own community.

Danh Vo, Untitled, 2008, wheeled carry-on bag, wooden statue, 21 5/8 x 17 3/4 x 9 7/8".

This suggestion that intimate connection may be a means by which to resist effacement, exclusion from the social and moral order, is echoed in Vo’s 2007 project Good Life, presented at Isabella Bortolozzi gallery in Berlin that year. During a residency in Los Angeles, the artist by chance met a man named Joe Carrier, who had lived in Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s, working first for the RAND Corporation and then, after accusations of homosexuality cost him his job, for a foundation researching the effects of Agent Orange. Vo and Carrier became friends, and the artist was granted access to the extensive personal archive Carrier had compiled—love letters, diaries, and erotically charged photos of young Vietnamese men. Since Vo’s family had left all of their mementos behind when they fled Vietnam, he had never seen photographs of himself or his relatives in their native country, so he constructed a proxy “self-portrait” from a selection of Carrier’s material. Beyond the act of appropriation, Good Life testifies to the encounter between Vo and Carrier (who also authored the press release for the show) as an emotional coincidence, a fluid moment in which the biographies of two individuals overlap. Identity and authorship, critically questioned and dismantled by Vo throughout his practice, are in this work mutually diluted, pointing toward what Paul Gilroy termed in Postcolonial Melancholia (2005) a space of conviviality, “a radical openness that brings conviviality alive [and] makes a nonsense of closed, fixed, and reified identity.” Here and in Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, the artist seems, as well, to be suggesting a redefinition of the very notion of citizenship, one grounded in the rejection of any form of exclusion; one that, perhaps, does not even require its citizens to maintain stable, verifiable identities. Indeed, opening up his own identity to endless multiplication and expansion, Vo dramatically manifests what political theorist Chantal Mouffe would call a “break with individualism”—a literal instance of a radical pluralism that Mouffe argues requires “the existence of multiplicity, of plurality and of conflict and sees in them the raison d’être of politics.” And yet, as she says, this is a political sphere that must be continually constructed; it is always still to come.

TURNING AWAY FROM VO’S WORK in performance in all its guises, how might we find a means of reading this contestatory impulse back onto the artist’s mysterious decors, such as those he constructed in Basel using a “mute witness” to tragedy? Significantly, the term décor was Marcel Broodthaers’s designation for his own museal stage sets, which, as Rachel Haidu argued in this magazine in 2007, themselves expose the linkages between the conventions of museum display and the detached and lordly mode of spectatorship developed under imperialism. As informative in this vein would be a reading of Vo’s works through the influential arguments of James Clifford. According to the anthropologist, the Western avant-garde evolved in cross-pollinating tandem with ethnography; both disciplines are defined by a “modernist orientation” that takes “as its problem—and opportunity—the fragmentation and juxtaposition of cultural values.” This orientation, he says, was rooted in the depravities of World War I, which had thrown the foundations of society (and even of reality) into doubt and given rise to the impulse to question and, indeed, attack any appearance of stability or convention. Avant-garde strategies of collage were answered by ethnography’s own semiotic de- and recompositions; in both instances, “culture and its norms—beauty, truth, reality—[were approached] as artificial arrangements susceptible to detached analysis and comparison.” The encounter with “the exotic” thus became a model for the provocation of irruptions of otherness, a means by which to question traditional cultural codes and institutional definitions. If this did not result in a rethinking of the injustices being committed against the other, it nevertheless, per Clifford, instituted the potential for “more troubling, less stable encounters” with the foreign and the unknown.

If the ethnographic turn to which Clifford’s arguments contributed now hovers in the recent past—its problems more clearly remembered than the suppressions and inequalities it addressed—Vo’s practice nonetheless allows us to imagine another half rotation. He provides a recuperation of the ethnographic impulse in art not as style or subject but as a commitment to the perpetually estranging encounter, the continual reconstitution of identity. His decors, in other words, stage these encounters, insisting that cultures are not undifferentiated and equal but are always engaged in complex struggles of resistance and opposition. Fundamentally agonistic for all their elliptical beauty, his works strive to break open what Mignolo defines as the “logical matrix of modernity/coloniality” and its monotopic perspective. Bringing to the fore the artificiality of cultural artifacts and ostensibly organic structures alike, he enacts a process of decoding that points to the ideological construction of all homogenous discourse, the power imbalances that influence all self–other relations. This fundamental strategy allows his practice to operate as critique across a range of registers.

Or better, following another formulation of Clifford’s, one could say that Vo’s is a “poetics of displacement,” a perpetual making-strange that aims, indeed, at the decolonization of knowledge and culture. But whereas Clifford saw the encounter with le divers—the heterotopic, the unaccountable, the other—as transpiring in the “outside” or the “beyond” of colonial adventure, Vo’s divers constitutes itself in and for a world that is no longer organized around an inside and an outside. Rather, it is structured more like a foam or a gel: The tiny pockets of emptiness, like the gaps between the words on a checklist, exist as a kind of dispersed phase within the viscous continuity of “the global.” Like a tracer dye, Vo’s art makes these pockets visible. If we consider this poetics of displacement as the pars destruens of his work, it is his location of spaces for the reconfiguration of identity and the envisioning of collective citizenship that is his pars construens. It is in these spaces that he locates the possibility of new modes of personal and collective identification, a reinvention beyond the logic of coloniality and modernity.

Luigi Fassi is a curator in Bozen, Italy.