New York

View of “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away,” 2018. Foreground: 08:03, 28.05, 2009. Background: Christmas (Rome), 2012, 2013. Photo: David Heald.

View of “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away,” 2018. Foreground: 08:03, 28.05, 2009. Background: Christmas (Rome), 2012, 2013. Photo: David Heald.

Danh Vo

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

View of “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away,” 2018. Foreground: 08:03, 28.05, 2009. Background: Christmas (Rome), 2012, 2013. Photo: David Heald.

THE ART OF DANH VO consists of objects either acquired and modified or fabricated by the artist—and also, in a sense, explicated by him. The extensive labels in his exhibitions tell us how Vo procured these things, the histories and persons they represent, and how we might interpret them. Vo’s objects and images are testaments to public and private histories so intricately interwoven they must be explained; otherwise, these things (some are barely “things”) and their significances would elude our grasp. Many shows of contemporary work require discursive framing; Vo takes this convention to an extreme. I count this as a good thing. Initially opaque, his displays cause us to slow down to absorb these often obscure (and often troubling) objects. It took me four or five hours to view the exhibition during each of two visits.

Previous installations of Vo’s work I’d seen allowed only partial glimpses of his project, leaving me somewhat unconvinced by it. Curated by Katherine Brinson with Susan Thompson and Ylinka Barotto, this midcareer survey offered a deeply satisfying exposure to Vo’s practice, thanks to its thoughtful pacing and its recursive presentation of projects and themes. The curators wisely enlisted the museum’s distinctive architectural feature, its ramp, as a narrative platform. As images and object types were introduced and reintroduced to the visitors ascending Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral, Vo’s interests and obsessions became increasingly familiar. A story emerged.

Danh Vo, Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs, 2013, mahogany, metal, 40 1/2 x 26 x 25 3/4".

The story is Vo’s—but it is far bigger than Vo alone. The show was a portrait of the artist as historical actor, subject to the vicissitudes of war, diaspora, religious upbringing, class hierarchy, and cultural norms. (Vo’s identity as a gay man surfaces in a number of works.) The story begins in 1975, the year of his birth and of the final surrender of South Vietnam, the event that precipitated his family’s migration to Denmark. Born at the end of the war, Vo left his homeland under harried circumstances, like such generational peers as the photographer An-My Lê and novelists Nam Le and Việt Thanh Nguyễn. Uniquely, Vo situates this traumatic recent past within a vast history encompassing Vietnam’s colonial period and postcolonial aftermath, as well as other narratives of barbarism both ancient and modern.

The opening gallery contained a selection of talismanic objects: the wooden frame of a chair and strips of glossy black leather appended to a wall; velvet sheets bearing the outlines of crucifixes, vessels, and other sacred things; the leg and foot of a classical marble; a sword once carried by a fourteenth-century Maltese crusader that fell into the hands of Egyptian Mamluks and, eventually, the Ottoman Turks; and a wall text inscribed in barely legible graphite letters in an antiquated font. The labels tell all: the saber’s peripatetic past; the velvet’s origin (the Vatican Museums); that the graphite letters spell THE PROMISE LAND, a possible reference to the Holy Land of the Crusades, Vietnam, the US, or all of these places; and that these characters were drawn by the artist’s father, Phung Vo, in the archaic script he learned as a boy. The frame and leather scraps come from two chairs in the White House Cabinet Room given to US secretary of defense Robert McNamara by Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s assassination and acquired by Vo at an auction of McNamara’s estate in 2012. This strange combination of things suggested Vo’s understanding of history as transnational, infinitely layered, and recursive—and stained by narratives of violence and domination. The past is ever present in Vo’s practice, and it is often ugly. The formal strategies of his art—appropriation, splitting, chopping, ripping, tearing, and combining—are the techniques of the vandal; they are well suited to this subject matter.

Danh Vo, 22.11.1963, 2010, White House menu card, paper, 6 1/2 x 4 3/4".

The Vietnam War is the crux of the matter, the pivot on which everything turns. A display of typed thank-you notes from national security adviser Henry Kissinger to a New York Post columnist for free tickets to Broadway shows and the ballet afforded a close-up glimpse of the mechanics of East Coast power and opportunism circa 1969 to 1975; the courteous missives, written during a period of heavy bombings in Cambodia and Vietnam overseen by Kissinger, who was promoted to secretary of State in 1973, were among the most repugnant artifacts. Others were more ambiguous, such as a White House menu card dated November 25, 1963, for a dinner that never occurred, President Kennedy having been shot three days before (the artery-clogging sequence of filet of sole verdi, spinach à la crème, and mousse au Roquefort underscores how tastes have changed since the Camelot era), or a wall of inset vitrines containing the property of Joseph Carrier, a researcher for the defense think tank RAND who lived in Saigon during this period. This cache included Carrier’s business card, vaguely homoerotic snapshots of young boys, his camera, and a research paper he authored titled “Beliefs, Attitudes and Behavior of Lowland Vietnamese.” The label accompanying this work, Good Life, 2007, informs us that Carrier later engaged in fieldwork to study the effects of Agent Orange, an herbicide dropped by US forces on the region that resulted in the deaths of many thousands of civilians and GIs, as well as birth defects in countless children.

The past is ever present in Vo’s practice, and it is often ugly.

Some of the most striking artifacts were the most monumental, others the minutest, whether the three great chandeliers that hung in the salon of the hotel where the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, presented at different points on the ramp in three distinct formats—intact, split, and dismantled—or the nibs of White House pens used to sign the treaties that escalated the war. Displayed near the top of the ramp along with a carbon copy of McNamara’s letter to Kennedy accepting his appointment as secretary of Defense, the final, dismantled chandelier and pen nibs represented both the start of America’s military engagement in Vietnam and its ignominious conclusion.

Danh Vo, Das Beste oder Nichts, 2010, engine of Phung Vo’s Mercedes-Benz 190, 26 x 81 x 40".

One could speak at length about Vo’s menu of sculptural techniques, each of them as layered with references as the histories they evoke: his post-Minimalist rags and piles (the horsehair stuffing, strips of leather, muslin, and burlap ripped from Cabinet Room chairs); his Marcel Broodthaersian vitrines transformed via Janine Antoni into jewel boxes; his reimagining of the readymade and found-object traditions alongside such artists as Walead Beshty, Cameron Rowland, and Gedi Sibony. But it is his tactic of gathering things—of collecting—that seems most distinctive. Vo frequently saves and displays artifacts of little worth, endowing them with meaning and—yes—exchange value. Yet Vo is as much vandal as preservationist, as I have claimed. He manipulates and conjoins things in often-provocative combinations, such as his forced marriages of marble classical fragments with sawed-up bits of Northern wooden saints and virgins, or his display of concrete casts of his lover’s feet in a crate (Cortez, Co. to Colmar, 2012). Such works set up resonances with all the other images of carnage, among them Vo’s documentations of the life and death of the martyr priest Saint Jean-Théophane Vénard (executed by beheading at Tonkin in 1861) and his exhibition of the actual typewriter on which Unabomber Ted Kaczynski wrote his turgid manifesto.

The prominence of these “collectibles” in the exhibition forced the question of Vo’s self-positioning in a market economy predicated on collecting. How the artist was able to acquire McNamara’s property, the fourteen letters signed by Kissinger, the three large chandeliers from the Parisian hotel, and so on is not of incidental concern. Nor are his manipulations of familial objects, some of great sentimental value. What is a viewer to make of a work like Grave Marker for Maria Ngô Thị Hạ, 2008, a wooden crucifix inscribed by Phung Vo in honor of his son’s grandmother that briefly adorned her grave, now the property of the Swiss bank EFG International? Of Oma Totem, 2009, a stacked display of appliances given to his other grandmother by settlement agencies, and adorned with a crucifix she received from the Catholic Church after her arrival in Germany from Vietnam, now in a collection in Turin?

Danh Vo, Lot 39. A Group of 4 Presidential Signing Pens, 2013, pen tips, ink, each 1 1/4 x 1/4 x 1/8".

The labels described Vo’s critical intention in exhibiting these relics. Works such as If you were to climb the Himalayas tomorrow, 2006, a vitrine display of a US army ring, Dupont lighter, and Rolex watch acquired by Phung Vo, and Das Beste oder Nichts, 2010, the extracted engine of his Mercedes-Benz 190, were offered as critiques of the elder Vo’s consumerist desire and masculine self-fashioning. Yet I was troubled by Vo’s commodification of the familial and by his failure to address his own embeddedness in the “international luxury economy” that his practice allegedly “critically confront[s],” a claim belied by all those labels identifying the well-heeled collections where these objects now reside. Whereas the awful recent works of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are touted by some for their knowing complicity, Vo’s art poses a more complex conundrum, wrapping its fierce historical critiques in a commodity form prized by an art market ever more fascinated by “difference” in its various forms, even as those investments barely begin to redress the inequities surfaced by these objects. I admired and learned from Vo’s show. Yet it would have been nice to imagine that an artist so thoughtful and historically acute would also more closely examine his own situation—how the works he has made exist in the world, affirming the status quo as successfully as they challenge it. Perhaps that is asking too much.

James Meyer is a contributing editor of Artforum.