Mexico City

Danh Vo, Untitled, 2019, mixed media. Installation view.

Danh Vo, Untitled, 2019, mixed media. Installation view.

Danh Vo

Entering Danh Vo’s exhibition, visitors immediately faced a scaffolding-like wooden construction lined with foil mirrors. The gallery contained three such structures, made up of wooden beams supporting walls of intermittent mirrors, and the result was disorienting: One’s body was constantly reflected, exposed as part of the show. The mirrored panels of the first of these enclosures were mostly covered by a thin coat of mint-colored paint, with just the bottom part in one corner left untouched, so that one could see one’s feet moving around the room. I knew by reading about Vo’s exhibition this past fall at South London Gallery—of which this show was a reduced version—that these panels are in fact oil-on-mirror foil paintings by Peter Bonde, Vo’s former professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, who has been making this kind of minimal and, as it were, nondescript painting for some years now. The two used to have a contentious relationship, but now they’re friendly, and Vo kindly presented Bonde’s pieces as elements of his own work not only here and at the South London Gallery, but also at last year’s Venice Biennale. In London, the minty works were hung like normal paintings on the wall, rather than being used as walls, the way they were here.

The interior of that first structure was adorned with alluring fashion-magazine-style photos of Vo’s “nephew and muse,” Gustav, showing his foot, neck, red curls, and jean-clad crotch. The images were taken by Vo’s lover, the photographer Heinz Peter Knes, and one of them shared a wall with a calligraphic drawing by Phung Vo, the artist’s father, spelling out TAKE MY BREATH AWAY in neat Gothic typeface. The second wooden construction was similar to the first, but more of a patchwork of Bonde’s mirrors and planks of pinewood. The inscription YDOB EHT NI MRAW SI TI —“It is warm in the body,” written backward—was printed on the mirrors; the line comes from The Exorcist (1973), a recurring reference in Vo’s work. More pictures of Gustav, this time showing his naked, muscular back being pinched into folds by his own hands, hung on the wooden panels. The third enclosure seemed oddly church-like, completely covered in mirrors, with an alabaster figure of the Madonna and child standing on a rock in the center. Pictures of Gustav now in a stylish knitted red top with part of his chest exposed and a pack of Marlboro Reds peeking from his pants pocket, were displayed alongside a copy of a letter written in 1861 by a French missionary about to be beheaded in Vietnam, addressed to the condemned man’s father. The beautiful handwriting is actually the work of Vo’s dad, who doesn’t read French but thoroughly enjoys calligraphy.

Collaboration, relationships, a constellation of affections, and serendipity are often cited as Vo’s primary materials. Although these themes were perhaps clearer in a sprawling show like the one presented in London, in this reworked, smaller version of it, I kept thinking of those altars of youthful adoration assembled by teenagers out of trinkets, mementos, and magazine cutouts. Here in Mexico City, at least, Vo’s show felt like this type of shrine on an expanded scale—which made it less of a collaboration than it might have been meant to be. Such adolescent reliquaries are usually private expressions of inner ardor. The constellation comes from inside one’s heart. I want to think that Vo’s tributes to friends and family are heartfelt, that he really understands that all creative practice is essentially a communal effort. But in the actually existing art world—which undervalues the collective contributions that so many bring to the table, even when they are acknowledged—the only name in big letters, the one that matters, is the one who’s named as the artist. The rest, like we who come to look, are just reflections.