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Danh Vo. She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene, 2009. Collection Chantal Crousel | Photo by Jean-Daniel Pellen, Paris © Danh Vo
Danh Vo. She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene, 2009. Collection Chantal Crousel | Photo by Jean-Daniel Pellen, Paris © Danh Vo
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How Artist Danh Vo Captures the Cultural Narratives of Objects

Picture of Rachel Gould
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 17 July 2018

In a complex practice of bricolage, Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Vo assembles historical objects to re-present their disjointed narratives as contemporary artworks. Old letters, textiles, and pieces of furniture inhabit the Guggenheim’s expansive rotunda for Vo’s mid-career survey titled Take My Breath Away; but the 100-odd bits and pieces on view are anything but arbitrary. Vo carefully writes their next chapter—and through his creative process, makes sense of his own complicated history.

Named after the award-winning Berlin song featured in Top Gun (1986)—a film so popular that it increased American military applications in its wake—Take My Breath Away is a haunting showcase of historic memorabilia and seemingly banal household items. Each project in Take My Breath Away serves to re-construct the cultural lives of things; things that fortuitously crossed Vo’s path, things that he acquired through his various relationships, and things that the artist pursued due to their historical significance.

DanhVo_Installationview_Museo Jumex

Danh Vo. Installation view: Danh Vo, Museo Jumex, Mexico City | Photo by Abigail Enzaldo and Emilio Bernabé García, courtesy Museo Jumex, Mexico City

Vo’s unusual oeuvre is rooted in a personal quest for continuity and closure. The Berlin- and Mexico City-based conceptual artist was born in Vietnam as Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975, and at the age of four, his family fled their home to Denmark. “Traumatized people don’t talk about their past,” the artist explained to The Guardian. “They’re trained to move on and that’s what I’m doing…”

Yet Vo is not the first to investigate the lives of objects. His work brings to mind “The Social Life of Things” (1986), a collection of essays musing on the history of the commodity, helmed by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. Appadurai posited that all objects possess a social life of their own, and that the ephemeral values of an item are imbued through shifting human motivations.

Appadurai revisited the topic in a follow-up essay, “The Thing Itself” (2006), in which he directly addresses the art object. A curated assemblage of “momentary” and “volatile” materials, the artwork is an innately fragile, temporal thing—but it’s “the tear in the canvas, the crack in the glass, the chip in the wood, the flaw in the steel” by which the artwork’s life becomes manifest, he says.

And in Vo’s artworks, made from worn fabrics and broken things, there is a vitality. Ascend the Guggenheim’s rotunda galleries and you’ll encounter object after object, many of which appear random and bizarre—but it quickly becomes clear that there’s a method to his madness. Amid all of Vo’s scattered items there is a common theme: that people are fluid and faceted creatures, shaped by a network of forces more powerful than themselves.

“Vo’s installations dissect the power structures, cultural forces, and private desires that shape our experience of the world,” writes curator Katherine Brinson. “His work addresses themes of religion, colonialism, capitalism, and artistic authorship, but refracts these sweeping subjects through intimate personal narratives—what the artist calls ‘the tiny diasporas of a person’s life.'” Indeed, much of Vo’s work is tied to political and military history, which informs most of the works on view at the Guggenheim.

A letter from former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a friend apologizes for having to miss a ballet due to the “contemplation of Cambodia.” A colonial American flag is overlaid with antique military accessories in “reference to its incarnation as a young, idealistic nation before becoming a hegemonic superpower,” (as explained by the artwork’s label). Parisian chandeliers from the Hôtel Majestic—where the Paris Peace Accords were signed to officially end the Vietnam War—hang as “witnesses to the consequences of Western intervention.”

Other artworks confront Vo’s personal history. Certificates from his two platonic marriages to friends Mia Rosasco and Mads Rasmussen evoke the performative nature of ritual and the bureaucracy of relationships. Both marriages were executed for the sake of Vo’s project titled Vo Rosasco Rasmussen (2003), which doubles as his legal name. If You Were to Climb the Himalayas Tomorrow (2006) showcases the luxury objects that his father held dear after escaping Vietnam. Grave Marker for Maria Ngo Thi Ha (2008) exhibits a simple wooden cross that his father fashioned for his grandmother’s grave when she died.

But Vo’s practice is not exclusively one of found objects. Perhaps his most notable work is a full-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. We the People (2010-2014) is a 1:1 reproduction of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s 19th-century magnum opus fragmented into some 250 pieces that Vo has no intention of ever uniting. The artist had only seen the Statue of Liberty in photographs, and was surprised to learn that this colossal beacon of freedom is in fact a shallow, 2.4 millimeter shell of hammered copper. “That was something interesting,” the artist told The New Yorker‘s Calvin Tomkins, “the surface being so thin and fragile. My next thought was that maybe an image like the Statue of Liberty could liberate me from being categorized as an artist who deals with his own history as a Vietnamese refugee.” A selection of pieces from We the People are on view in New York City.

Above all else, Vo is an excavator. He lives in pursuit of forgotten things and silent objects that bear significance for their proximity to people and affairs. “Vo’s work is animated by the act of possession,” says Brinson, “not just of material belongings and geographic territory, but of the body, faith, and the imagination.” While he has been a lesser-known entity in the United States, Vo’s first large-scale American solo show will surely bring him out of the periphery and into the spotlight.

Take My Breath Away is on view until May 9, 2018 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave, New York, NY 10128.