A Surrogated Autobiography

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Danh Vo: Army Boys, Quy Nhon, 1966, black-and-white Photograph: Joseph Carrier, from the installation “Good Life”, 2007. Courtesy Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

A homage to Danish artist Danh Vo (b. 1975, Bà Rịa, Vietnam) and a rendering of Take My Breath Away (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9—May 9, 2018)

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Installation view: Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9—May 9, 2018. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017

As enticing as it is to walk the sloping, spiraling ramps of the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda and commence a contemplative eye-rumination of Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Vo’s exhibition entitled Take My Breath Away—a most complete survey of the full spectrum and appraise of his fifteen years of oeuvre—, I dwell across the main floor and delay my inaugural art exhibition in the “Big Apple” with an eight dollar glass of Italian wine. The museum’s tall ceiling and white walls become louder as the people enter—what Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, calls—the “uncovered oculus”. Some members and invitees are already ascending the circular corridor and have begun interacting with the choreography of the installation—curated and organized by Katherine Brinson, with the help of the artist, Susan Thompson and many others. But I stand still, in the corner, near the drinking booth, seemingly composed, trying not to divulge an over excitation of the scene I’ve arrived upon—I think it’s valid to reiterate here the fact that this is my first art exhibition in New York, as well as the first art exhibition I’ll be writing about.

Everyone at the museum is dressed to the nines, which enhances the curiosity in the air to discern, behold, rationalize, philosophize, contemplate, assume, deduce, identify what Trung Ky-Danh Vo Rosasco Rasmussen’s art is all about. I’d say my attire is more like semi-elegant, as I’m wearing my dirty, all black high-top converse; so, in my fortunate case, it’s the red wine that enhances my curiosity. I sip the last drop in front of the corridor’s security guard, nod towards him with gratitude, throw the plastic cup in the nearest trash can and begin walking up the rotunda.

As I ascend, I notice a general, shared particularity in the public: they all seem perplexed as the objects presented in this uniquely accommodating venue rarely connect with each other. Notwithstanding their inexperience of his oeuvre, seldom the public does grasp the meaning the artist intends to channel by interpreting the intrinsic manner and natural character of the symbology in the object being presented: letters Henry A. Kissinger wrote addressing his appetite for the arts at a time of war; a cardboard box redesigned into a golden American thirteen star colony flag. What they do not notice are the objects’ personal partnerships and entwined narratives with the artist. Danh Vo speaks to this in an interview about the exhibition Hip Hip Hurra at the Statens Museum for Kunst National Gallery of Denmark. He states, “I think that one of the most beautiful things about an exhibition is going off track, getting lost for a bit and asking a lot of questions. If that happens, I think it’s been a successful exhibition.” Danh Vo is not the type of artist who’s impressively incisive in his deliverance of context and stories surrounding the objects. On the contrary, he merely bridges the gaps between the presented objects and his subjective intervention; showcasing the intersection of broader, diverse historical themes in seemingly mundane, banal objects that hold personal experiences.

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Installation view: Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9—May 9, 2018. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017

Along the way, having almost spiraled two floors, I encounter one of the security guards whose job is to prevent the public from touching the pieces. This specific piece is the historically famous chandelier which suspended gloriously from the former ballroom at the Hôtel Majestic, Paris, where the 1973 Peace Accords to end the Vietnam war were signed. I introduce myself to the security guard, whose name is Miah. I ask him if he knows of the chandelier’s story. He says he doesn’t. At that exact moment, I realized that many, if not all, attendees at the exhibition did not possess the political, historical and intimate informed factors that unravel the cultural critiques, social pressures and burdened desires the artist had, consciously, bestowed upon the artwork.

As I share the story of the chandelier with Miah, elaborating upon the fluctuation of meaning the artist conveys in specific installations, I observe my surroundings and notice that many attendees are behind me listening closely at the story I’m telling to the overjoyed wonderment of the security guard. Miah kindly expresses his thanks after I’ve concluded the telling. We trade phone numbers, and he even asks me to take a photo of him next to the chandelier. Later on, while I continue up the circuitous corridors, I text him the photo and ponder on what has just occured. We both hold a moment in time, a photography of him next to a sculpture which, in parallel, correspondingly holds a moment in time. We formed, through this circumstance, a simple, intimate collaboration, which contributed more combinations of stories to the chandelier. This situation borders on the juxtaposed parallel with Danh Vo’s proclivity to acts of collaboration. Katherine Brinson writes—in her most recently published book, commissioned by the Guggenheim and with the same title as the ongoing exhibition—, “Almost all of his art is a combination of his and other people’s work. The gold leafing was done by craftsman in Thailand; the mammoth bones acquired from a fishing family in the Netherlands; he has worked with performants and musicians […]”.

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Photography: courtesy of Xavier Hufkens Danh Vo The End, 2014. Ink drawing and gold leaf on cardboard Budweiser box. 40 x 40 x 27 cm | 15 11/16 x 15 11/16 x 10 5/8 inches

Danh Vo’s work does imply a collaboration, as he has done multiple times with his father, Phung Vo, through the exercise of his elegant penmanship. Phung Vo’s skilled calligraphy amazingly mimetized the last letter that Théophane Vénard, a French missionary martyr working for the imposition of Christianity in a Vietnam not yet under French colonial domination, wrote to his father before being executed. He has also collaborated with other artists and photographers who have gifted him the usage of their art in order to address certain personal and historical narratives. Although, purposely knowing the plundering motifs his work is fixated on, it’d be more accurate to say that Danh Vo specifically employs into 2.2. 1861 the appropriative method his father’s collaboration has embedded in itself—Phung Vo’s exact, visual transcription of Vénard’s letter without knowing how to read or write the French language—, as it was, and is, parallely analogous with the blindly methods of a missionary in a foreign country.

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Danh Vo, 2.2.1861, 2009. Ink on paper, writing by Phung Vo, 29.6 x 21 cm, open edition. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. © Danh Vo

I will also allude to the fact that most of Danh Vo’s artwork is a product of chance. Similar to what occurred with Miah, as it was essentially pure  chance that he was entrusted with the attendance to this opening exhibition, that he was working that February 9 th evening and, luckily, that he was  given the task to guard the chandelier for the night, where I met him. Danh Vo, while living in Pacific Palisades (California) at the Villa Aurora artist  residency, met Joseph M. Carrier, an American military analyst in the Vietnam war. Carrier made an impression on Danh Vo by pronouncing his  came with the correct Vietnamese phonetics, a rather rare occurrence, as the letter D sounds like a Y. After further questioning, Carrier told him all  bout his travels and knowledge of the Vietnamese culture. Danh Vo, who had lost all physical and mental contact with the country he had left  behind, yearned to learn about his own heritage and lost culture through the anecdotes Carrier had experienced in his 11 years in Vietnam. They
eventually ended up traveling to Vietnam together. One day, while strolling through the streets in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Carrier made a particular commentary which Danh Vo, in a way, had been looking for all his life. He commented on the casual custom the Vietnamese men had of walking hand in hand. This surprised Danh Vo to the point that he felt the necessity to document it with his camera. Subsequently, after arriving back in California, Carrier gifted Danh Vo many black and white film negatives, letters, diaries, war reports, tickets, passports and other objects from the period of his sojourns in Vietnam.

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Danh Vo: Army Boys, Quy Nhon, 1966, black-and-white. Photograph: Joseph Carrier, from the installation “Good Life”, 2007. Courtesy Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

This archive became the source of one of Vo’s most personal installations as it addresses homosexuality inside Vietnam through Carrier’s erotic gaze; a foreign and even hidden platonic reality which Danh Vo desired to unravel and reconstruct for a long period of time. It was only chance, only pure luck, that gifted him the opportunity to meet Joseph M. Carrier at an exhibition the resident artists at Villa Aurora had put together. Susan Thompson writes, “He has spoken of them [the 12 black and white photographs presented at the exhibition, which carry the title Good Life ] as a mediated self-portrait wherein he identifies with both the photographer and the subjects.” Good Life is one of many of Danh Vo’s works of art in which the practice of reenacting historical or existing material is perceived, reevaluated and questioned. I believe this is Danh Vo’s signature practice, as this form of reenactment involves a personal and dependent interaction with matter and manner, beyond the exact or authoritative account of the story. In a sense, this is precisely what Danh Vo embarks upon in every piece of work. He imparts to the viewers and spectators a rendition of his surrogated autobiography, as he appoints objects, moments and memories to the layering of his fluid self.

Danh vo says, “I don’t really believe in my own story, not as a singular thing anyway. It weaves in and out of other people’s private stories of local history and geo-political history. I see myself as a container that has inherited […] these infinite traces of history without inheriting any direction. I try to compensate for this, I’m trying to make sense of it and give it a direction myself.” For the artist, the possession of these “infinite traces of history” serves to fill the lacunas of his identity. He addresses his “flux of self” through the substitution of his own history with the appropriation of the history of others’. It is only through this creative, therapeutic process of surrogation that his autobiography builds its own timeline and emancipates his-story.

By Michele Lorusso

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