Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim proved a fitting setting for this mid-career survey of Danh Vo, its spiraling ramp and multilevel galleries complimenting the layered complexity that characterizes Vo’s examination of the intersection between private experience and broader social constructions of identity, colonialism, religion, war, and capitalism. Vo is a master at staging what he terms “tiny diasporas of a person’s life”—arrangements of mundane, ordinary objects that gain meaning through presentation, attribution, and association. Photographs, letters, and objects, meant to be examined up close in vitrines, were juxtaposed with numerous items installed along the ramp and in galleries and alcoves, including a Mercedes-Benz engine, household appliances, a typewriter, chandeliers, cardboard boxes, and pieces of sculpture, some enclosed in armatures, others assembled into hybrid figures or cut up and stuffed in suitcases and backpacks.
These combinations intertwined personal desire with larger public narratives. If you were to climb the Himalayas tomorrow (2006), a meticulous arrangement of a Rolex watch, Dupont lighter, and military class ring once owned by Vo’s father, resonates with aspiration to status, masculinity, and power. Suspended from an iron bar hung high in a tall gallery near the entrance, Christmas (Rome), 2012(2013)—14 pieces of faded velvet cloth from the Vatican Museum imprinted with the distinct shapes of the religious artifacts once placed on them—introduced the heavy weight of Catholicism that pervaded the show through numerous installations referencing martyrdom, torture, and death.
Other groupings presented items that Vo bought at public sales. Pen nibs used to sign official documents like the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty or the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to expand the war in Vietnam) were mounted and displayed under glass like fine jewelry. Elsewhere, one could read 14 handwritten notes on White House stationary from Henry Kissinger to New York Post theater critic Leonard Lyons thanking him for comp tickets as he contemplated the bombing of Cambodia.
Vo’s artful juggling of the multiple associations in each object often required the assistance of accompanying wall texts. Three late 19th-century chandeliers gain in significance through their previous installation in the ballroom of the Hôtel Majestic, where the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War were signed in 1973. Titled 16:32, 26.05;08:43, 26.05; and 08:03, 28.05 (all 2009) for the exact times and dates they were removed during a renovation, these fixtures, as redisplayed by Vo, offered a redolent history to be experienced in different ways— hung at eye level, encased in a glass-fronted box, or laid out in parts on the floor like fragments of an archaeological artifact. Stripped of historical context, the chandeliers could only present a sparkling, decorative reflection on events lost to time and memory. Vo’s ongoing project We the People, an exact replica of the Statue of Liberty, similarly overlaid reconstruction with destruction. Made in copper with the same repoussé technique as the original, parts of the hand, crown, robe, and head—just a few of the more than 300 pieces that make up the whole—spoke to broken promises of freedom and the fragility of American democracy through the dissonance of fragments.
While these installations propose an intimate view into broader historical events, as well as possible insight into Vo’s personal history, such evidence, as Vo constantly reminds us, is circumstantial, incom- plete, and subjective. However personal the item or reference, his purposeful appropriation layers and collapses narratives into a multiplicity of histories, discourses, and identities. A number of works reference Vietnam, where Vo was born, and the family’s later escape and resettlement in Denmark. We can gaze at a Christmas card of Vo and his siblings in Singapore and Grave Marker for Maria Ngô Th.i Ha. (2008), a cross made for his grandmother’s grave in Vietnam with calligraphy by his father Phung Vo. Even if viewed as poignant anecdotes of familial history, these objects and images are deceptive, because they also conceal trauma and the family’s vulnerability as colonial subjects displaced by war. Oma Totem(2009), an iconic stacked assemblage of a Philips television set, Gorenje washing machine, Bomann refrigerator, a wooden crucifix, and his father’s casino entrance card provides a counter-discourse, one that conflates the family’s survival with their faith in both religion and capitalism.
Vo persistently questions the reliability of evidence and the ties between ownership, authorship, and identity. In addition to displaying items bought at auction like the nibs and letters, the chairs that had been in President Kennedy’s cabinet room, or even Theodore Kaczynski’s Smith Corona Portable Typewrite r(2011), he also showed work done in collaboration with his family. Vo’s father was a particularly strong presence. His calligraphy executed in elaborate gothic or careful italic script could be found on walls, on gilded cardboard boxes, and on transcriptions of letters by Saint Jean-Théophane Vénard (1829–61), a French priest martyred in Vietnam. The complicated histories at play in these collaborative exchanges are particularly evident in Vo’s display of photographs drawn from the collection of Joseph Carrier, a counterinsurgency specialist from the Rand Corporation and later a field researcher on Agent Orange, who worked in Vietnam during the war years. Taken during the height of the war, these images of young Vietnamese men and boys holding hands in friendship mingles Carrier’s erotic gaze with Vo’s own, constructing a self-portrait that reflects back on the artist’s sexuality and early life in Vietnam.
Wandering up and down the ramp, viewers became both voyeurs and participants in Vo’s conceptual practice. Whether one ended at the top or the bottom of the Guggenheim’s spiraled interior, the many intersecting narratives on display lingered, continuing to evolve and devolve while remaining artful reminders of the politic of the personal.