Danh Vō

Danh Vō's incorporation of the collection of late artist Martin Wong into his work forms part of Barbican Art Gallery's new exhibition Magnificent Obsessions. Read our profile of the artist, from the May 2013 issue

By Laura McLean-Ferris

We The People (detail), 2011-2013. Factory view, 2012. Photos by Danh Vo Oma Totem (installation view) Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2011 Chung ga opla (installation view Villa Medici, Rome), 2013. Photo: Roberto Apa. Chung ga opla (installation view Villa Medici, Rome), 2013. Photo: Roberto Apa. The Hugo Boss Prize 2012: Danh Vō, I M U U R 2 (installation view)photo: David Heald, 2013, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Danh Vō’s We The People (2011–) is a full-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. Made in China, it was beaten out in copper, piece by piece, but never assembled into a whole, and now lies scattered around the globe in the galleries of collectors and institutions: a toe here, an eye there, the torch somewhere else. It functions as a splintered counterobject to the original, which was designed by Frédéric Bartholdi, and finally finished in 1886 after years of planning, fundraising and fabrication.

Whereas that statue came to symbolise American ideals about freedom, self-creation and immigration, Vō’s sculpture-in-pieces speaks to ideas about the contemporary immigrant subject, while simultaneously operating as a symbol of the exported culture of modern America – particularly when one appraises what that country might stand for from afar. Indeed, the meaning of ‘American’ freedom, and the symbolism used to express it have been altered and reconstructed many times since the fracture of the original statue and the founding adoption of the US Constitution (in 1787), the first line of which gives Vō’s work its title.

Vō’s Statue of Liberty project is now drawing to a close – the fabrication team worked on Liberty top down and bottom up, creating the middle pieces last: “They’re doing the armpit now, which is definitely the best part of it,” says Vō from New Orleans when I talk to him over Skype in February. The artist himself, a refugee from Vietnam who was raised in Denmark, does not have a fixed address, and tends to view nationhood, identity, profession and practice as inevitable traps best avoided for as long as possible.

He is en route to New York when we speak, in the midst of an intense schedule of solo exhibitions: first at Marian Goodman Gallery and in April at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum – where he is presenting an exhibition as the 2012 winner of the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize, awarded biennially. These quickly follow two solo exhibitions earlier this year: Chung Ga Opla at Villa Medici in Rome and Gustav’s Wing at Culturgest Porto. Then, in May, several components of We The People will be brought together as part of a major solo exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and Vō will participate in this summer’s Venice Biennale.

When developing the initial idea for We The People, Vō had not seen the Statue of Liberty, and he remembers the moment at which he finally went inside the statue and discovered how fragile it was – only 2mm thick – as one in which the idea to create the body as a series of fragments seemed “obvious” to him.

“One can only create a project such as this if you see the fragility of it,” he says. And yet he describes the long process of creating this massive broken colossus as “overwhelming and exhausting”, and seems excited to involve himself in a new body of work. “I was not created to make these great monuments of things, I think,” he concludes. The project did arise, he acknowledges, from his propensity to swing from one extreme to another; We The People came into being after a curator suggested that Vō was very adept at filling exhibition spaces using a small amount of material.

For his first show at Goodman, with whom he started working last year, Vō has acquired some objects from a recent Sotheby’s auction of the possessions of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (crucially, during the outbreak and escalation of the war in Vietnam).

Among these items were a 1944 Ansel Adams photograph of a clearing storm in Yosemite National Park and McNamara’s ceremonially engraved pen, used to sign the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which paved the way for America’s military intervention in Vietnam. “It was Marian who went to the auction,” explains Vō. “I thought that it was very important that she be a part of negotiating what would be part of it. After all, it’s more her history than mine. Because she has lived it.”

The pen acts as both a silent agent-object and a historically drenched readymade, of which Vō has employed several in his work over the years. He bought the typewriter on which Ted Kaczynski (otherwise known as the Unabomber) wrote his manifesto ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’, as well as the three chandeliers that hung in the ballroom of the Hotel Majestic in Paris, where the signing of the Paris Peace Accords ended official military intervention by the US in Vietnam in 1973.

These he subsequently incorporated into exhibitions, dismantling one of the chandeliers before methodically placing each component on the floor as a contribution to a drawing show at MoMA in 2009, and hanging another from the grand ceiling of the Kunsthalle Basel for his solo exhibition Where the Lions Are in the same year.

historical objects are commonly displayed as part of a constellation of fragments

However, all three will be reunited – for the first time since the hotel was demolished, and 40 years after the signing of the agreement – in Vō’s Paris show. In discussing the pen, he zooms in on the minute point at which the ink flows from its vessel and becomes transformed into a history of war and bloodshed: “I’m more interested in just the tip of it, where you still can see the ink.”

In Vō’s art, historical objects are commonly displayed as part of a constellation of fragments, often involving the work of another artist or the cooperation of a friend or, more recently, family member. The artist tends to pair a long, telescopic view of the world and of its historical events with an extreme personal closeup.

In Oma Totem (2009) he stacked five items – a washing machine, a television, a fridge, a crucifix and an entrance card to a local casino – that his grandmother was given by the Immigrant Relief Programme and the Catholic church following her arrival in Germany from Vietnam in 1980 into a kind of fetish totem to objects of Western worship.

He has since made a tombstone for his grandmother depicting the same five items in marble (Tombstone for Nguyen Thi Ty, 2009). Eight of Vō’s nieces and nephews were given the freedom to draw all over the walls at the recent Villa Medici exhibition, on the proviso that they include certain quotes from David Bowie, Emile Cioran and Antonin Artaud.

It is the artist’s father, Phùng Vō, however, who is the most regular presence in his work, and it is his American dream that remains a regular grace note, discernible in We The People as an object of inspiration and aspiration. As it is customarily reported when discussing the artist’s work, Phùng Vō decided to leave Vietnam in 1979, following the fall of Saigon in 1975, which had seen the Vōs evacuated to the island of Phu Quoc, where Danh was born, and where they lived in extremely poor conditions.

"I don’t believe in ‘bridges’ in general. I think that maybe the beauty of things is that we can accept to do things together, to be together, whether that’s me and my father, or a stranger or my gallerist, or friends"

Vō’s father built a wooden boat and attempted to use it to get to America, taking with him 100 refugees and the young Danh (who was then four), before the vessel was rescued by a Danish commercial tanker. The refugees were taken to Denmark and were granted citizenship of that state.

Though America and Vietnam were in conflict, Vō’s father idealised US culture from afar, and Vō has appropriated for his installations several of the possessions that Phùng strove to acquire after leaving Vietnam. The objects are revealing in terms of the elder Vō’s ideas about American masculinity and success: a Mercedes-Benz car engine in Das Beste oder Nichts (2010); or a Dupont lighter, an American military class signet ring and a Rolex watch, which are collected in a vitrine in If You Were to Climb the Himalayas Tomorrow (2005).

The items in this last work have been acquired by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, contractually promised to the institution once Phùng Vō has died, as per his last will and testament. In the interim the Walker has a black tombstone laid in its grounds for Phùng Vō, which reads, in gold, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ (the epitaph of the Romantic poet John Keats), and which will be shipped to his resting place in Copenhagen following his death – the life, ambitions, death and body of a man here put into the play of the art system by his son.

Vō has also been employing Phùng Vō’s talents as a skilled calligrapher to handwrite copies of letters for several years (he is contractually obliged to write certain letters on demand until his death). The letters are chosen by the artist and are always written in languages that his father cannot understand. Among these are the last letter written by the missionary Saint Théophane Vénard to his father, in 1861, before he was beheaded in Vietnam.

Vénard might be seen as representing another form of export: as a nominated body of the church sent out to spread the word of God, and to preach a specific form of ideology, he came into conflict with another ideology, which resulted in a literal split of his body. More fragments of bodies and ideologies left around the world.

Within this positioning of fragments one is made aware of the multitude of decisions informing individuals on a micro and macro scale

Vō’s father has even lately been executing larger wall-based writing commissions for his son that require him to travel around the world to institutions and galleries. I quiz Vō on the understanding his elderly father has of the tasks that the artist employs him to undertake: “But that’s the beauty of the whole project, I think: there is no understanding,” he exclaims. “The problem comes in anytime that we think art is ‘bridging’ something.

I don’t believe in ‘bridges’ in general. I think that maybe the beauty of things is that we can accept to do things together, to be together, whether that’s me and my father, or a stranger or my gallerist, or friends. That we stay together through all these differences. And that is what I think makes this work with my father so beautiful, because there is no understanding – just pure economy and practicality.”

Vō’s work is very graceful in execution, remixing the bureaucratic aesthetics of conceptual art – letters, legal contracts and systems – with ornate material such as chandeliers, calligraphy and drawings of flowers. However, this is politically driven work, a form of post-romantic Conceptualism, which takes up a lineage carved out by the likes of Felix Gonzalez-Torres – Vō was one of the three guest curators (along with Tino Sehgal and Carol Bove) during the 2010 touring retrospective of Gonzalez-Torres’s work. He also mentions in conversation that his teacher Julie Ault, who like Gonzalez-Torres was a member of Group Material, was the one who “raped my brain”.

It’s important to emphasise the uneasy balancing act the artist makes between objective coolness and personal heat, and the way in which a controlled form of intimacy functions as a tool to communicate the way that individuals are formed within the vicissitudes of history. The mortality of the artist’s family members turned into art objects, a description of a work that replaces the relationship between father and son as “pure economy and practicality” – these artworks have a distinct chill to them, and yet, in many ways it’s this bureaucratic approach to a filial bond that allows something “beautiful”, as Vō puts it.

Within this positioning of fragments – a missionary, a son, a death, a movement between countries, an object from history, say – one is made aware of the multitude of decisions informing individuals on a micro and macro scale. Fragments and traces of laws, wars, religions, political and economic systems all have their part to play in one of Vō’s installations, and they are presented in a way that allows us to respond with some emotion, and yet it’s not of the blinding sort, but rather allows a simultaneous engagement with the formation of human subjects – a process that is affected by other humans. Questions of “economy and practicality” are often some of the most difficult to answer, and yet they are the most humane ones to ask.

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is at Barbican Art Gallery through 25 May 2015