DANH VOs Portentous Art
Mother Tongue and I M U U R 2
On ViewMarian Goodman Gallery
March 20 – April 27, 2013
On ViewThe Guggenheim
M U U R 2
March 15 – May 27, 2013
The titles of Danh Vo’s recent exhibitions I M U U R 2 and Mother Tongue at the Guggenheim and Marian Goodman Gallery provide the perfect entree to his practice and worldview. Steeped in relational aesthetics and viewer participation , Vo creates a conceptual platform that moves away from the strictly visual by using appropriation to explore politics and identity.
Vo won the Guggenheim’s 2012 prestigious Hugo Boss Prize for his installation of IMU UR2 that he mounted in honor of fellow artist Martin Wong. The exhibition presents Wong’s vast collection of objects, that he amassed over the years with his mother Florence Wong Fie. This body of material is displayed on specially made shelves in one of the museum’s annexes, like a repository of one man’s fascinations. Less about aesthetic splendor or a cornucopia of good taste, the installation showcases Wong’s interest in colorful objects. We encounter a veritable curio shop of sheets of Chinese, Arabic, and Tibetan calligraphy, delicate fans, printed cards, books, varied bright ceramic objects, blue and white Chinese porcelain bowls, wooden Hindu goddesses, African masks, Disney figurines, cheerful lunch boxes, and a kitschy lamp post of a layered wooden hamburger mounted on an elephant, among a host of other knick- knacks.
Vo’s presentation of this broad swath of cultural objects raises the question of his intention. Does his appropriation of Wong’s collection to construct a portrait of the deceased artist furtively inform Vo’s own identity, interests, and experiences? In a way, it does . Wong died from AIDS related complications in 1999 and his paintings of his marginalized life and support of the underdog in the Lower East Side overlap with autobiographical elements of Vo’s life as a Vietnamese refugee in Copenhagen.
This endeavor blurs boundaries between the two individuals, making Wong’s message on his calling card “I am you, you are too” (I M U U R 2) an ideal description of Vo’s efforts. By filling the white cube with these relatively unremarkable objects Vo references contemporary politics vis-à-vis marginalized populations. Without labels to indicate why certain objects were chosen and grouped together, Vo creates a circumstance that is left entirely up to the viewer’s interpretation.
For Vo, it is important that the viewer works to create meaning from his art. In this instance, the recreation of Martin Wong is contingent upon the relationship between the artifacts and the viewer, who must act as the discerning historian or archeologist. Similarly, in Mother Tongue Vo appropriates and reconfigures objects that he purchased from an auction of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s estate. Presidential signing pens, chairs from the White House, historical documents, and gifts to Mr. McNamara from Vietnam during his escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War are some of the objects on view.
While these objects serve as a way of repositioning episodes from the checkered history of Southeast Asia, they also allude to Vo’s connection to his past and present. Implicit in his practice of disassembling important historical artifacts is the act of deep subversion. We see Vo’s telltale sign of inverting power relationships when he takes apart the chandelier that hung in the room in Paris where the peace treaty was signed between North and South Vietnam, removes upholstery and cushioning from the Chippendale chairs in the White House of the ’60s, or pulls out the nibs from important signing pens of the same period.
In Mother Tongue, heaps of dark black cushioning and binding thread from the grand Chippendale chairs lie powerless and impotent on the gallery floor. Leather from the upholstery is hung from the walls like a slaughtered animal. “A group of 4 presidential signing pens,” (2013) presents nibs from presidential signing pens, alongside documentation to increase American military aggression, in small vitrines that have been installed in the walls. This juxtaposition of delicacy and machismo points to the precariousness, and, by extension, the tenuousness of high-level political decision- making.
Through the process of deconstruction, we are led to question whether these artifacts have the power to exorcise history’s ghosts or if they might lead to a better understanding of historical situations . Vo’s aggregation of mutilated fragments raises questions about the fluidity of historical truth and the abstract concept of freedom, especially in the context of the Vietnam War.
His appropriation also sheds light on how geography can play an important role in the way artists define themselves and their work. The material references Vo’s life story of escaping from a Vietnamese refugee camp in a boat with his family and his consequent upbringing in Copenhagen after being picked up by a Danish commercial liner. The issue of Western imperialism that lurks beneath his work points to the notion that one’s identity can sometimes be shaped quite arbitrarily.
From this perspective, the title Mother Tongue quite appropriately speaks of his own deracinated history while bringing attention to his homeland. Yet Vo’s attitude and enormous irreverence during an interview at the Guggenheim with Julie Ault, a friend and fellow artist, undercuts the seriousness of his intent. Much like Maurizio Catellan, the “Italian provocateur and prankster,” Vo’s discussion of his work is at once humorous and profound.
By including works that are not a part of McNamara’s belongings Vo broadens his scope and introduces a lighthearted touch to the exhibition. Works such as “Untitled”(2013), made up of ten flattened, gilded Budweiser boxes, and “Promised Land”(2013), a Budweiser box inscribed with the phrase “promised land ” in his father’s meticulous calligraphy, are especially amusing. Reminiscent of Gabriel Orozco’s “Empty Shoe Box” (1993), the use of this banal, utilitarian object detracts from the earnestness of his purpose. Vo balances on the threshold of seriousness and silliness as he treads lightly between both positions in the exhibition. Ultimately the viewer must too, and it is this participatory element in both I M U U R 2 and Mother Tongue that allows for the full breadth of Vo’s double-edged undertaking to be experienced.