Wish You Were Here

John Haber
in New York City

Danh Vo

Danh Vo appears just once in his retrospective, "Take My Breath Away" at the Guggenheim. He appears modestly enough at that, as a child of four in a family photo from 1979.

It comes with a greeting, for a merry Christmas and a happy new year. He might have sent the card to all his friends, along with a wish that they were here. And Vo might have cherished this one copy for nearly forty years, for the fond memories of a joyful season and the innocence of youth. He might have slipped this in about halfway up the ramp, as a welcome relief from more imposing objects and thoughts. He might, that is, but for one thing: they were boat people from Vietnam, in a refugee camp in Singapore with, as yet, nowhere to go. from Danh Vo's We the People (Brooklyn Bridge Park/City Hall Park, 2010–2014)

Vo's work is like that: what at first appears merely puzzling has a story to tell, and what appears innocent rarely is. And what appears strictly personal is caught up in the wider arena of family and country. Make that countries, for Denmark accepted them soon enough, and Vo calls himself a Danish artist to this day, although he divides his time between Berlin and Mexico City. Where others might see refugees, he sees dispersal—much like the dispersal of art objects and their meaning into the world. He also sees that meaning as wrapped up in the uneasy zone between individual and collective memory.

Family, religion, and country

Actually, Danh (pronounced "yahn") Vo appears everywhere in his retrospective, if not in person. He includes his marriage and divorce certificates from two marriages now. He includes wood and chains collected outside his home. He includes, too, a transcript of an interview him, covering sixty sheets. More broadly, he appears through those proxies of family, country, and dispersal. He is obsessed enough with all three to have acquired quite a historical record.

He returns more than once to his grandmother, with a seated photograph and a grave marker. He returns more often still to his father, who has become a collaborator. He displays his father's Rolex, plus a certificate of repair, and the battered engine from his father's Mercedes. The older man's most cherished objects have become his. His father also transcribed that interview—in a cursive that the viewer, like Vo, can only admire. His father etched the show's title in a window facing the street as well.

Vo dedicates himself to family in another way through its religion. He collects fragments from medieval sculpture in wood, and that grave marker is a cross. He also creates a brief history of Catholic missionaries in Asia in the nineteenth century. They appear in a photograph, and their botanical studies have become wall drawings. Tibetan monks executed a fair share of Catholics, and Vo's father transcribes a last letter, too. Like the handwriting, it attests to a peace with the world he would be hard pressed to emulate.

Once again, though, things are less innocent than they appear. The artist is gay, and those marriages were of legal and practical convenience. A bay of the Guggenheim is an odd place for a grave, and a stacked washing machine and old TV are an odd frame for Jesus on the cross. Vo gives his medieval Madonnas the feet of ancient Greek statuary and a sarcophagus as a container. He also assigns them such titles as Your Mother Sucks Cocks in Hell, from The Exorcist, and the exhibition title quotes Top Gun. It may or may not help that, Vo swears, he watched those movies with family.

For him, popular and consumer culture are just one more aspect of collective memory, although a tarnished one. His father's watch and car are luxury goods, and the engine bears a title out of an ad for Mercedes-Benz: in English, The Best Is Nothing. Read it as a celebration or a denigration of luxury. Here, as elsewhere, Vo stops just short of sarcasm before reliving the personal. He does so more pointedly when he comes to the war in Vietnam.

From the museum's rotunda, one can see an ornate chandelier on the ramp far overhead. Up close, it hangs perilously close to the floor. It also once graced the grand hall where America and Vietnam signed the accord of the Paris peace talks. The tall gallery just off the rotunda has another souvenir of war, but more ravaged. A dismembered Chippendale chair once brought together President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Its leather on the facing wall could pass for a carapace.

Divesting memories

These objects seem anxious to divest themselves of memories of war. So do thank-you notes from Henry Kissinger to the publisher of the New York Post, for recommended reading and exclusive tickets to Broadway and the dance. "I would choose your ballets over contemplation of Cambodia any day," and one can only wish that he had. One can only wish, too, that McNamara had taken himself home along with the chair, a gift from Jacqueline Kennedy after the president's death, rather than advise Lyndon Johnson on the war's escalation. Does Vo, too, want to remember or to forget? His retrospective is not saying.

The chair, like the chandelier, was part of a set, and the remains of the rest lie further up the ramp. They epitomize an art of dispersal—much like a father's belongings and further gifts to McNamara. So in a different way do carry-on bags that Vo used to take home those scattered Madonnas. So most dramatically does a full-scale reproduction of the copper skin of Lady Liberty. One first encounters a broad fragment, identified only as We the People. By the show's end, the pieces have not come together, but they have taken shape, ending with the statue's firm hands.

Dispersal means that the retrospective cannot proceed chronologically. Besides, Vo is returning to the scene of the crime. He has exhibited at the Guggenheim on a smaller scale on winning the Hugo Boss Prize—which has had other Asian winners in Rirkrit Tiravanija and Anicka Yi. This time the curators, Katherine Brinson with Susan Thompson, give him the run of the museum, and he takes advantage of it. He clears out the rotunda, replants the foliage, and uncovers the Frank Lloyd Wright oculus. By the topmost tier of the ramp, the light can indeed take your breath away.

Dispersal is a two-way street. With "The Third Mind" at the Guggenheim in 2009, American artists contemplated Asia, and now Vo contemplates Southeast Asia and America. He seems drawn less to Europe than to the United States, where western migration reminds him of his own history. He tosses in pioneer tools and a photogravure, salvaged from a stereo view, of the Sierras covered with snow. A thirteen-star flag topped by military gear belonged not to an emerging nation, but to its centenary, after a civil war. Vo might again be thinking of his family in Vietnam.

He is at his best when he does. The tokens of America's west or of Théodore Géricault seem remote and perfunctory—and the long back stories sit uneasily with his stated hopes, in The New Yorker, that others will appreciate his art for itself. He does better when he allows the personal to collide with the political. He does better, too, when he transforms his materials. He purchased so much here, including the chandeliers and the chairs, at auction, only to throw it to the winds. A taller shard of We the People stood as 2014 summer sculpture in Brooklyn Bridge Park, like his own private Vietnam War Memorial, and it would look good there now.

Wang Jianwei at the Guggenheim, also in 2009, declared his work a "time temple," but Vo is out to defy linear time. That is not so easy. At its worst, it glides right over the human cost and human history. Just what role, one might ask, did each side play in the fall of Saigon, and what of other refugees today? At its best, though, the difficulty attests to Vo's inability either to put family and country behind him or to return home. What looks like appropriation, as for Robert Rauschenberg, is closer to both dedication and destruction.

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Danh Vo ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through May 9, 2018.


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