Political histories interweave with personal narratives of familial displacement, queer loss and desire at the Guggenheim Museum, New York
Encountering the found objects, letters, certificates, photographs, sliced and sutured sculptures, installation pieces and wall texts that compose Danh Vo’s world of objects – currently on view in his mid-career survey, ‘Take My Breath Away’, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York – can be a disarming experience. His projects narrate a squalid form of Americana, wherein art object and artefact mirror the misuses of geopolitical power and channel the bureaucratic transactions of wealth and labour that fuel transatlantic colonialism, war and commerce. The exhibition presents Vo’s projects of the past decade in a sparse, understated arrangement plotted along the museum’s ascending rotunda galleries. Moving upwards, his works create chains of association between one another, as the recent political histories of the US and Vietnam weave in and out of Vo’s personal narratives of familial displacement, queer loss and desire. What’s so disarming, perhaps, is just how Vo stages these affective modes, partially diverting the viewer’s attention away from the purely aesthetic, or seductive, qualities of his work towards the conceptual and bureaucratic framework that confers meaning upon them. The pieces in this exhibition repeatedly point, through ample reading material, to the interpersonal, historical and institutional relations that shape the role of the artist – particularly the non-white artist, in Vo’s case – as well as the different kinds of authenticity, legitimacy and value that this work might otherwise command. Instead of engagingmore explicit forms of argument, like institutional critique or identity politics, Vo’s quiet but exhaustive research, his methods of salvaging and collecting and his obsession with US cultural production speak to the transactional procedures that underlie the formation of art and identity.
Vo, who now lives and works between Berlin and Mexico City, was born in 1975 to Phung Vo and Hao Thi Nguyen in Bà Rja, a town south of Ho Chi Min City. In 1979, when Vo was four, this region was marked by upheaval along several fronts. The US government had finally pulled troops and funding from the country, and the nascent Socialist Republic of Vietnam was in full control of the north and south. In response to communist rule, Vo’s father built a wooden boat that was intended to take his family and their close relations to the US. A few days into their voyage, the refugees were picked up by Maersk, a Danish shipping conglomerate, which ferried them to Copenhagen, where they were granted asylum.
For one of Vo’s best-known works, 2.02.1861 (2009–ongoing), he records the traces of bureaucratic indifference that attach themselves to national displacement by employing his father to duplicate, once a month, the last letter written by a 19th-century French catholic missionary, Jean-Théophane Vénard, who was imprisoned and killed by the Vietnamese on the piece’s titular date. What, at first, seems like a conceptual gesture loaded with nostalgia for the idea of the homeland (the letter was Vénard’s last to France), the work is complicated by the fact that Vo’s father – a devout Catholic himself – does not read French. He performs the task of transcribing the letter not out of a religious devotion to a fallen member of the faith but, as the artist puts it, as a ‘pure act of labour’. Vo inverts the position of his father, who is unable to read the letter, with that of the museum visitor, for whom reading is an essential component in encountering the artist’s work. A Group of 4 Presidential Signing Pens (2013) presents four fountainhead pens, which, the viewer learns only after reading the accompanying wall text, were acquired at a Sotheby’s auction of former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara’s estate. With each encounter, these items, and their specific forms of presentation, force the viewer/reader to re-assess common objects through specific historic lenses: we can only imagine what orders John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson signed with those four pens.
Few of Vo’s objects rest easily outside the historical or political context from which the artist has pulled them. He writes in the exhibition catalogue that his parents arrived in Denmark without any documents or photographs, a personal and historical gap which speaks to Vo’s penchant for curation and collecting, for his desire to locate the objects that once adorned the daily lives of the American individuals responsible for that gap in the first place: ‘I don’t really believe in my own story,’ he states, ‘not as a singular thing anyway. It weaves in and out of other people’s private stories of local history and geopolitical history.’ This historical gap becomes a vortex – and, appropriately, a vortex within a spiral at the Guggenheim – for Vo’s delicate choreography of found objects. The questions raised by the void in Vo’s family documents extend to those he asks of larger institutions: not only of the powerful individuals who started and ended wars, but of the specific objects that adorned the rooms in which those decisions were made. We know what McNamara did, but do we know what he sat on? Vo stripped that very chair down to its wooden frame and set it against the wall. Nearby, its leather skin hangs by a single pin. Amongst the most striking works is 08:03, 28.05 (2009), one of three chandeliers that originally hung in the ballroom of the Hotel Majestic in Paris during the first signing ceremony of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which ended the Vietnam War. One chandelier is installed squarely in the centre of the promenade, midway up the museum, suspended by a single hook from the low ceiling, hovering just inches above the ground. A huge, glittering obstruction, it forces the viewer to walk around it.
Vo has curated a roster of films to screen at the museum during the exhibition. Each depicts familial relations strained by the obscure, often unintelligible motivations that undergirdpractices of rite and ritual. William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, a critical point of reference in several of Vo’s works, is screened along with the French-Belgian Rosetta (1999), directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, and Shôhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Vo’s use of The Exorcist places the archaeological and folkloric framing of Pazuzu – the demon of Mesopotamian origins at the heart of the film – at a remove and, instead, focuses on the specific sentences and threats the devil conjures as it inhabits the young Regan, played by Linda Blair. In the movie, Regan shouts obscene insults at her helpless mother, Chris, and an attendant priest: ‘Your mother sucks cocks in hell.’ Chris cries and begs her daughter to tell her what she needs; Regan reels, her head rotates, she projectile vomits. I feel something similar standing in front of Vo’s looming, death warrant of a chandelier.
‘What more do you want?’ Chris screams.
A gruesome, possessed Regan replies: ‘You can give me nothing more.
'Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away' is on view at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, until 9 May
Main image: Danh Vo, Das Beste oder Nichts, 2010, engine of Phung Vo's Mercedes-Benz 190, 66 x 102 x 206 cm. Courtesy: © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; photograph: Kristopher McKay