Danh Vo’s history of the world in fragments
IN THE CORNER of a room, an American flag is disintegrating. Several stars have come loose and fallen to the floor. The flag is in tatters, you might say, except that Danh Vo’s version of the Stars and Stripes is made from firewood rather than fabric. Each day logs are extracted from the stack to fuel wood-burning stoves so that, by the presidential election, the flag will have gone up in smoke.
The Vietnamese-Danish artist has radically transformed the White Cube gallery in London, dimming the lights and installing a network of pipes to connect the stoves. Most strikingly, he has created a lush wildflower meadow—aphids, spiders and all—in the gallery’s largest space. Entitled “Chicxulub”, after the place in Mexico destroyed by an asteroid 66m years ago, the show invites its audience to contemplate histories, from the rise and fall of empires to details of the artist’s own past.
Mr Vo was born in 1975, a few months after the capture of Saigon by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Four years later, his family fled the country by boat. They were rescued by a Danish freighter and spent time in Singapore (a photo of the artist with his siblings in a refugee camp is included in the exhibition), before settling in Denmark. Having studied in Germany, Mr Vo has exhibited his work internationally, including a show at the Guggenheim in New York, and represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale in 2015.
His art consists of exquisite arrangements of fragments. He scours obscure auction houses, scooping up the head of a bronze-age axe, a Roman foot, a Madonna, crucifixes and putti. Alongside the ancient are the trappings of global commerce: worn wooden boxes used to transport Coca-Cola, Beefeater Gin or Carnation Milk, sometimes gilded by the artist. “Danh Vo is a scavenger!” says Hannah Gruy, a curator at the White Cube.
The fragments often point to a darker tale: for example, the loveable Pekingese depicted in “Looty 1865” (2013) was a dog given to Queen Victoria after British and French troops looted the Summer Palace in Beijing during the second opium war. But it is always up to viewers to piece together the fragments for themselves. “I think there should be gaps, like when you edit a film,” says Mr Vo. “If you look at the work of Ingmar Bergman and other great directors, they edit so there is space for the imagination of the viewer. I work with sculptures and exhibition-making a little bit like that.”
One less enigmatic fragment in the show is “2.2.1861” (2009), an elegant piece of calligraphy. A copy of a letter written by Jean-Théophane Vénard, a Catholic missionary executed in Vietnam in 1861, it is the work of Phung Vo, the artist’s father and a professional calligrapher. The elder Mr Vo transcribed the letter initially without understanding French, only later discovering its poignancy. Nonetheless it had special significance for him, since he had converted from Confucianism to Catholicism in the 1960s following the assassination of South Vietnam’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Affected by his father’s “silent protest”, Mr Vo remained a dutiful churchgoer until his late teens. “By then I’d learnt that God didn’t like gay people,” he says with a smile. He still finds Catholic imagery seductive, but often addresses the faith’s violent history in his work: a Madonna with a severed head stands on an axe-head. Elsewhere he has “trimmed” a bust of Christ to fit snugly in a box.
Art was once Mr Vo’s way of exploring the mysteries of life, including his own. “I still don’t understand what it means to take the decision that my parents and grandparents took—risking your family to go to a place that you don’t know anything about,” he says. “The art world was a perfect place to deal with that.” But in lockdown on his farm outside Berlin—where the exhibition was conceived and which provided the materials for his meadow—his perspective has changed. Living in the country between “the chickens and the compost station”, his belief that art could supply him with answers is fading. “Today I am in a different place—and I don’t remember being so happy in my life.” It will take time “to digest these experiences,” he says, unsure how much his new outlook will change his art-making. In the meantime, an exhibition planned for November will see his newfound joy in nature transform part of the Vienna Secession into a greenhouse.
Back in London, Mr Vo has helpfully constructed a timeline of empires for visitors, starting with Alexander’s defeat of the Persians around 330BC and ending with the fall of Japan and rise of America from 1945. What happens to the American empire after November 3rd is the question Mr Vo has left visitors to ponder.
“Chicxulub” continues at White Cube, London, until November 2nd. “Danh Vo” will open at Secession, Vienna, on November 20th and run until February 7th 2021
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/10/21/danh-vos-history-of-the-world-in-fragments
Selected by fonecable.com
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