Anecdotes and evidence

The mid-career survey by Danh Vo, one of the most internationally celebrated Danish artists, hits his hometown with a pop song title. But is it a hit – or a self-congratulatory pat on the back?

Danh Vo, Take My Breath Away, installation view, National Gallery of Denmark, 2018. Photo: Nick Ash.

Take my Breath Away is a big deal. Coming from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York, Danh Vo’s mid-career retrospective at National Gallery of Denmark is extensive. It encompasses many major works, but also marks a homecoming of sorts, of one of Denmark’s most prolific and internationally acclaimed artists.

If there was any doubt about this, the catalogue makes very sure this message is delivered right from the outset in the form of acknowledgements to the lenders to the exhibition. It’s an impressive list of the most high-profile and powerful institutions of contemporary art of the western world: museums, dealers and collectors. An unabashed display of power which sits squarely within the familiar narratives of Danh Vo’s work: the story of his family’s flight from Vietnam by self-built boat, being picked up on a freight ship, the arrival in Denmark. In the past, his work has reflected very specific aspects of this narrative in precise poetic statements, often playing with erotic undercurrents, subverting the viewer’s expectations for grandeur or obvious emotional responses.

This show, an extremely professional and highly entertaining presentation (also thanks to a near-perfect exhibition guide that elucidates every exhibited work in clear language), is no exception. It is smart and fun, but also suffers from the maladies typical of this particular exhibition genre. Putting on a mid-career retrospective is a challenge for any contemporary artist, a balancing act on the thin line between vain self-historization and the opportunity to elaborate on an artistic narrative that opens up new perspectives and points to the future. The gist of an artist’s body of work may not always be encapsulated by simply presenting as much work as possible; sometimes a singular statement may be stronger. It’s not that less is always more, but the careful editing of his presentations has been a particular forte of Danh Vo’s in the past.

Danh Vo, Take My Breath Away, installation view, National Gallery of Denmark, 2018. Photo: Nick Ash.

That is why this exhibition appears excessive. Centered in the two main halls on the ground floor of the National Gallery, it takes over the central lobby and the “Sculpture Street”, the lofty space underneath the high glass ceiling which connects the museum‘s two structures: the historicist 19thcentury brick building by Vilhelm Dahlerup and G.E. Møller and the modernist 1998 extension by Anna Maria Indrio. Here the show is at its most fascinating.

But first let’s take a look into the main halls, where Vo displays his virtuosity in presentations. The right-hand hall is dark, the walls are mute grey and empty, yet illuminated by ceiling lights, making sure you don’t miss it. Individual works are picked out of the darkness to great theatrical effect. A central structure consists of a set of large industrial metal shelves arranged to a form a room inside the room, forming a veritable archive of the artist’s work. The source material for these consists of family and childhood photographs interspersed with historical objects, such as gothic wooden sculptures that the artist has had sawed into parts to fit into cabin luggage.

Some pieces are refreshingly dead-pan, such as Untitled (Safe) (2008), a big safe, presumably empty, which Vo’s father bought for the family’s flat in Copenhagen in optimistic expectation of future riches. His father’s dreams and aspirations inform many works in the show, such as If you were to climb the Himalayas tomorrow, 2008. It consists of a Dupont Lighter, an American military class ring and a Rolex watch that his father bought soon upon arrival in Denmark as symbols of masculinity and success in the western world.

Danh Vo, Untitled, 2009. Ink on paper. Handwriting by Phung Vo.

The elder Vo’s exquisite handwriting is a signature feature of his son’s work, as in a letter calligraphed by the artist’s father: its title, 2.2.1861, is derived from the date of the beheading of French missionary Théophane Vénard, found guilty of heresy in Vietnam. Days before his execution, he wrote this letter to his father from prison to say an affectionate and humble farewell. In Vo’s hands the work becomes a reflection on religion, colonialism and family relations. After all, Vénard has since been pronounced a saint, and the elder Vo was raised a Catholic. Vo’s father writes in a language he does not speak, and does so on accord of his son, a strange inversion of traditional power relations in a family by means of a text book example of alienated work. 

It is fun. But there are also works such as Theodore Kaczynski‘s Smith Corona Portable Typewriter, 2011, which is exactly what the title states: the typewriter on which “the Unabomber” wrote his notable manifesto. The artist bought it at an auction, and, voila, here it is, a spectacular fact with its own story, and as complex as it is, I can’t see what Vo adds to this item.

Of course, the artist is elaborating on his father‘s idolised vision of America, the land of plenty and of the free that led him to make up his mind to build a boat and try to bring his wife and kids there. Upon landing in a seemingly less glamorous, social-democratic Denmark, for his son, America became the utopian place its founding fathers envisioned, but also a utopia in the literal sense of the word, a place that does not exist. So anything contributing to the oscillation between the ideals that inform the American myths and American reality that shows American imperfection can become part of the backdrop of Danh Vo’s narrative.

Ted Kaczynski certainly believed in the American dream, his manifesto being essentially a warning that technological advances could destroy it. But is that sufficient grounds for Vo to simply sample and present historical objects?

Danh Vo, Archive of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962-1973, 2010. Photogravure, 180 x 450 mm.

The problem reappears in different places, where objects do not become artworks that initiate discourses, but remain trophies, mere markers of triumph. In the other hall, the spectacular chandelier under which the Paris peace treaty ending the Vietnam War was signed in 1973, titled 08:03, 28.05. (2009), or the display of letters exchanged between then national security adviser Henry Kissinger and New York Post theatre critic Leonard Lyons around the same time the treaty was signed. Vo built a little theatrical prop-like room for the letters, and the mise-en-scene helps expand the duration of the experience, but – so what? Are these more than merely trophy pieces?

There is a huge gap from Kissinger’s letters to the photographs of Joseph Carrier, which form the basis for the installation Good Life (2007). Presented in a series of vitrines incorporated in another mock-up of a room, his photographs of everyday life in sixties Vietnam shine like gems. Here the raconteur Vo demonstrates his skills at laying out a whole architecture of stories he discovered in these photographs: the young men observed in Vietnam, the photographer’s erotic projection on their masculinity, and finally the unlikely episode of the photographer meeting the artist and the twists and complications of their entangled biographies. This display reflects on interrelated levels of desire, infatuation, erotic attraction, destruction and exploitation, from the personal to the geopolitical. It may be the best individual work in the show. But the most playful, loose-knit and witty segment of the show is in the museum’s so-called “Sculpture Street”.

Danh Vo, Take My Breath Away, installation view, National Gallery of Denmark, 2018. Photo: Nick Ash.

Among planters containing herbs for the museum café, clusters of Isamu Noguchi’s iconic Akari lights, and furniture closely adapted from Enzo Mari‘s legendary Autoprogezione designs, the artist has arranged numerous plaster casts from The Royal Cast Collection. Each cast is placed on its own makeshift base, simple pallets or MDF structures hinting at the temporary quality of this display. Arranged to stand as solitary pieces or close together in groups, the casts are accompanied by their original labels from the Royal Cast Collection, which contain quite a bit of information.

One example is the cast of the visceral Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a lost Greek original. A life-sized naked mustachioed warrior with ruffled hair has dropped to the ground, blood gushing from a wound below his chest. With his sword lying next to him, his struggle to rise again appears doomed. The attached label, however, has little interest in this; instead it points to the figure’s right arm being not original but a reconstruction, attributed to Renaissance artist Michelangelo, no less.

In a similar vein, the label accompanying the cast of Myron’s iconic Discoboluscalls attention to it being a version with a wrong head, and that the original (which again was a Roman copy of a Greek original) was given to Adolf Hitler on Mussolini’s orders (and has since returned to Rome). Or the label for the Head of a Caryatid (a sculpted woman serving as support in architecture), which explains that women “fraternizing with Persians” in the ancient Greek town of Karya were sentenced to carry heavy loads.

Danh Vo, Untitled, 2001. Plaster copies for We the People (detail), 2011-16. Installation view, Take My Breath Away, National Gallery of Denmark, 2018. Photo: Nick Ash.

Accompanied by a snake, Minerva (Athena) Giustiniani carries a sphinx on her helmet, which, the label informs us, may refer to the goddess’ Egyptian origins, going on to say that: “Athena may not have had as white a complexion as a plaster cast makes us presume”. Which is not only valid for the plaster casts but also for the marble of the originals for that matter. The statement on the label is clearly a nod to the inherent Eurocentrism of early art history, in particular the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose descriptions of Greek sculpture informed the Neo-classicist ideal. Vo’s arrangement of the casts takes up this focus: the bodies on display complicate any notions of originality; they are inhomogeneous, fractured and reconstructed. They carry multiple narratives of displacements, contradictions and inconsistencies, yet still radiate beauty, strength and erotic energy. The works and their stories suddenly appear surprisingly contemporary, rephrasing the subject matter of the casts, thereby bringing them closer to the viewer.

A gigantic plaster finger among these works is not a cast from a classic sculpture, but one of several plaster pieces produced in preparation of what is probably Danh Vo’s best-known project We the People (detail), 2011–2016, a full-scale copy of the Statue of Liberty in 300 parts, produced over a five-year period in a workshop in China and now dispersed all around the globe. Formally the sculptures are amazing, the logistics of the whole project is impressive, but its symbolism rings a little hollow. After all, who has the liberty to acquire one of the three hundred pieces of this work?

Maybe it is romanticism on my part, but this framing of a discourse on liberty which We the People (detail) offers appears rather pretentious, while the displays of power in the context of this show and its publication come across as real – and chilling. It is certainly entertaining and thought-provoking, but take my breath away this show does not.