The work of Danh Vo (born in Vietnam in 1975, grown in Denmark, currently living in Berlin) conveys an intimate interpretation of political history. Six works from the Pinault Collection were included in the exhibition “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away,” at the Guggenheim in New York (February–May 2018) then at the National Gallery of Denmark, in Copenhagen.
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Director of the<br>
Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris
<span class="alinea"></span>A striking architectural design, especially one recurrently described as iconic, can easily overwhelm what it contains, lessening its impact. Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling Guggenheim is one of those buildings: it can distract from the works on display, to such an extent that a visit to the museum can feel like a casual stroll, rather than an esthetic experience. For this exhibition, which he curated himself, Danh Vo carefully considered the design of Wright’s building and made it his own through the scenography he devised, relying on his intuitive ability to stage powerful encounters. Each work in his exhibition led to the next, as visitors wound their way up and around the spiraling walkway, proceeding from one layer of memory to the next. Paradoxically, the restrictive architecture of this famously difficult space became, on this occasion, liberating. Vo did not opt for a spectacular installation, of the kind that eclipses the works themselves. Instead, he gave visitors the luxury of infinite time, creating a lucid continuum in which they could focus exclusively on his works.
<span class="alinea"></span>Six of these are on loan from the Pinault Collection. Created between 2012 and 2015, they represent, separately and together, fundamental steps in the evolution of Vo’s work, in both scale and content. One of the more discreet works, <i>Beauty Queen</i> (2013) is also the most explicit. Vo placed the torso of a seventeenth-century sculpture of Christ, made of oak, in a wooden crate, originally used to store bottles of condensed milk. The beauty and sensuality of the carved wood cause the viewer to momentarily forget the martyrdom of that twisted body. In this instance, the suffering body has been thoughtfully cherished, stowed away safely in this box. In Vo’s work, the presence of words is always meaningful. “Beauty queen,” “Carnation Milk,” and the two adjectives inscribed on the crate, “evaporated” and “unsweetened”: these words could be said to characterize Vo’s relationship to his work, to the fragments that he tirelessly recycles.
<span class="alinea"></span>Further fragments of Christ’s body appear in the large scattering of <i>Log Dog</i> (2013), a rhapsody of pieces strewn across a room, scattered, dismembered, torn by some chimera, yet intimately connected, recomposed by other means, with no deceptive sweetness. The same can be said of <i>Gustav’s Wing</i> (2013), another dismembered young body, its fragility emphasized. It’s “unsweetened,” like <i>Beauty Queen</i>.
<span class="alinea"></span>“Evaporated,” adds <i>Beauty Queen</i>, which applies as well to the religious objects, crosses, monstrances, chalices, wafer boxes, and reliquaries, whose outlines, exposed by the sun, create patterns on the large swaths of velvet wallcoverings from the Vatican Museum that constitute the work <i>Christmas (Rome) 2012</i> (2013): marks or scars of history, more vivid than their silver-gilt, gold, and silver originals. Here again, by virtue of a suggestive title, the traces left by the sun become relics, archives, testimonials, lives other than our own, than theirs, the anecdotal swept up by the universal, like these ready-mades, slow-motion photograms. In <i>Your Mother Sucks Cocks in Hell</i> (2015), its title a quote of a line from <i>The Exorcist</i>, spoken by the young girl possessed by the devil, Vo’s kindliness redeems the violence of these words, as he sweetly, almost delicately, brings together a fragment of a child’s legs from an antique Roman sculpture of brilliant white marble, with the crowned, hieratic face of a Gothic virgin from the late thirteenth century, embodying maternal gentleness. Combining the pagan and the religious in a work with a blasphemous title, Vo reconstructs a work while also showing a world rich in contrasts.
<span class="alinea"></span>A regular visitor of the Guggenheim, as he or she ascends the winding stairway, pausing near one work or another, might for the first time establish a connection between the space and a book by writer Diane de Margerie, <i>Dans la spirale (In the Spiral)</i>, published in 1996. As she copes with bereavement, the author attempts to understand those fragments of life and of the soul, of which we are constituted from childhood and even before, “the tiny diasporas of a person’s life” so important to Vo. She describes how important it is to take the risk of entering into this spiral of destiny, to abolish the separation between the living and the dead. Vo’s work testifies to the same kind of unity, creating a whole out of fragments and experiences, as scattered as the light striking the crystal drops of the chandeliers of the Majestic Hotel where the Paris Agreement was ratified in 1973, transmitting a sharp, lucid, and humanist vision of the world.