Danh Vo: In Memory of Forgetting
He is regarded as one of the most exciting young contemporary artists. At first, however, Danh Vo, who was born in Vietnam and grew up in Denmark, was like a phantom in the art world. In his installations he links aspects of his own adventurous life with excursions into war and colonial history. Daniel Völzke met the artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, in Berlin.
||The antiquated powder horns, the swords, the cookers and the colorful woven blankets look like they came from a souvenir shop. They seem harmless, because they are from another age, and can easily be categorized as "exotic". The objects that the artist Danh Vo bought from Internet auction sites and exhibited at the Kunstverein Brandenburg belonged to a Vietnamese mountain people who collaborated with the French colonial rulers and later with the GIs. You have to take a precise look at these things to understand their essence. The ornament on the blankets, for example, consists of tiny schematic representations of helicopters, bombs and guns.
A typical Danh Vo trick: The Danish artist of Vietnamese descent draws connections between the past (which for Vo primarily consists of a colonial and war history) and the present. In the process, he lays tracks that occasionally lead our expectations ad absurdum. This applies to the historical and cultural material he incorporates in his work as well as to his own life.
For a long time the artist's existence was scarcely more than a rumor, and his name was merely a promise, or a joke. Just three years ago, if you searched the Internet for photos from one Danh Vo, you found portraits of an Asian-looking schoolboy with a large pair of glasses. The man, an artist around 30 years old, remained virtually invisible. He invariably left only vague traces – in exhibition spaces or in interviews. If you wanted to read these traces, it seemed, you had to find out more about this person and his life.
Then, in 2006, Tobias Rehberger exhibited his sculpture American Traitor Bitch, a boat that Rehberger had built based on instructions from Danh Vo's father. Vo's family fled Vietnam in this boat in 1979; at least that's what Vo told his former teacher Rehberger at the Städel School in Frankfurt. A trace of his life, perhaps. When Danh Vo finished his studies, he sent his parents to attend the graduate ceremony at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and collect his diploma. The graduate himself stayed home. How could you comprehend someone who was absent, who didn't say anything!
With Danh Vo, who allegedly married several times for the sole reason of constantly lengthening his surname (the name next to his doorbell is "Ky-Danh Rosasco Trung"), you could never be sure about what was a charade and what were actual tracks. And this didn't change even after he had his first solo exhibition – which was highly acclaimed – at the Galerie Klosterfelde in Berlin. In the show, he documented how he had stolen a concept for an artwork from the office of the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset and used it to successfully apply for a grant in Denmark.
Today Danh Vo is no longer an enigma in the art world. The mystery has been revealed, the promise fulfilled. He was nominated for the two highest-endowed contemporary art prizes in Germany. He won the blueOrange prize in 2007, and his contribution to this year's competition for the National Gallery Prize for Young Art significantly enriched the selection. Kultur-Spiegel magazine devoted a cover story to him, and in the summer Kunsthalle Basel presented a solo exhibition dedicated to the artist concurrently with Art Basel, that each year draws the international art crowd the city. Suddenly Danh Vo was a household name.
Vo no longer has to peddle strange ideas to obtain support. "I wonder about all the attention I got" says Vo, who today is 34 years old and who, when talking about his art, no longer takes detours but gets straight to the point. His art has remained "tracked", however. Although the found photographs, documents and objects, and even plants that he exhibits in his installations are always aesthetically appealing, the visitor has to make an effort to cotton on to them.
"The museums want to make things easy for visitors, they have a specific idea of the audience and what it can tolerate. I had all kinds of fights with curators because everything wasn't explained from beginning to end," says Vo. The artist has become more easy-going, though, as if he has become assured that he doesn't have to conceal himself anymore, because the motives and feelings of a person can't be completely fathomed anyway. The more that is written about him, the more he disappears again behind the words. That is his subject: the fragility of the ego, cultural affiliation. But the fact that he negotiates this problem based on the history of Vietnam and his family has also been criticized: An art magazine once wrote that Vo is exploiting his life.
"Basically, the fact that the artifacts I exhibit are linked to my life is a production error," Vo avers. On display at the Kunsthalle Basel, for example, was a magnificent chandelier that had previously hung in the Majestic Hotel in Paris and was there even two years before Vo's birth when the Five-Point Plan was signed that was supposed to bring peace to Vietnam. This object is also tied to the fate of the Vo family: If this conference had not taken place, the Vos probably would not have fled the Communists. "These links to my personal life are important to me, but art has to transcend this level," says Danh Vo. "Just as a gravestone as a memorial has to point to something general."
With the work Oma-Totem (Grandma Totem) Danh Vo actually exhibited in Switzerland a copy of the tombstone that he had made for his grandmother. The gravestone is a cast of a sculpture composed of a refrigerator on whose door a crucifix is attached, a washing machine and a television. The appliances were gifts from the social welfare office that were given to every refugee upon arrival in Denmark. What arrangement had the woman made before her death? How can a lifeless object do justice to a lived life? "I relate biographies, but in such a way that I undermine the principle of biography," says the artist.
His origins and his flight from Vietnam are a kind of prehistory. After the Communists' victory and the fall of Saigon, the Vo family and 20,000 other South Vietnamese were brought in 1975 to the island of Phu Quoc. Following four years during which they struggled to survive, the father built a boat and the family set off to America. But a short time later a freighter belonging to the Danish Maersk shipping company fished out the refugees, and four-year-old Danh Vo become a Dane and not an American.
In connection with the blueOrange competition Vo did an edition with which he is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. The words "Weihnachten 1979" (Christmas 1979) are written under an old photograph. In the picture you see the four-year-old with his siblings in a refuge camp in Singapore, presenting devotional objects to the photographer. "Many people are puzzled by the Christian symbols, as though they were pressed into our hands at the camp. But when we arrived in Singapore, my family had been Catholic for a long time." Then he tells a long story about the first president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dhin Diem, about the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire in protest against the Catholics, and about his father becoming a Catholic to express his support for Diem. Danh Vo is particularly interested in such circuitous routes. Some would call such entanglements fate, but not a politically aware person like Vo. He is interested in making relationships visible.
The viewer notices this above all in the careful arrangements at the exhibitions, in the way in which the artist calls attention to things by giving them a lot of space, or, conversely, by declaring the interior and the surroundings to be an exhibition piece, for instance a wallpaper that the artist had had made. How he searches for a way to tell his stories appropriately. Stories that cannot be pinned down quickly. Stories that often deal with being on the move and in between.
Danh Vo's apartment in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin also has something temporary about it. In any case, it is not really furnished. In the rooms and on the balcony, which commands a view of an elevated rail line, he stores some things until they take on meaning, like the cross which the father had provisionally made for his grandmother's grave. Danh Vo likes the fact that his grandmother's Vietnamese name was written in Latin letters, and on a Christian symbol to boot. He likes the way language, symbols and shapes mutate and how these mutations manifest themselves in certain objects.
"It takes me a long time to understand some things," says the artist. That was the case with the chandelier, for instance. When he saw it, his father, with whom he had gone to Paris, exclaimed: "That should belong to the Queen of Denmark!" "The chandelier is so beautifully designed," the son reasoned from this reaction, "that you forget the story connected with it." And that is what interests him about such an artifact: that today it is a memento, a souvenir which actually is supposed to make you forget.
At bottom, all of the found pieces the artist exhibits are mementos that recall forgetting: War slumbers in these things, the past and the eternal perseverance of people. Danh Vo is the man that arouses these memories. One need only give him the attention he deserves.