NEW YORK — The Danish artist Danh Vo left Vietnam in 1979, when he was 4 years old. His family fled the war-torn and repressive country in a handmade boat with 117 people on board and were rescued at sea by a Danish freighter. They resettled in Copenhagen, where they built a life suspended between cultures and marked by the whims of historical forces.
Vo’s work, which now fills the rotunda galleries of the Guggenheim Museum, is a memoir in objects, a memoir that is indecipherable without extensive footnotes. He begins with an axiomatic assumption: that the self isn’t just “a parcel of vain strivings,” as Thoreau once wrote, but essentially a fiction. To the extent that Danh Vo exists, he is a product of where he came from, the governments that have shaped his life, the social and cultural forces that have left their impress, the desires he has felt, the things that he has collected. None of this is “bond together,” as Thoreau thought or hoped; rather, it is spread out, piece by piece, in seemingly random objects spread along the ascending spiral ramp of the museum’s atrium space.
Look through the footnotes, however, and the apparent randomness disappears. What emerges is a picture of how a great, corrupted empire, projecting its force and its hollow idealism around the world, can shape the lives of people even on its farthest peripheries. “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away” is a powerfully sad show about power, America, colonialism and desire.
It includes a collection of photographs of young Vietnamese men holding hands that the artist acquired from an American anthropologist who worked on counterinsurgency programs in South Vietnam during the war; chandeliers that hung in the Parisian hotel where the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973; White House Cabinet room chairs gifted to Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara by Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s assassination; and 14 letters written to a prominent theater critic by Henry Kissinger, who led a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia that was one of the most shameful acts of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
Not everything Vo collects is so intimately tied to the Vietnam War. He also deals with sexuality and religion, especially Catholicism, which played a key role in the colonization of Vietnam, the oppression of LGBT people and the spread of HIV during the 1980s and ’90s. His family is a recurring subject, especially his father, Phung Vo, who hand-draws elaborate calligraphy messages that are a theme of his son’s installations. Desire and death are seen in multiple ways, residing in such things as a medieval statue of Saint Joseph, cut into pieces and tucked into regulation size airline carry-on bags; a cast of his partner’s feet; tombstone markers he has fashioned for his family; and images of grisly executions of Christian missionaries in Vietnam. Sometimes, multiple skeins of his collecting come together, as in an elegant, seemingly commercial window display of his father’s watch, cigarette lighter and an honorary American military ring — eliciting thoughts about the desire for luxury objects, the connection to family, the way possessions might define us and the American military adventure, extended through time and prosecuted with fire.
This kind of art can be excruciatingly hermetic and solipsistic, and as visually interesting as sorting through someone else’s attic. There is an annoying tendency among artists and curators to pretend that merely juxtaposing objects is somehow an argument, or worse, a way of “interrogating” or “questioning” power structures.
Vo’s work transcends the usual limitations of memoir art, perhaps because he has uncanny power when it comes to the choice of what to collect and display. Faded velvet hangings from the Vatican Museums retain the shadowy outline of the objects that were displayed in front on them, like ghostly photographs that recall the artist’s metaphysical sense of the self as merely a collection of impressions. The Kissinger letters — light, short, friendly notes written during the height of the war — are full of small revelations about one of the most controversial personalities of the century. “Many thanks for the tickets to ‘Hello Dolly,’ ” he writes, and then says in reference to an offer of a ballet performance, “I warn you, I’m insatiable.”
Vo also seems to have transferred whatever he has suffered, and whatever anger he might feel, into the objects themselves, which are tempered by a distinctly bittersweet and humane acknowledgment of both human love and cruelty. A recurring icon in many of his installations, and at the Guggenheim, as well, is a letter (hand-copied by his father) written by a French Catholic missionary before he was executed in Hanoi in 1861. The letter reveals a sensitive young man, deeply devout, with an endearing poetic gift. It was his last letter to his father, before “a slight sabre-cut will separate my head from my body, like the spring flower the Master of the Garden gathers for His pleasure.”
Vo seems to have fallen in love with the missionary, who also appears in a photograph in which two other missionaries join hands tenderly. With his fixation on the young man, the artist gives his own slight sabre-cut to our expectations, to the complexity of how colonial relations were lived and to the complicated inheritance of that oppression. Missionaries laid the groundwork for colonialism, which led inexorably to the social divisions, resentment and finally civil war and authoritarian government that forced his family from its home. But Vo’s desire pierces all of that in a grand refusal of ideology.
So, as the visitor progresses up the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim, far more than just the details of a life emerge. Objects gain weight and connection; forms of violence (severing, cutting, flaying) accumulate; personal talismans suggest memories the viewer has never had; and a gentle sense of laughter echoes in the background.
For this exhibition, the Guggenheim has removed the screening that ordinarily covers the skylight at the top of its inverted ziggurat gallery space. So light floods in and grows ever brighter as you near the top of the ascending ramp. At that moment, in a touching gesture, the artist introduces a curtain between the viewer and the objects on display, as if to decline the metaphorical enlightenment that comes from the brightness and the ascent. The exhibition ends inconclusively, but all the more powerfully.
Why should one care about Danh Vo’s life? This kind of artistic endeavor can become insufferable if done badly, without the small quirks and pervasive generosity that make memoir interesting and meaningful. The material must have connections, and those connections must be more substantial than the first stirrings of a narcissistic mind. As with the best memoirs, Vo’s work isn’t about Vo. It is about what made Vo, and even people who have lived a life antipodal to his may find that they, too, have been shaped by the same forces.
Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away On view at the Guggenheim Museum through May 9. For information, visit guggenheim.org.