Essays

An Artist Creates the Ruins of America

by Ryan Wong on December 7, 2012

Danh Vo’s “We the People” among other artifacts at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute, part of an exhibition at the Renaissance Society

Danh Vo’s objects are unremarkable without history. We can debate until Miami freezes about over the place of artworks that don’t do much visually, that make references so opaque you have to a) be a specialist or b) have the work explained to you by an outside aid. Vo’s challenges to our assumptions about art are as frustrating as they are exciting.

Vo has beautiful ideas, to be sure. For an exhibition at the Renaissance Society, he bought and displayed Henry Kissinger’s letters profusely thanking columnist Leonard Lyons for ballet tickets. They are unremarkable until you notice the dates: the years Kissinger was masterminding the brutal wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. For “2.2.1861,” Vo asked his father to copy the letters of a French missionary to Vietnam who was executed for his work; his father, who does not speak French, applied his meticulous lettering to words he didn’t understand. Vo blends the lines between artist and curator and collector; he believes in the gravity of objects and the power of recontextualizing them.

For “We the People (Detail),” Vo acts more like an artist. He had full-size copper replicas of the 400 pieces that make up the Statue of Liberty recreated but never assembled. Instead, groups of the segments are displayed in art institutions around the world — hence the “(Detail).” Some of the pieces are more obviously Lady Liberty than others, but all hold aesthetic appeal: the fragility of the copper shells, the atmosphere of monumental ruin.

With over a dozen institutions showing the work, inclusion in the New Museum Triennial and the Shanghai Biennale, a recent New York Times article devoted to the piece, and Vo’s recent receipt of the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss prize, “We the People (Detail)” can be safely judged a success.

Installation at the Statens Museum for Kunst (photo courtesy the SMK)

Smartly, Vo never says what the work is “about.” But by choosing an image as potent as the Statue of Liberty, he doesn’t have to. For starters, the project conjures the global reach of US imperialism, or perhaps the decline of it. He has created an American Ozymandias, a once mighty statue now unrecognizable. Each set of Liberty’s shards becomes a synecdoche for an object that itself stands for a larger idea.

If the statue’s inherent meanings were not weighty enough, the replica was made in China. Knowing this, the geopolitical readings run riot. It’s possible that Vo meant this as a statement on China-US relations, but it’s also hard to imagine this project without the factories and inexpensive labor of China.

“We the People” under construction at a factory in Shanghai (photo courtesy of Statens Museum for Kunst)

Which points to the most intriguing aspect of “We the People (Detail)”: the system of the global art world becomes part of the project’s substance. Curators and the institutions that support them are happy to pack and crate these huge husks around the world. Shipping lines, institutional partnerships, and the buzz of excitement around Vo are inseparable from the work’s meaning, which is shaped by its various contexts. This art world complex, of course, reflects the global reach and colonial structures of wealthy nations.

A few months ago, Damien Hirst challenged viewers to visit Gagosian’s eleven worldwide galleries, all simultaneously exhibiting his dot paintings. It was a simple idea with a lot of money behind it: the sameness of Hirst’s mass-produced, repetitive dots, the fun of seeing it all because you can. Whether “We the People (Detail)” reinforces or critiques this global art system remains more ambiguous. While the Hirst project turned Gagosian’s international reach into a gimmick, the scattering of “We the People” was built into its conception.

In New York disaster movies, the Statue of Liberty is a popular, almost necessary target. It is snowed over in The Day After Tomorrow, decapitated in Cloverfield and Escape from New York (see Wikipedia for a full tally of destruction). In Planet of the Apes, its ruins signal the defeat of humanity. This is the beauty of the statue: it remains just as powerful when destroyed as whole.

“We the People” at the 2012 Shanghai Biennale (photo by the author)

Never having had a king or helmsman, Lady Liberty is the closest thing we Americans have to a body politic. It’s not surprising, then, that museums and collectors are so attached to it. “We the People (Detail)”  is a timely project for an era when America’s global dominance is matched by its doubts about maintaining it. Vo turned his knack for collecting into creating the collector’s want: dispersed like this, the fragments resemble nothing as much as souvenirs, reminders of a country and concept passing into twilight.

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