History and art collide in the complex and provocative exhibition Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away at the Guggenheim Museum. A visual poem that enmeshes the viewer, it presents of a decade of Vo’s installations, which have propelled him to a prominent position in the contemporary art world. The exhibition is less a straightforward survey than a reconfiguration of elements from past installations deployed to new ends.
Danh (pronounced “Yann”) Vo was born in Vietnam in 1975, the year that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, ending a decades-long war. Episodes in his life echo ancient mythology. As with Aeneas and his band of survivors fleeing Troy, Vo’s father, Phung Vo, managed a daring escape by sea after several years of increasing hardship under an oppressive dictatorship. The family crowded, along with more than one hundred other refugees, into a vessel whose construction Phung had helped to finance and supervise. On the high seas, a Danish freighter rescued them. The family eventually found asylum in distant Copenhagen, where Vo was raised.
Take My Breath Away is an elegy for a disintegrating ideal of democracy. Instead of Virgil as epic poet, it invokes Virgil as Dante’s guide to the nether regions, The Guggenheim rotunda is an ideal setting for its meditation on history and freedom, and on love, faith, and death. Imagine it as a truncated Inferno. Exiled like Dante from his native land, Danh Vo is the Dante and Virgil of this story, both a seeker and a guide. He retraces the history of US involvement in Vietnam through appropriated objects and images, most of them found or bought (some at government auctions), even as he recovers his own history, having been raised, as he says in a New Yorker interview with Calvin Tomkins, “with the understanding of not having a place to come from.”
The wooden frame of a throne-like chair dominates the large bay near the base of the ramp, this figurative hell’s lowest circle — abode of the archfiend in Dante’s narrative. We learn that the chair, once in President Kennedy’s Cabinet Room, belonged to Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and a primary architect of the war in Vietnam — which was, by 1964, called “McNamara’s War.”
Hanging like a skin on a nearby wall is the chair’s seat cover, the ghost of a seat of power. Well-worn black leather on one side, raw cowhide on the other, it recalls the black-and-brown body of Marsyas, as depicted in Titian’s late masterpiece, an artistic martyr gruesomely flayed for daring to challenge Apollo to a musical contest. The twin themes of torture and martyrdom emerge repeatedly in the show.
It would take an extended essay to fully unpack this sparely installed but conceptually dense exhibition. Take My Breath Away is organized as a succession of installations that serve as set pieces, centered on relic-like objects and images with global implications. These offer glimpses of the vast, largely hidden tapestry in which Vo’s history and that of Vietnam are interwoven. His work is radical in its use of actual historical objects, rather than illustrations or reproductions — in addition to the McNamara chair and Vatican textiles, it includes such objects as the typewriter on which Theodore Kaczynski, better known as “The Unabomber,” typed his manifesto critiquing industrial society.
In the context of an art museum, such objects may become vulnerable, personalized, and passionate, activated by the artist’s choices and viewers’ active looking. However, the exhibition’s rhetorical power lies not so much in the objects themselves as in the invisible connections one makes between objects, which may suggest a narrative direction. In the large bay, for instance, we begin to understand that the objects we see are actual witnesses to the exercise of political and spiritual power through actions and objects — setting the stage, as it were, for the exhibition.
Installed high on the wall, to the right of the naked chair, is a set of sixteen large, faded brown velvet cloths, which once lined display cases in the Vatican Museum. In other installations by Vo these have been suspended from a ceiling, as though they were banners from a long-ago religious procession. Here they resemble a shaggy map, evoking Catholicism’s spiritual imperialism, a central theme of the show. Dark silhouettes of the crosses, reliquaries, and chalices contained in the Vatican display cases remain imprinted on the textiles — more ghosts.
Having been introduced to the tragically feckless McNamara, who wielded awesome power, we turn up the ramp to find ourselves in the company of his clownishly sinister successor, Henry Kissinger, who presided over the putative winding down of the war, even as he set the stage for genocide in Cambodia. The privilege accompanying power is illustrated by a seemingly innocuous series of thank-you notes for ballet and theater tickets, procured for Kissinger by Broadway columnist Leonard Lyons, which are shown in wall niches.
One note reads, “Dear Leonard: You must be some kind of fiend. I would choose your ballets over contemplation of Cambodia any day if only I were given the choice.” If only: Dated May 20, 1970, the note was written just weeks after the May 4 massacre of students at Kent State who were protesting the bombing of Cambodia that began on April 30, 1970.
The plurality of Vo’s artistic persona upends assumptions about artistic genius. Vo’s projects are premised on a notion of active, collective “social authorship.” The artist encompasses multitudes, as Whitman might put it — himself, his family, lovers, friends, fellow artists and collaborators, museum staff, and his historical subjects.
Vo introduces himself to viewers with a series of certificates documenting successive marriages and divorces between the artist, who is gay, and two friends, Mia Rosasco and Mads Rasmussen. These early artworks established his legal name as Trung Ky-Danh Vo Rosasco Rasmussen. Other important collaborators for this exhibition are Vo’s close friend, artist, activist, and scholar Julie Ault, who selected important texts for the show, and its curator, Katherine Brinson, whose outstanding catalogue essay demonstrates a visceral understanding of Vo’s artistic aims.
Take My Breath Away as a whole conveys the range of the historical, personal and geographical intersections and interrelationships that Vo maps, comprising, in part, his father, the Catholic Church (in which he was raised), Vietnam and the United States. The history and mythology of Catholicism is intertwined with that of Vietnam in a letter written by a missionary priest, Jean-Théophane Vénard, to his father. The letter, rendered in careful calligraphy by Phung Vo, appears several times in the show and also on the cover of the exhibition publication; its pervasiveness suggests that Danh Vo takes this Catholic martyr as an alter ego — but one with a troubling legacy.
In the 1830s, Catholic missionaries began paving the way for the French takeover of Indochina in the late 1850s. Mandarin authorities executed many of them. Vénard’s 1861 letter to his father is a tender goodbye, shortly before he was beheaded. By copying the letter, Phung Vo reverses the polarity, but not the close relationship between father and son, to which the letter bears witness. Vénard appears again in an 1852 photo of a small band of missionaries, about to set out for Indochina, in which two priests shyly hold hands. Elsewhere in the show, a sequence of photos, taken in Saigon in the 1960s by Joseph Carrier, a closeted gay American counterintelligence strategist, includes images of pairs of soldiers holding hands. Having befriended Carrier decades later, Vo acquired his archive and has used the photos to construct an imagined life in Vietnam that he has made part of his personal history. The interplay between Carrier, as their creator, and Vo as their owner and curator, suffuses the images with a mild erotic current.
Vo’s father is responsible for executing almost all lettering in the exhibition. One phrase, “The Promised Land” is rendered in run-on capital letters, in what appears to be Fraktur, a once-common font in countries including Germany and Denmark. An actual Crusader sword hangs between the letters D and L. Captured in an ancient battle, and subsequently donated to a Muslim armory, the sword is literally imprinted with both parties in the conflict: one side bears Christian emblems; the other an Arabic inscription. It confronts militant Catholicism at its height, during the Crusades, with a Muslim retort, severing “promised” from “land”; the history of that conflict echoes through the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Drawing on techniques pioneered by Group Material, the artist employs the tools of museum installation — including the “backstage” parts, such as transporting and dismantling artworks for display. In fact, disassembling and dispersal are fundamental strategies for Vo’s practice, and he employs them with an assured lightness of touch. The exhibition features three immense chandeliers, which formerly hung in a Paris hotel ballroom where the Paris Accords — which ended active US military engagement in Vietnam — were negotiated for years and signed in 1973. The first chandelier in the procession up the ramp is incongruously hung from the ramp’s low ceiling. Further along is one packaged in a traveling crate with an open side, pointing to the temporary status of the setting. The third has been carefully disassembled and laid out on the floor, and yet it is the only one that actually is lit. Such a progression suggests that dismantling, severing, or fragmenting objects releases a kind of narrative energy.
Vo draws on an array of artistic genres and styles from the 20th century, particularly the 1960s and ’70s — the period of US involvement in the Vietnam War. An inconspicuous installation of folded horsehair — the “guts” of the McNamara chair — is a ringer for a 1960s Robert Morris felt piece. Vo’s use of pop cultural references is equally promiscuous. A 2009 work consists of a tattered, 13-star American flag, on which are arrayed a brass bugle, felt cap, bayonet sheath and sword belt, and a field radio with a wood and leather case. Purchased at an auction by the artist, the work is titled She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene, the opening line of Michael Jackson’s song “Billie Jean.” The exhibition’s title is the from the “love theme” of the 1986 film Top Gun.
This layering of pop art and pop cultural references undermines the notion of personal style as a tool for trademarking work. It instead posits style as a lingua franca, a shared resource — or perhaps as the voice of a menacing collective unconscious, like that of the demon Pazuzu, in the film The Exorcist, which provides titles for many works in the show. One, Your mother sucks cocks in Hell (2015), consists of a wooden crate and French 17th-century oak cherub, whose head has been partly sliced off to fit it in the crate.
Despite an unflinching engagement with horrors of imperialism, war, and torture, Take My Breath Away is fundamentally positive. Rather than “interrogating” the past as a self-righteous outsider, Vo goes inside this hell, embracing it in all its contradictions. As with Dante, Danh Vo offers a kind of hopeful allegory. The bays at the top of the museum are veiled with scrims that suggest revelations to come, and Vo insisted that the shades in the oculus, which ordinarily filter direct sunlight, be removed, allowing the exhibition to be lit naturally. As with the Vatican hangings, some elements on view, like Phung Vo’s calligraphy, will fade over the course of the show. One expects that the ghosts of the past brought to light will not fade so soon.
With thanks to Debra Pearlman for her insights.
Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through May 9.
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