The artist Danh Vo is one of the key internationally visible artists who both embodies and creates work that displays the contradictions of colonialism, and its implications and by-products. The artist was born in a Vietnam despoiled by war and then traveled with his displaced family to Denmark where he came of age.
I visited his current exhibition with my friend, Nile Davies, a Columbia University PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology. I thought that to properly unpack this work I needed his perspective. I was right. His insights into the exhibition help me see it in ways I would not otherwise. Most of the work in the show are bits and pieces that Vo found, borrowed, or bought at sales and auctions: correspondence between US government officials and professional acquaintances, keepsakes from his mother and father, the velvet on which ceremonial objects were displayed at the Vatican, photographs and documents of Americans carrying out research in Vietnam, the engine of a motor vehicle. All the disparate objects have in common that they are kinds of documents of history, impressed by the relations of power and sense of identity that their users and owners were also mired in.
Vo subtly places them in this show so that these impressions become visible and readable. It is an exhibition of palpable histories that are poignant because they exist at the intersection of the personal and the communal, the historical and that which we reproduce generation after generation. His work acts as a prism for the memories brought to light by recovered objects, memories myriad and sometimes appalling. Below is an edited version of the conversation we had an hour after seeing the show.
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Nile Davies: I was really interested in this idea of “tiny diasporas” of a person’s life. Referring to the objects in the show, but also reflecting the way in which the artist’s life is kind of located elsewhere in many ways.
SR: You mean because he’s a migrant from Vietnam, and he ended up in Denmark. I think, he now lives in Berlin.
ND: And, I think that kind of sense of rootlessness and of circulation is really reflected through his practice, right, in the form of objects that have different owners and move around, and are layered with these histories, in a way that I found pretty incredible.
SR: Yeah. To be honest, I don’t think I expected to like the show very much because, having heard descriptions of it from other people, and read[ing] the New Yorker profile on Danh Vo, which came out a couple months ago, I thought, “Hmm … I’m not so sure.” But, I love that phrase, “little diasporas.”
ND: “Tiny diasporas” of a person’s life, yeah.
SR: It feels like where the show is most successful is where it takes a work, like the chairs is a great example, right, the Kennedy administration chairs [In the first gallery one encounters, there are the bare, wooden armatures of large chairs with the upholstery and leather covers removed, and the wall text indicates they are were used during the Kennedy government, bought at auction by Vo], and you see the frame of the chair, you see some of the leather that was used to upholster it, then later on, you see the stuffing, and then you see other bits and pieces show up, and it’s like he’s slowly deconstructing not only the chair, but the entire history that’s wrapped up in that administration, right?
ND: Right, right.
SR: There’s a way in which those little diasporas, those little accumulations of meaning, of material meaning, get teased out, so that we start to think not only about what goes into making a chair, but what goes into making an American myth, a president. A policy regarding another country, a …
ND: Empire. I saw these intimacies of empire, in the material trappings of figures, of icons, of myths, and the way that he treats them, does something that, in a way, subverts them. It’s very iconoclastic.
SR: Yes. That’s a good word for the show. And I love that you say “empire,” because getting at the Kissinger letters, right, I think it’s a “Mr. Leonard” they’re addressed to?
ND: Right, from the New York Post.
SR: So, clearly, [New York Post theatre critic] Leonard [Lyons] is courting Kissinger, right? Trying to get him happy with his seats at the opera, at the various musicals, and I feel like what he’s trying to do curry favor, with a person high up in the White House, who can, in turn, do something for him. I don’t know what that thing is yet, but clearly, this is an attempt to create a friendship with someone, with the idea that, somehow, that friendship is going to pay off, materially.
ND: Yeah, absolutely. And you see, there’s something very almost voyeuristic, I think, about these very personal letters about Kissinger’s delight at getting these ballet tickets, and a personal note where he thanks the secretary for getting hold of them.
SR: He uses very intimate language.
ND: Right. Very, very intimate. And, these letters, you walk past them and they’re backlit in this vitrine. There’s a sense of the private becoming public in a way that, where you take someone like Kissinger, such a central figure to the kind of architecture of the Vietnam War and American foreign policy, on White House stationery. You’re getting a very intimate lens into the life of a public figure.
SR: And yet, what’s interesting to me about that is that, while it’s intimate, it’s also slightly horrifying. And I think maybe the horror is in being so close, being ushered into this private correspondence. But also really realizing that this was a man, who, as you said, was the architect of the debacle that was Vietnam. Where thousands of people got killed, entire villages were displaced, there were lasting effects, and it was a kind of, in a way — I don’t think it’s unfair to say — another kind of colonization of a place that had already been colonized several times over.
ND: Yup. And yet, there’s this juxtaposition, right, between the very private Kissinger, who talks in the letter about his private passion is for the ballet, and how …
SR: Makes it sound almost dirty.
ND: Yeah. And how he wishes that he could think about those, instead of having to think about Cambodia, if only he were given the choice.
SR: Another thing that pops out to me is that Vo uses some of the mechanisms of anthropological study to hint at how people are seduced into viewing the “other” as the “other.” So, in that paper titled “Part A: Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behavior of Lowland Vietnamese,” I remember, thinking, my god, it’s like they’re talking about apes. And then, I thought: what would it sound like if I conducted a study and wrote a paper that said the beliefs, attitudes, and behavior of rural whites in Kentucky … ? I think it would come off as a bit … untoward.
ND: Those are the papers and the photographs of Joseph Carrier, right? He was, I believe, in Vietnam, working for the counter insurgency.
SR: That’s right.
ND: And then, later, did research into the effects of Agent Orange in the war. What I found so fascinating about that is how, on the one hand, you have this kind of imperialist foreign policy gaze towards Vietnam. Then you have these kind of very intimate photographs.
SR: They’re suffused with a homoerotic energy, yeah.
ND: Definitely. There’s this kind of homoerotic gaze. And, Vo, about these pictures, describes them as a mediated self-portrait, wherein he identifies with both the photographer and the subject, right? Because you have, I guess, two sides to it.
SR: Right. Two sides to every personality. Maybe he does see himself as the other. Because, clearly, if he has homosexual desire, it’s particularly at that moment — late sixties’ America — there’s really no place for you in mainstream culture to say that, to be that, to express that. It’s just not done.
ND: Exactly. And I found that so much of the work of telling history in this show, and in many ways, these objects are kind of witnesses to history — so much of the work of telling is done through inference. Like the Vietnam War [which] is such a significant figure in Vo’s life and art, but there are no gruesome images of death, of war and its violence. It’s all through these very subtle particulars.
SR: Refractions, really.
SR: That’s a great point, Nile, and I wasn’t thinking about that; but that’s actually really central to what Vo is doing. He is making us balance on that fulcrum of the very personal, the very political, and the slightly more bird’s-eye view, which is sort of scholarly, which is to say, “So this thing is happening.” But we’re not getting any contextualizing information like we might in another show [for example]: “In 1969, such-and-such a bomb went off”, or “This village was razed to the ground by American troops on such-and-such a date.” We’re not getting any of that; we’re just seeing the world through these very particular lenses. And it makes judgment less available to us.
ND: Definitely. You’re kind of left to figure out how these small pieces connect with the wider frame, yeah.
SR: Yeah. And now that you’ve said that, that actually makes me appreciate the show even more.
ND: And that, there are also, in the objects … I remember the personal effects of his father, who figures very prominently in the exhibit, right, as a kind of figure of his past. Here’s this vitrine with his father’s Rolex watch, and US Army ring, and a cigarette lighter — This idea of a kind of masculinity through possessions. And [Vo] is trying to bring in a critique of consumerism and capitalist desire, in a way that’s kind of linked with the critique of masculinity.
SR: Precisely. And there’s a way in which that vitrine, although it reads as very ‘60s, it also reads as very now. It feels like you and I could walk by Cartier in Manhattan, and would see a display not unlike that. And it is, at one and the same time, about being a man, but it is also aspirational. It’s also about being an American aspirational man.
ND: And what it means to subvert those things, ultimately. Like being also Vietnamese and born in Vietnam, and also being gay, and having to match oneself to this archetypal image of American masculinity …
SR: By carrying around the signs.
ND: So, there’s something, on the one hand, taking this kind of sentimentality toward objects, something that has one particular value to certain people, and really kind of repurposing that, and, in that, giving it another kind of value. But it’s couched within this kind of disregard, which is what I find very interesting. The biggest paradox, for me, is how you can have, on one hand, the sentimentality that is kind of juxtaposed with this iconoclasm and this irreverence towards icons. You know, he’s taking icons like John F. Kennedy and desecrating them, which, again, speaks to his political inclinations in some way.
SR: So, what’s strong about Vo’s work is that he doesn’t just skim on the surface; he plunges into those ironies, and he actually lives there. The work is about those ironies. Like, talking about a man, who, very cavalierly talked about bombing the hell out of a place in the world he didn’t live in, killing hundreds of thousands of people. But yet, talked about this sublime experience of …
ND: His delight for the ballet.
SR: What do you do with a person like that?!
ND: Right. In the same way, you have people talk about Nazis as being the most cultured, top-ranking, listening to Wagner opera, and reading Goethe, and that kind of stuff, right. That’s very troubling for me as well to consider. [I] want to have a simpler picture.
SR: Open-and-shut case, right?
SR: Vo is giving snatches and glimpses of distinct world views, but he’s not offering a critique of them. He’s just giving you a little bit, another little bit — which is a kind of very visitor-oriented exhibition.
ND: Yeah. I wanted to talk about maybe one more thing related to the ephemera. And it’s this wedding notice of Mrs. George H. W. Bush in the New York Times. And, I think, a few paces before, you have an obituary of his grandmother. He chooses to write the obituary not talking about who she is survived by, but the people that she survived. So, he talks about her husband and grandson, who were killed during US intervention in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. There’s a way that he is telling a kind of narrative in history that is kind of subversive. Obituaries are not the place for that kind of …
ND: For that kind of information. But he’s doing something different. The Bush thing: it’s left up to you to interpret what that is. Another kind of paradox, contradiction.