“I think Danh Vo is trying to end art,” an art dealer said to me a few years ago. It was a great quip, delivered excitedly, as high praise, and I took it to mean that, by presenting historical artifacts and other people’s artworks in his shows, the Danish-Vietnamese artist was working in a way that was so nakedly factual, so close to real life and real history, that he was stretching the definition of art just about to a breaking point and making other supposedly radical practices look a bit lame by comparison.
Art has, of course, not ended, and Vo has produced no small amount of it since then, but that dealer’s enthusiasm has proved prescient. Vo has emerged as one of the signal artists of our tumultuous era. He is a sensitive, gimlet-eyed observer of geopolitical events and his own family’s history, and how they intertwine. He is also a uniquely bold risk-taker, one of the rare artists who can act with the cold precision of a surgeon or a seasoned criminal.
“Take My Breath Away,” Vo’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, which opens today, is superb. Curated by Katherine Brinson with Susan Thompson and Ylinka Barotto, the show is wry and sinister and unflinching in its examination of the lives wrecked by American militarism, colonialism, and politics, and of any single person’s place in the stream of history. As the United States drifts toward a new period of reckoning, it is essential viewing.
Vo, who is 42 and lives in Mexico City and Berlin, is obsessed with the memories and auras that objects harbor. The actual black typewriter that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, used to type his manifestos sits on the ground of one gallery. Lit from behind in a wall is a letter from Robert McNamara accepting President-elect Kennedy’s offer to become Secretary of Defense, setting the stage for him to become the architect of the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. The wooden skeleton of a chair once used by Kennedy cabinet members stands alone along a wall.
Terror and destruction have flowed from the people who touched these simple things. We could gather as much seeing these displays in a history museum with an explanatory placard, but in Vo’s deadpan presentation of them as art, one has a glimpse of the horribly arbitrary nature of history—the way that, especially today, the most minor actions lead to unpredictable forms of devastation. A letter gets typed and signed, a package gets mailed, and somewhere people are displaced, maimed, maybe even killed.
Near the end of the Vietnam War, Vo, who was born in Bà Rịa, and his family were forced to move, first to a refugee camp in Singapore, then to Denmark. Other Vo works include a photo of him and his siblings in the camp, an engine ripped out of a Mercedes owned by his father, and a stacked sculpture made of a white washing machine, a white mini-fridge, and a black TV, gifts from an immigrant-support program to his grandmother, who left Vietnam for Germany. A cross adorns the front of the fridge.
In the Guggenheim show, which is sparely, beautifully installed, I found myself in the peculiar and not un-amusing position of waiting in line with fellow viewers to read wall texts detailing the sources of these objects. I suggest not doing that—at least at first.
Instead, make a first loop along the Guggenheim’s ramp without reading any of the didactics, particularly if you are uninitiated into Vo’s world. See what you can glean from the show, which I suspect will be quite a lot—his sculptures are marked by hints of chaos, destruction, and absence. On a second loop, read the descriptions and pick up the dashes of pathos and black humor embedded in the pieces, which come together into a master class in the study of survival, memory, and belief. You may sense a bit of evil in the air.
I have swooned over Vo’s work for years, all the while eyeing him with the suspicion one reserves for those who make it all look a bit too easy. The conceptual core of his dark art—selecting readymades with an eye toward the vagaries of history and its relationship to his own—is ingenious, but it sometimes results in works that feel random. Three chandeliers he acquired from the Hotel Majestic, where the 1973 Paris Peace Accords ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam were signed, are beautiful, but they seem like little more than interesting artifacts, falling into a category I think of as Footnote Art, which highlights or points to a fact or story to no real end. (Taryn Simon’s photographs of flowers from diplomatic signing ceremonies are another example.) Vo’s fixation on dominating the objects that he comes to possess—say, by slicing minor ancient Greek or Gothic sculptures and placing them in boxes—can also feel a little overdetermined.
Vo is at his best when he is selecting or making pieces through which power has coursed, or through which relationships, whether loving or domineering, are revealed or rewritten. He has made art by marrying and divorcing two friends, toying with foundational rituals and laws of society. (It is represented here by the necessary paperwork.) And he has asked his father to copy, in immaculate script, a letter sent by the French missionary Jean-Théophane Vénard before his execution in 1861 in Vietnam to his father. It reads, in part, “We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time, some a little sooner, some a little later.” (Death hangs over much of Vo’s art, sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily.)
No work in the show feels as timely and as potent as a series of letters that Vo acquired from then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the New York Post theater critic Leonard Lyons. In them, America’s chief diplomat is charming, humorous, and even flirtatious in thanking the columnist for securing him tickets to various plays and ballets. The letters are arrayed along one wall, and walking along them feels like peering in on history from a bizarre and intimate vantage point. I began to wonder what Kissinger took from those shows—and what any of us takes away from the art we see. (Without putting too fine a point on it: the nation is also at war right now, and I am spending a lot of time in art museums.)
In a letter the day after Christmas in 1969, Kissinger is particularly gracious for two tickets to Hello Dolly. “I also appreciate your sending me information on the ballet and your attempts to satisfy my appetite for it,” Kissinger writes. “But I warn you, I’m insatiable.”