The recipient of the 2012 Hugo Boss Prize, Vietnamese-German artist Danh Vo creates works that feature a layering of significances, interrelated meanings tied together through the conception, production and presentation of his work. It is this practice of appropriation and representation that informs his recent show of new work, Mother Tongue, at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.
Running concurrently with the artist’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in celebration of his Hugo Boss Prize, Vo’s work at Marian Goodman adapts a selection of objects, photographs and documents purchased at the auction of former Secretary of Defense, the late Robert McNamara. Including cabinet room chairs from the Kennedy administration, disclosed documents on the Vietnam War, and a variety of other materials, Vo uses the attached cultural weight of the artifacts to complement and reassess his own personal histories.
Carefully selecting and manipulating the works on view, Vo brings new frames of reference to the items on view, including pen tips used to sign the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a precursor to the Vietnam War. Vo’s family was cast apart by this conflict, and his presentation of these artifacts illustrates a new approach at understanding, viewing the conflict through the physical detritus of the politicians who so intimately affected his life from half-way around the world. In another work, Vo works against the same objects, deconstructing a cabinet chair from Kennedy’s offices, and spreading the materials across the gallery.
While avoiding overt political commentary, Vo uses this series of artifacts to add a new, exterior narrative to his own life, an annex in which this parallel history can be explored, reinterpreted, and handled by the artist himself. It is intriguing then, that the viewer is held back from physical engagement with the work, forced to stand as spectator while Vo commingles with a history that is not his own. Of particular potency are a map of Vietnam, and a photo album, blending the military history of American engagement with the leisurely experiences McNamara had while visiting the warfront.
In another selection of works, Vo uses the cast-off cases of American beer, using his father’s calligraphy skills to scrawl new texts over the boxes. The physical practice of writing over the commercial imagery once again speaks to the commingling of identities, a process of active engagement between object and identity that informs much of Vo’s work.
Moving between memory, experience and external history, Danh Vo enables new experiences of his own memory, shaped by exteriors. Using objects outside himself, removed from his own series of memories, Vo creates an active document to his own search for meaning.
Mother Tongue is on view until April 27th.