Currently on view at The Guggenheim, artist Danh Vo’s major retrospective invites a swirling, multi-faceted experience of the world and its political/social hierarchies over the past 40 years. Investigating moments and memories from the artist’s own life in Europe after his family fled Vietnam in the wake of the war during the mid-1970’s, his pieces move between assembled objects (documents, photos and journals) from participants in various parts of the war era, other iterations and moments of conflict and co-existence between Asia and the West, and his own memories and experiences. Presented here, the exhibition offers a striking opportunity for the viewer to explore a wide body of the artist’s output, which only amplifies his creative and political vision.
What emerges from the collective force and depth of Vo’s vision is a portrait of the world from the views of both oppressors and the oppressed, a perspective where agency and interest is less a question of who holds power, but rather a look into how power and action is exchanged constantly. His images and objects delve into specific moments of catastrophe and change, the intrusion of Western power into Vietnam, the social fallout and diasporas that resulted, and the breaks in reality caused by violence exercised both on the ground in his home country as well as in the United States and abroad. The brass relief of a drawing JFK made the night before he was assassinated is as much a portrait of a man in the depths of his own mind as it is a glimpse of the handcraft of a man who sent many to their death around the globe through various engagements with Cold War conflicts.
This is achieved in particular by the sheer scope of the show itself. Taken as isolated objects, Vo’s pieces are a look at specific moments, at granular events and instances that only take shape as larger political situations and histories through their collective arrangements and interests. Yet, Vo seems to argue, that ultimately is the experience of history occurring, the process of crystallization if single moments to form a body existing beyond a lone point in space and time. Much in the same way that his deconstructed Statue of Liberty has spread its body parts across the globe through the machinations of modern capitalism, Vo’s participation in a curated assemblage of his various bodies of work functions in reverse, ultimately assembling nuanced, expansive portraits of conflict and global hegemony through their shared histories and iconographies.
Rarely is Vo absent from this framing either. His father’s calligraphic work adorns so much of the work on view, and he frequently includes his own photographs and documents among those of political players like Henry Kissinger or Robert McNamara. The shared banality of experience is always teetering between foreground and background in these objects, the question of how each party’s respective role and framing in these moments is shaped by the other (Vo assembling the evidence of various personal loves and desires of others, of their political action forcing his experience of the world).
This is perhaps the masterstroke of this exhibition. As Vo turns his lens towards the world around him, he manages to always keep himself somewhere in frame.
The show is on view through May 9th.
— D. Creahan
Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away [Guggenheim]