Photo: She Was More Like a Beauty Queen from a Movie Scene, Danh Vo, 2009. Photograph: Dahn Vo.
This post originally appeared at theguardian.com.
By Nadja Sayej.
The Vietnamese artist’s first big US exhibition covers years of work, addressing imperialism, war and terrorism often with dark humor
Try to purchase an original 1777 American flag – with 13 stars to represent the country’s founding states – and you’ll find yourself on a scavenger hunt. One master of this art is Danh Vo, a Vietnamese-born artist who has just opened a 15-year survey called Take My Breath Away at the Guggenheim in New York.
This antique flag on view – which is covered by military accessories from the centennial of the Declaration of Independence – will be shown alongside 100 others as part of Vo’s exhibition, named after the Oscar-winning song from the Top Gun soundtrack of 1986, which glorified the American military to the point that a surge in US forces applications followed.
“It’s a continuum of the misuse of power when you sit in power,” said Vo. “That’s what I’m interested in.”
The artist grew up in Denmark, has a studio in Berlin and lives in Mexico City, but remains fascinated by American history. He once said it is a form of escapism to avoid his own past as a Vietnamese refugee.
“Traumatized people don’t talk about their past,” he said on the phone from the Guggenheim this week. “They’re trained to move on and that’s what I’m doing and still do and keep doing.”
Each artwork has a personal narrative which Vo describes as “the tiny diasporas of a person’s life”. He uses the Kennedy family’s Camelot image as a departure point for many of the pieces in the show.
“Even when I use the American flag, I used the one with 13 stars, which was anti-imperialistic, but things always change,” he said. “When you look at this show, one has to look further back.”
Vo re-created a full-size copper replica of the Statue of Liberty, with limbs dismantled and strewn across the world in 300 pieces (various snippets – such as fingers and toes – are in this exhibition).
There are two cabinet room chairs from the Kennedy administration, which were a gift from Jacqueline Kennedy to the former US secretary of defense Robert McNamara after John F Kennedy’s assassination. Vo bought the chairs at a Sotheby’s auction, dismantled them and hung their fabric on the wall. The real focus is on McNamara, a key person from America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. “There are pieces around the people who made decisions around the Vietnam war,” said the exhibition curator Katherine Brinson, “but it’s in an indirect way that’s layered with other political and historical moments.”
There are also a series of handwritten letters from the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to his friends and colleagues. In one, he thanks the New York Post’s theater critic Leonard Lyons for getting him Broadway tickets. In another, he apologizes to a friend for being unable to attend a ballet because of the “contemplation of Cambodia”.
The exhibition also features three chandeliers from the Hotel Majestic in Paris. They were in the room where the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, ending US involvement in the Vietnam War. When the hotel was being sold years later, Vo purchased the chandeliers because they were “designed to make you forget and leave your sorrows behind”, he said.
In his 2006 artwork If You Were to Climb the Himalayas Tomorrow, Vo sheds light on his family history. In a glass vitrine, there is a Rolex watch alongside a Dupont lighter and an American military ring. These luxury objects were the most prized possessions which Vo’s father owned after escaping postwar Vietnam. “They represent an aspirational portrait of masculinity and power,” said Brinson.
Others artworks in the show include a French rifle leaning up against the wall, a papier-mache mask painted with the American flag and a vintage safe with its door left open.
The exhibition also features a typewriter that belonged to the terrorist Theodore Kaczynski, known as the “Unabomber”.
Indeed, if Vo weren’t a contemporary artist, he would be an antiques specialist or an eBay maverick. Just as he scavenges auction houses for the most valuable pieces of second-hand wares, few can manage his balance of history and art. Brinson calls it “artwork animated by the act of possession”, while the Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle calls Vo “an arranger of ruins and fragments”.
There is a method behind the madness, however. “I grasp these situations because that’s where my history comes from,” said Vo. “Old objects give me a sense of comfort, in a way, because old empires fall apart in time.”