In Vietnamese-born Danish conceptual artist Danh Vo’s meticulously created oeuvre, a typewriter is not just a typewriter, a chandelier is no mere chandelier, and a pen is no ordinary pen. Born in Bà Rịa the same month of the fall of Saigon, Vo has been taking appropriation art to new levels since the turn of the century, adding compelling, deeply personal and political elements to existing objects that shed light not only on him and his family but the state of the world at large. Now the Guggenheim, which awarded him the Hugo Boss Prize in 2012 — for which he created “2012 I M U U R 2,” consisting of things collected by Chinese-American artist Martin Wong — is surveying Vo’s career in the superb exhibition “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away.” In her catalog essay “Little or Nothing but Life,” curator Katherine Brinson writes, “In his reverberant installations, which are manifestations of personal intimacies and fortuitous encounters as much as historical research, Vo has addressed a central paradox: that the self is plural and inexorably fluid, yet decisively shaped by larger power structures. His works evoke the swirl of private desires, devotions, and sorrows that make up interior life at the same time that they enact a stringent examination of the external forces that govern it, whether the incursions of colonialism, the seductions of global capitalism, or the bureaucratic demands of the nation state.” Thus, the typewriter Vo displays is “Theodore Kaczynski’s Smith Corona Portable Typewriter,” the chandeliers previously hung over a conference table in a hotel (once occupied by the Nazis) where the Paris Peace Accords were signed, officially ending the Vietnam War, and the pen tip and ink of “S.E. Asia Resolution / 10 August 1964” were used by US defense secretary Robert S. McNamara to sign the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing LBJ to increase American troops in Vietnam. Throughout the museum are pieces of “Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs,” which have been stripped and repurposed; the chairs were given to Jacqueline Kennedy by McNamara shortly after JFK’s murder.
As a young boy, Vo’s mother made him watch horror movies with her, so several works involve his fascination with William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist. A series of sculptures that combine ancient Roman marble and French Early Gothic oak are named after quotes from the film, such as “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell,” “Shove it up your ass, you faggot!” and “Dimmy, why you did this to me?,” relating to both his mother and his homosexuality. Exorcist quotes are also engraved in glass and mirrors by Vo’s father, Phung Vo. Meanwhile, an open drawer in a Poul Kjærholm wooden file cabinet reveals the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” etched in graphite on paper by Phung Vo, echoing a key scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining. His father is also honored in the exhibit with “If you were to climb the Himalayas tomorrow,” a lit vitrine containing his father’s prized watch, lighter, and military class ring, while “Das Beste oder Nichts” is the actual engine from his father’s Mercedes-Benz. “Oma Totem” consists of a stacked television set, washing machine, and mini-refrigerator (with a wooden crucifix on it), along with his maternal grandmother’s casino entrance card, which were given to her by the Immigrant Relief Program when she fled to Germany. Vo’s paternal grandmother is represented by her temporary grave marker and the photogravure “Portrait of a hand.”
The exhibit also includes documents, menus, letters, bullets, cloth hangings, coins, postcards, tree branches, a saddle, keys, hair, a safe, jewelry, luggage, crates, political paraphernalia, pottery, a birdcage, carvings, and copper sections of “We the People,” Vo’s re-creation of the Statue of Liberty, pieces of which were situated in Brooklyn Bridge Park and City Hall Park in 2014. The title of the Guggenheim show, “Take my breath away,” comes from the romantic theme from Top Gun, performed by the band Berlin, continuing Vo’s fascination with the American military while also referencing one of the two places he lives and works, Berlin, Germany (along with Mexico City). The exhibit demands attention and requires careful reading of the wall text and signage; although many of the objects are visually stirring on their own, their histories are central to understanding their expanded meanings. Vo’s art is really more about possession than appropriation, reclaiming historical and family artifacts and making them his own, taking back what was once taken away, still escaping demons both literal and figurative while continuing his search for personal and public freedom.