Uncaged: Danh Vo’s Ready-Made Reality at the Guggenheim

The Vietnamese artist reminds us that the past lingers in the present, and that behind beauty, there is always some barbarism


About halfway down the winding ramp of the Guggenheim Museum, tucked into one of the building’s brief level landings, there is a beautiful bamboo birdcage that’s set starkly against a white wall. Lit from above, it looks like it’s made of copper. The lustrous object comes from a bird and insect market in Guangzhou, China, where the artist Danh Vo bought it from an artisan, and which he now shows as a work of his own, although he has made no additional intervention. In China, cages like this tend to be reserved for lovebirds, and this one, appropriately, was lovingly made in a slow, traditional process — including a ten-year period in which the bamboo underwent treatment before the cage was assembled — that is one of the few crafts to survive the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which swept away tradition in the service of the Communist state.

“马蹄笼,” as the work is titled (it means “water chestnut cage”), is a succinct summary of Vo’s work. He is constantly reminding us that the past lingers in the present, and that behind beauty, there is always some implication of political barbarism. Just out of view of that radiant birdcage are war, colonialism, and forced immigration, the constant backdrops for Vo’s work. Beauty and violence are often in proximity: Alongside the luxurious curves of the cage’s bars is a small enclosure meant to hold live grasshoppers to feed to the birds.

One of the rare works by Vo that offers immediate visual pleasure, “马蹄笼” reveals him as a keen colorist with an eye for detail. Much of the time, Vo has little interest in such indulgences, and he prefers instead intellectual gratification, which takes longer to set in and demands much more focused effort from his audiences. The Guggenheim show, which is a retrospective of his work from the past fifteen years, includes chandeliers from the building where the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending the war in Vietnam; personal thank-you notes by Henry Kissinger for tickets to ballet and Broadway shows (“You will get no arguments from me or my staff that it would do us all good to see the Moiseyev ballet”); and chairs once used by John F. Kennedy and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, which Vo bought and then dismembered as a comment on the thrones of power. Without context, these things offer very little. But in aggregate, after lots of reading, and with the sharp editorial guidance of Katherine Brinson, who organized the show and wrote the catalogue, a bigger picture emerges within a wide web of connections.

One strand leads from Vo’s biography. He was born in 1975 in Bà Rịa, Vietnam, four months after the fall of Saigon and the victory of the North Vietnamese. In 1979, as the Communists consolidated power and the country’s political situation deteriorated, Vo and his family huddled into a wooden boat with nearly 120 other refugees, set sail, and were soon picked up by a commercial Danish freighter. They were taken to Singapore and remained there for four months before being granted entry to Denmark, where Vo was eventually raised outside of Copenhagen. In a picture taken of the young artist and his siblings at the refugee camp around Christmas 1979 (the photograph is now a work by Vo), the trio stand smiling uncertainly, surrounded by images of Christ given to them by the charity that sponsored their stay.

In Denmark, Vo attended Catholic school and took art classes. He impressed his teachers, but not the admissions staff at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, who rejected his application twice before admitting him in 1998. Once in, his professors were not pleased with his visual work, which encouraged him to think more flexibly about what art could be. One of his earliest mature projects was his marriages to, and divorces from, two close friends, a fellow student and a bartender, whose surnames are still legally tied to his own. Officially, his name is Trung Ky-Danh Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, which he offers as a comment on the bureaucratic process of marriage.

For much of his career, Vo has shown in Europe. (He now lives in Berlin and Mexico City.) And although he has a major New York dealer (Marian Goodman), his only big show in the city was his inauspicious Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2012, titled I M U U R 2. For the exhibition, Vo assembled nearly 4,000 random trinkets that once belonged to the painter Martin Wong — lamps, ceramic plates, a toy clown, a nativity scene, stuffed animals, a copy of Newsweek magazine, figurines of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Felix the Cat—as if all these things had something to say.

Since then, Vo has become a better editor. Iconography still accumulates densely in his work, but he understands that it needs to be pared down and focused, and that it comes most alive at colliding intersections of ideas and experience. One of his sculptures, Oma Totem (2009), is of a television atop a refrigerator atop a washing machine, with a large wooden cross fixed prominently to the front. The objects were given to his maternal grandmother by a Catholic immigrant relief program in Germany, where she settled after fleeing Vietnam. For Vo, the sculpture reflects not only benevolence, but also a demand for assimilation, and he vacillates often between genuine gratitude and resentment toward the West. His work is often at its best when he makes monuments to his conflicted feelings, as he did when he made an edition of Oma Totem in marble, granite, bronze, and wood as his grandmother’s tombstone in Copenhagen.

Vo’s personal history fortifies his art with imaginable experience, and he tends to falter when he tries too hard to elaborate grander narratives without a particular story. The weakest works in the show are drab, sometimes flattened cardboard boxes that once carried products like bottles of Budweiser beer. Vo collects and ships the boxes to artisans in Bangkok, who then fill in the flat logos with gold leaf gilding as a comment on globalization and the collapse of native traditions amid multinational capitalism. As objects, they are shabby and unfortunate, and a skilled artisan’s craft is wasted on an abstraction.

These works lack the subtlety of Vo’s crowning achievement: a full-scale copper replica of the Statue of Liberty split into more than 300 disparate parts, each of which is a distinct sculpture. The idea came to him when he learned that the actual statue is only 2.4 millimeters thick all around (about the width of two pennies), which impressed upon him the fragility of the idea of liberty. In 2011, he commissioned a manufacturer in China to build the replica. Of the many parts of this work, a large number are simply large, flat sheets, and when Vo showed just these sections in a 2013 London exhibition (the entire series has never been presented together), it was easy to see them just as Minimalist shapes. At the Guggenheim, that impression is dispersed by the show’s most compelling work: the enormous, unfinished left hand of Lady Liberty held up by a meager wooden support, signaling that this is a work-in-progress. The series is titled We the People.

In another time and place, these sculptures could have been a hopeful reflection of the many working parts it takes to make a whole; today, in New York City, and certainly in America, it is instead a remind of the brittle fact of our indivisibility. Vo is good in this register: when he taps an object the right way, with the right focus and in the right context, it can hit a perfect pitch, and his most remarkable feat is to pull his art in so many different directions—personal, political, visual—without snapping the many connective threads. Not all of ideas flower, and the ones that don’t seem as if they come from another hand. But for viewers willing to take the time, Vo’s art will ripen in time.

‘Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away’
Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
Through May 9