Theater of the Self

Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away

an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, February 9–May 9, 2018; and the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, August 30–December 2, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition by Katherine Brinson
Guggenheim Museum, 284 pp., $65.00
Abigail Enzaldo and Emilio Bernabé García/Museo Jumex, Mexico City
Two sculptures by Danh Vo, 16:32, 26.05 and Oma Totem, at the Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2014–2015

The art of Danh Vo is popular and politically engaged, though it’s the opposite of agitprop. Vo is too canny and too much of an aesthete for that. He’s like Prospero and Ariel both, light on his feet, and his art manifests images and pulls in references from disparate places; it feels in transit, as if it just alighted here. The work can be profane, caustic, irreverent, or elegiac, often in combination. It can be beautiful or visually negligible. Occasionally it can be dull. Vo is already widely celebrated in Europe, but the retrospective “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away” at the Guggenheim Museum is his first major show in this country.

Vo makes art by taking objects from the world—a washing machine, a chandelier, a car engine, a pen nib—and bringing them, sometimes with minimal alteration or none at all, into the museum. As an idea, this is certainly not new, but to assume that Vo’s work has anything to do with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades strikes me as wrong. The impulse is different. Duchamp’s snow shovel and bottle rack are anonymous and semi-ironic, idiotic even, in that amusing Dada way. Vo’s objects are, for the most part, highly specific; they are the visual equivalent of poetry’s “objective correlative.” Everything in Vo’s art comes with a story; his objects point to the way that things close to us—a signet ring, a marriage contract, or very ordinary things, like a cardboard box—are embedded in a web of connections with the larger world.

For example, Das Beste oder Nichts (The Best or Nothing, 2010) is a car engine, a hunk of soot- and rust-stained metal, albeit with an interesting, faintly intestinal or bestial form, until you learn that it was exhumed from the Mercedes taxi that belonged to Vo’s father, which symbolized for him, as for many other immigrants, having made it in the West. If you were just to hear about the piece, it might sound sophomoric. But on the floor of the Guggenheim the engine is strangely arresting; it looks like the carcass of an animal, something prehistoric, perhaps a deep-sea creature that has become petrified. Like a lot of Vo’s work, it has a How did that get here? quality. It doesn’t happen every time, but there is an aesthetic transference that can occur at the level of display. His best work refers to more than one thing, and even though transparent by design, still retains some mystery that can’t be easily explained.

Vo has a remarkable personal history, and it has given him a rich vein of material. He was born in South Vietnam in 1975, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. In 1979, he and his…

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