Danh Vo, Danish-Vietnamese artist whose work doesn’t fit neat little boxes
Exhibition at Hong Kong’s White Cube gallery shows morbid and random nature of artist’s work, inspired by his upbringing in Copenhagen after fleeing Vietnam aged four, and by horror film The Exorcist
The work of the Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo is about death, colonialism, randomness.
He probably won’t like being neatly boxed up into that opening sentence, although packaging and language are also recurrent Vo themes. He’s the kind of artist who doesn’t want to interpret what he does: he prefers you to do it. But the hidden metaphors only reveal themselves if you know the story.
In 1979, when he was four, his father put his family into a home-made boat and fled Vietnam. The optimistic destination was America. Eventually a container ship owned by the Danish shipping company Maersk plucked the speck of them from the sea. So he grew up in Copenhagen, studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, then at the Städelschule in Frankfurt.
In 2015, he represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale. A different wind, a different tide, and he could have ended up in Hong Kong, stuck fruitlessly in a camp for years. Or dead.
“I know,” he says, fervently, in a back room at the White Cube gallery in Hong Kong’s Central district. “Pure chance.”
He’s in Hong Kong for his first exhibition with the London-based gallery (curated by Mathieu Paris) and his first solo show in the city. He didn’t appear at the press preview, and he didn’t want to be photographed for this story either. He prefers invisibility. That makes him sound precious, but he’s sweet-faced, funny and, unexpectedly, boyish. The child is still present in the man.
Asked what name he used at Hong Kong Immigration, he looks startled, then laughs. In 2002, he began an ongoing project in which he sequentially married people whom he considered important in his life, took on their names, then immediately divorced them.
The resultant paperwork became a comment on how identity is created by documentation; it was also a sly reference to his first Danish immigration official who, European-style, reversed the order of his Asian name. These days, he says, he’s officially Trung Ky Danh Vo Rosasco Rasmussen.
A different sort of document is featured in this show, and every one he does. In 1861, a French missionary who was about to be executed in Vietnam wrote a final letter of great poignancy to his father. Vo came across the original years ago and, in 2009, asked his own father to copy it. Phùng Vo, who knows only Vietnamese script and initially had no idea of the content, has continued to create handwritten copies ever since and will do so until he dies. They sell for €300 (HK$2,600): €100 goes to the father, €100 to the son, and €100 to the gallery.
“In the beginning, I never told him what he was writing,” Vo says.
In the catalogue for Vo’s exhibition is a photo of his father, a Catholic convert, in the solemn execution of this commission, presided over by an image of Pope John Paul II and the Danish flag. Colonial history, religion, family – it’s all there. So far he’s made at least 1,000 copies. “But sometimes he gives them to nieces and nephews, and to churches, for free!” No gallery commission then? “No!”
It’s not the only project involving both men. The Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis has a display, Tombstone for Phùng Vo, which is exactly as stated: a gravestone for a father designed by his son. When Vo Senior dies, the Walker will send it to the appropriate cemetery in Copenhagen and in return will receive a gold crucifix, a lighter, a Rolex watch and an American military class ring, all currently in daily use by Phùng Vo and signifiers of his second life.
As you might imagine, considerable legal documentation has gone into such an artwork. Vo says it’s about ownership and the idea of possession. His father, who advised on his own gravestone’s font, seems to have a sanguine attitude to his mortal future. Vietnam’s past is more painful.
“He never talked about it,” says his son. “He refuses to go back. He always says, ‘Why do you dig up these bad things?’”
Vo returned there with his mother about 10 years ago, however. In her case, the digging up of bad – or sad – things was literal. She wanted to fetch the ashes of a child, Vo’s brother, who’d died before the family fled. (Vo cheerfully volunteers that she also intended to meet his father’s former mistress. Which didn’t happen.)
His mother, he says, believes in ghosts, and when the family initially settled in Denmark she was obsessed with horror films. Since she wouldn’t go to the cinema alone, he ended up seeing The Exorcist when he was about six. “It’s when I started to pee in my pants,” he remarks, laughing the sort of laugh that sounds a little pained.
That 1973 film, famously, is also about possession. The title of the main exhibit in Vo’s White Cube show – too long and definitely too indecent to be repeated here – consists of all the infamous words spoken by the demon during the movie. Why? “It was to liberate myself. I was never allowed to say, ‘Shove it up your ass’.”
The piece is made up of over 450 mammoth fossils from the late Pleistocene period (at least 12,000 years ago). The bones were excavated from the bottom of the English Channel; now they dangle from the ceiling of White Cube’s upper gallery. A 17th-century ivory Christ is hidden amongst them. You might think the result looks like a prehistoric butcher’s shop. Or you might think of the diabolical happenings currently taking place off the coast of Europe.
A couple of times during this interview, Jay Jopling, White Cube’s owner, excavates Vo to meet important visitors, which he does with no obvious enthusiasm.
“That’s not my business,” he says later. Inevitably, however, it intrudes. Last year, he settled a court case with a Dutch art collector, Bert Kreuk, who’d commissioned him to do a work for US$350,000.
In its own way, the case was about possession. Vo felt Kruek was “flipping” his work – particularly the gold-leaf-embossed cardboard boxes he creates, one of which is in the White Cube show – for profit. Irony is an overused word, but in these circumstances it probably applies: Kreuk made his money from airline packaging. According to the collector - and was confirmed by the final court ruling against Vo - not only written documents existed to prove there was a deal between him and the artist, but there were witnesses in court, including a museumdirector and curator, who vouched under oath that the deal existed.
Proceedings revealed that in three years Vo’s works had gone from selling for US$33,700 to US$2.4 million at auction. If nothing else, it shows how far he’s travelled from the shores of 300-euro-land.
Vo, who now lives in Mexico (by choice not happenstance), says he’s still shocked about controlling ownership of his art. “But in the end you have to learn from these situations. You have to accept them.”
He has no memories of his first voyage. An outsider, assessing Vo’s work – including We The People, in which he recreates the Statue of Liberty in life-sized fragments – can understand how art sustains the uncertain vessel of self. But it’s bigger than that. Of today’s little Danh Vo equivalents on the high seas, he says: “There’s all this discussion that I’m the history embedded in my work. That’s the tragedy. It has to relate to a global issue, to other people’s pain.”
Danh Vo’s lengthily entitled show continues at White Cube, 50 Connaught Road Central, until November 12