'Art's J. D. Salinger', Danh Vo, wants his work at Hong Kong show to speak for itself
Danh Vo is an intensely private man
It would be simple to slot Danh Vo into the category of temperamental artist. When phone and email interviews were cancelled due to his "tight schedule", the story looked destined for the "way too much effort" basket. But when a face-to-face window with the contemporary artist opened up during his visit to Hong Kong - he was in the city last month to open a show he is co-curating at Duddell's in Central - it seemed like the planets had aligned. "But I'm warning you, he is the Salinger of the art world," says the public relations woman who is arranging the meet, referring to notoriously reclusive American writer J.D. Salinger who spent the last 50 years of his life telling the world to leave him alone.
It was that tiny gap in the door of his personality that went a long way to explaining why few interviews, and even fewer images of the artist, can be found online.
In a room away from the clink of cutlery of lunchtime diners at Duddell's, the artist joins the table after his post-lunch cigarette. He is dressed in jeans and a woollen jumper. Thankfully, he's also wearing a smile. "How long have you been in Hong Kong?" he asks. But while the polite conversation was a welcome ice-breaker it's his story we want to hear - but getting the details prove difficult. Born in Vietnam in 1975, the year Saigon fell, Vo was just four when he and his family fled the Cambodian-Vietnamese war in a home-made boat. He has no memories of his early childhood in Vietnam, but the vessel that rescued him was a Danish freighter, the nationality of which would determine his fate.
"I was part of the second wave of boat people who left Vietnam and ended up in Denmark where I lived for 25 years … I had to escape there and I have been on the road ever since," he says nervously, adding that road has also included time living in Mexico City, Berlin and Frankfurt. "It was very tough growing up gay and Asian in a place like Denmark - of course I stood out," he says, opening the door a little more.
As for his works, Vo's cross-cultural background has been a great source of inspiration. Some of his works are vast installations that demand attention. But he can't be locked into one style.
"Sometimes I work on large structures - I don't like to confine myself in size or scale. What I do want to do is explore things."
But big projects "can be too much work - you know, sometimes you just need to make sense with small and beautiful works", he says, before adding randomly: "But it's good to be violent sometimes."
So far, so good.
A question about one of Vo's much-lauded series of sculptures - collectively titled We the People - changes the course of the interview. For the work, a full-sized replica of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, created between 2010 and 2012, Vo enlisted a Shanghai fabricator to build a likeness of the statue, using 30 tonnes of copper sheets the width of just two pennies. Rather than assemble the 300-odd sections, the artist shipped the giant fragments to 15 sites around the world (the work is currently being shown in New York City with its assembly shared between City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn).
When asked about the series, he replies: "What has that got to do with the show in Hong Kong?"
It's not the first time he flips from hot to cold. Showing no further interest in sharing details about his work or his life, he deflects all attention from him and onto the exhibition, "Duddell's Presents: Nairy Baghramian, Janette Laverrière, Danh Vo". Works by the three artists are on display in various spots in the restaurant until the end of February. Walking between the floors, Vo is quick to wax lyrical about Laverrière, the Swiss-born avant-garde artist/designer who died in 2011 at the age of 101. Also on show is the abstract work of Iranian-born, Berlin-based sculptor Baghramian, who joins the conversation. Vo is keen for her to take over.
The humble act speaks volumes about his standoffish nature. It comes as no surprise that when Vo won the Guggenheim's Hugo Boss Prize in 2012, the artist, in lieu of exhibiting his own work, instead showed a collection owned by late American artist Martin Wong and Wong's mother.
On show at Duddell's are six cartons by Vo embellished with gold-leaf-printed wrappings, the artist commenting that today's consumer goods and status symbols often distract attention from the real social and political problems, a scenario that sits all too happily in a spendthrift society such as Hong Kong. Revolving around Vo's larger-than-life creations, his conceptions examine dominant values and historical conflicts such as colonialism, migration, and cultural collective memory and its cross-border existence.
He doesn't want to dwell on his works, preferring instead to wander around the space firing off dark one-liners like a naughty schoolboy at the back of a lecture hall. While Baghramian is talking about a large light installation by Laverrière made from copper and in the shape of mushrooms, Vo cheekily chips in, giggling: "That's what happens when you take too many mushrooms." For another piece, a chair made of resin by Baghramian, he asks whose bottom was used for the cast. There's that giggle again.
When the photographer appears, the artist scrutinises the camera as if it were an AK-47. A few snaps later and the interview is over.
The PR woman returns with an invitation to attend a 90-minute talk with the artist scheduled for later that day. Having just had a private audience with him, it's obvious that the introvert is big on ideas and creativity, and is not so much the temperamental artist as someone who doesn't want attention or fuss - or interpretation of his work. He just wants to work.
Duddell's Presents: Nairy Baghramian, Janette Laverrière, Danh Vo , Duddell's, 1 Duddell St, Central, Mon-Sat, noon-11pm, Sun, noon-10pm. Ends Feb 28