By Jennifer Piejko
Danh Vo doesn’t keep secrets. There is no hiding of traumatic postwar escape, suspicion of institutional colonialism, love, mourning, or ambition. It would be easy to disregard institutions and traditions when forging artistic and personal identities, but for Danh Vo that would be missing the point. Here, the personal is truly political.
His story is almost unbelievable. In 1979, the Vo family escaped from Vietnam after the “American War” on a wooden boat, attempting to sail to the U.S.. They didn’t make it to their destination, but survived long enough to pass a Danish commercial tanker that brought them to shore, where a four-year-old Danh, his immediate family, and 100 other refugees were welcomed to Danish society. Danh’s grandmother joined them a year later, and upon her arrival to Germany received a treasured television set, washing machine, and refrigerator, all courtesy of the German Immigrant Relief Program and Catholic Church.
Such objects were to become his material, readymades emblematic of Western middle- class aspirations and standards. Extending the bonds of his family, Vo began to exhibit his father’s personal artifacts of masculinity and success: his gold Rolex watch, Dupont lighter, and US military ring (If you were to climb the Himalayas tomorrow, 2006); and the engine of his Mercedes- Benz (Das Beste oder Nichts, 2010). He began to gild everything from floorplans, cardboard boxes, to bathroom fixtures. Years later, Vo mourned the death of his grandmother by a gravestone resembling these souvenirs: Tombstone for Nguyen Thi Ty, 2009, is a marble sculpture resembling the façades of her welcoming gifts from the Relief Program stacked on top of one another. The refrigerator door is decorated with a large wooden cross, her own addition to the appliances.
Interested in examining hypocrisies in even the most progressive Western European cultures and politics, his practice has tested their elasticity and limits. Upon first arrival in Denmark, customs officials simply could not understand that Vietnamese custom dictated that the family name, Vo, was to be written first before every family member’s given name, so they were forced to switch the order of their names to conform to Western tradition-to their new tradition, as these bureaucracy quickly dismissed the old traditions of their new citizens. He has displayed his passport, evidence of national and personal identity, and inherent privilege.
In Vo Rosasco Rasmussen (2002) Vo marries, and immediately divorces, people who have been important to him personally, incorporating them into his official personal history by assuming their surnames, his own name growing longer with the evidence of each relationship. It is a strange process to undergo, not ridiculing the process by marrying to deceit, or flaunting his new right under Danish law to marry another man, but stretching a malleable identity; not a protest of the institution, but rather a submission to it. His performance is only documented through red tape and a paper trail, the marriage certificates and divorce proceedings displayed as ostensible works on paper. It is the losses and gains to his personal identity that are the most destabilizing, writing his own history by collecting the fragments of others’ history and family lineage.
More telling are the ways that he defines and reveals those who are closest to him, presenting relationships by making them official. Joseph M. Carrier, an American counterinsurgency specialist who was stationed in Saigon while working for the RAND Corporation during the 1960s, spent years assembling a photo archive of his own lovers and young Vietnamese boys walking hand in hand or sleeping together. Decades later, he tracked down Vo at one of his openings and invited him to visit his home and review these photographs. The photographs were a missing history of youth for the artist, who had lost all evidence of his early years in Vietnam. The two men began both a personal and artistic relationship with Vo exhibiting these photos but credited them to Carrier. Later, he would also display Carrier’s last will and testament, leaving all of his possessions to the artist.
These documents - the passports, certificates, wills, plans - for those in societies who insist on them, are not to be relied on; as Danh Vo shows us, they are the way that one is remembered by those who don’t know them at all.
Jennifer Piejko is the editor of Performa Magazine.