The Artist Questioning Authorship

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Danh Vo had just started to gain recognition as a rising young artist when he decided, in 2010, to make a full-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. He had been offered a one-man show at the Fridericianum, a huge exhibition space in Kassel, Germany. “The curator said he had seen shows of mine, and that I could deal with big spaces without putting too much into them,” Vo told me. “I’m very childish. When people want to put me in boxes, I go the other way, so I was thinking, How can I stuff that space? And my simple mind came up with the Statue of Liberty.” The whole hundred-and-fifty-foot monolith, he meant, cast in many separate elements, which would remain separate and unassembled.

Vo, who was born in Vietnam and brought up in Denmark, knew the statue only from photographs. He Googled it, and discovered that the outer surface was a 2.4-millimetre layer of hammered copper. “That was something interesting,” he said, “the surface being so thin and fragile. My next thought was that maybe an image like the Statue of Liberty could liberate me from being categorized as an artist who deals with his own history as a Vietnamese refugee.” More research followed. He got bids for making the aluminum casts and applying the copper skin from foundries in France (where Frédéric Bartholdi’s design for the statue was fabricated), Poland, and China.

This was a big change in Vo’s approach to art-making—until then, he had worked mainly with objects he found or appropriated. “Danh is a hunter and gatherer,” Marian Goodman, his New York-based dealer, had told me, but in this project everything would have to be made, at considerable cost. In less than a month, what had seemed like an absurd notion was on its way to becoming reality. Vo chose a Shanghai foundry, because its estimate was far lower than the others. He supervised the fabrication process, which took five years from start to finish, and cost more than a million and a half dollars. It was financed largely by Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Qatari art collector. She had wanted to buy all the elements—more than three hundred sculptural forms ranging from abstract shapes to a massive and recognizable section of Lady Liberty’s armpit—but Vo would only let her have a third of them. The rest, as he directed, have been dispersed, in small groups, to museums or public institutions around the world. The title of the work is “We the People.”

A chandelier Vo acquired from the Hotel Majestic hangs by his piece “Oma Totem.”Courtesy the artist and Museo Jumex, Mexico City; photograph by Abigail Enzaldo and Emilio Bernabé Garciá
When the casts began appearing, in 2011, first at the Fridericianum, and then at the New Museum and City Hall Park in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and several other venues, the art press assumed that they referred to immigration and the worldwide refugee crisis. This exasperated Vo, who is hard to exasperate. “I chose the Statue of Liberty because I thought it was for all of us,” he said to me recently. “I wanted to take a very familiar icon and make it a little bit unfamiliar.” He also felt that, at a time when America’s moral authority was increasingly compromised, the Statue of Liberty broken into fragments could refer to more than one thing. “I always say that liberty has been raped often enough,” Vo said. “Words like that are not static. Sometimes we have to throw them up in the air to reclaim their meaning.”

A group of “We the People” elements will be in Vo’s first big survey show in the United States, which opens at the Guggenheim Museum on February 9th. Vo, who is forty-two, with permanently dishevelled dark hair and a gently humorous kind of authority, has been involved in every aspect of the installation process. Although he lives mainly in Berlin and Mexico City, he has made many trips to New York, to work with the Guggenheim’s curatorial staff. The most important decisions, about where and how individual pieces will be displayed, won’t be finalized until the last two weeks before the opening, and those decisions will be made by Vo. Katherine Brinson, the Guggenheim curator who proposed the exhibition and made it happen, has worked with Vo before, and she is at ease with his largely intuitive, unpredictable, and playful approach to the process—which he once compared to “changing your underwear in public.” Vo, she told me last month, “is very good at pressing us to be less rigid.”

For the Guggenheim, the show is a risk. Works by Vo have appeared in New York before, but he is not well known here, and the Guggenheim’s tourist-heavy audience, about half of whom will be visiting the museum for the first time, may be put off by the diversity of strange objects and images in his work—kitchen appliances, furniture, tombstones, historical documents, packing cartons, chandeliers, mammoth bones, parts of Roman and early-Christian sculptures, a list of the obscenities and ravings voiced by the demon Pazuzu in William Friedkin’s 1973 film “The Exorcist,” to name a few. In Vo’s art, elements of his biography interact with and vivify evidence of the historical events and the political ideas that have shaped the world he lives in. The connections may not be apparent to every viewer, but, as Vo sees it, “That’s the strange and beautiful thing about the art world. It’s not mass communication. If you want mass communication, then you are in the wrong field.”

Vo’s rise to prominence in contemporary art still surprises him. “I don’t know how I did it,” he told me. “The whole thing is crazy. When I came out of art school, I couldn’t even take care of myself.” A major work by Vo can now sell for up to a million dollars on the primary market (he also sells other works for much less). He owns a town house in Mexico City and an apartment in Berlin, and he is restoring a house on the island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily. “I’m a lucky man,” Vo says. The demand for what he does led a Dutch collector to sue him for not producing a promised work. A Dutch court ruled against Vo, saying he must deliver a large new work in the style of his recent pieces; Vo offered the collector a text piece that would read, in large letters, “Shove it up your ass, you faggot!,” which happens to be the title of one of his sculptural collages. In the end, that wasn’t necessary, because his legal team managed to reach a settlement, and the collector dropped the suit.

Trung Ky-Danh Vo was born in August, 1975, in the village of Ba Ria, outside Saigon. The Vietnam War had ended three months earlier. In its final stages, as the North Vietnamese advanced, the Vo family—mother and father, two sons, and a daughter—was among thousands of South Vietnamese evacuated, in American ships, from Quy Nhon, on the central coast, to the island of Phu Quoc, at the southern end of the country. One of the sons, Thanh, died there, the day after the fall of Saigon, of a childhood disease that went untreated. That summer, the Vo family was allowed to resettle in Ba Ria, where Danh was born. (A younger sister followed three years later.) Danh has no memory of the next four years. By 1979, Vietnam was at war with Cambodia and China, and hundreds of thousands of people were leaving the country in makeshift boats. Phung Vo, Danh’s father, who had been exempt from military service, was an energetic and resourceful man. He went around to all his relatives and friends and collected enough money to buy a fairly large wooden boat, and in 1979 the Vos and more than a hundred other people embarked on a voyage that they hoped would take them to the United States.

They got as far as the shipping lanes between Vietnam and Singapore, where a container ship of the Danish Maersk line spotted their obviously unseaworthy vessel, picked up the passengers, and dropped them in Singapore. After four months in a refugee camp, the Vo family, including Danh’s paternal grandmother, received emigration papers and took a commercial airliner to Denmark. (They were also given the option of going to Germany, and Danh’s maternal grandmother, who had three children already living there, elected to do so.) “We lived in the suburbs of Copenhagen,” Vo told me. “My first memories are of there.” His parents ran a coffee shop for factory workers—the first in a succession of food carts, cafés, and restaurants that became the family business. “In that town, we were the only Vietnamese,” Vo said. “I just hated the idea of being different, and I knew I was.”

He was an extremely bright and somewhat mischievous child, who excelled in math at school and who tended to argue with teachers. (When a teacher wrote a letter to his parents about Danh’s disruptive behavior, Danh intercepted it and wrote the reply, deftly copying his mother’s handwriting. It said, “I accept my son as he is.”) The four children learned to speak Danish at school. Their mother, Hao Thi Nguyen, picked up enough of the language to get by, but Phung Vo never became fluent—the family spoke Vietnamese at home. Hao Thi was a devout Catholic, and Phung had converted to Catholicism during the war, as a silent protest against the American-sanctioned assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s Catholic President. “My parents decided, because I was such a troublemaker at school, to send all four of us to a private Catholic school,” Vo said. “I have no idea how they managed to pay for it. I went to church until I was eighteen, but by then I understood that the Church wasn’t for people like me, gay people. My mother, who was very concerned, knew I was gay before I did. She was always asking, ‘You’re not gay, are you?’ I didn’t know what gay was, but I knew that I should say no.”

In high school, he took several art classes, and a teacher told him that he had a good sense of form and color. After graduating, he applied for admission to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, in Copenhagen. The application was rejected. For the next three years, he lived at home and worked in the family restaurant. He kept applying to the Royal Academy, though, and in 1998, on his third try, he was accepted. The teachers were somewhat provincial, Vo remembers. “Trung Ky-Danh Vo has been in my class for one year,” his painting teacher wrote, in a recommendation letter, “and I might / might not understand his agenda, but I strongly recommend he quit painting.” (Vo kept the letter and used it as one of his art works.) Vo told me, “I knew I was not going to make art, because to me art was painting, and my painting was terrible. I was about to drop out of school, but in Denmark you get money while you study, and in art school you meet a lot of great people. So I decided to stay and get the best out of it. I’d never travelled much—why not use the school to do that?” He was planning to apply to an exchange program with the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, and asked Rirkrit Tiravanija, a visiting artist at the Royal Academy, to write him a letter of recommendation. Tiravanija, a leading figure in the new, socially based form of conceptual art called relational aesthetics—he was known for turning art galleries into kitchens, and serving Thai food to the visitors—told him to forget about Düsseldorf. “Don’t go there!” he said. “I’ll call a friend.” His friend was Tobias Rehberger, an artist who taught at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, one of Germany’s most progressive art schools, which accepted Vo as an exchange student.

His first significant art work, done while he was at the Royal Academy, was a performance piece that consisted of Vo marrying and almost immediately divorcing, in succession, two friends, whose last names he then added to his own. The first, Mia Rosasco, was a female student at the Royal Academy. As soon as their divorce was official, he entered into a civil union with Mads Rasmussen, a male bartender in a gay bar in Copenhagen, where Vo also worked. All three of them saw the project as a conceptual art work, using a social structure (marriage) for a purpose (art-making) that it was not intended to serve, and they all agreed that no trace of romanticism was involved. Vo’s official name, which he uses to sign important documents, is Trung Ky-Danh Vo Rosasco Rasmussen. But the project is ongoing, and if there are additional marriages his name will get longer.

In 2006, while he was still at the Städelschule, Vo moved to Berlin. “That’s what you did then,” he said. “Berlin was very cheap. I still never thought I would have an artist career, but I came into a circle of friends whom I felt affiliated with, and whose work made sense to me.” He started seeing Michael Elmgreen, of the duo Elmgreen & Dragset, whose avant-garde architectural and sculptural installations were attracting attention in Europe. “They got me into a few exhibitions, but it didn’t help,” Vo told me. “It was just one failure after another.” The relationship broke up when Vo used Elmgreen’s name (without permission) as a reference in applying for a travel grant to Marfa, Texas, so he could see the mock Prada store that Elmgreen & Dragset had built there. Vo said, “I needed to find my own environment and my own peers.”

Vo’s work found him, purely by chance, in 2006. He had gone to California on a three-month residency at the Villa Aurora, a retreat for writers and artists in Pacific Palisades. During a reception to introduce the residents to the local community, a seventy-eight-year-old man named Joseph Carrier addressed him by his first name, pronouncing it, correctly, as “Yan.” Surprised, because most non-Asians pronounced it “Daan,” Vo asked how he knew to do this. Carrier explained that he had been in Vietnam for several years during the war, as a counter-insurgency analyst working for the Rand Corporation. His house was nearby, he said, and he would be happy if Vo came over. Vo went the next day, and on many days after that—it was the start of a deep platonic friendship that would change Vo’s life.

The Rand people had fired Carrier in 1967, when they realized that he was gay, but in 1972 the National Academy of Sciences had sent him back to Vietnam to study the effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant that the U.S. forces had used extensively. Carrier had taken photographs of the tribal people in the Central Highlands, where Agent Orange had caused great devastation. He wanted to go back and get current pictures of the same areas, for a photography exhibition he was having at the University of California, Irvine, called “Surviving War, Surviving Peace,” but he needed someone who spoke Vietnamese more fluently than he did. Carrier asked whether Vo would be interested, and Vo immediately said yes. They met in Saigon—now called Ho Chi Minh City—six months later. It was the first time Vo had been there since he left, in 1979. “I wasn’t interested before,” he told me. “If I was raised with anything, it was the understanding of not having a place to come from. My mother looks back sometimes, but my father never does.” Vo and Carrier spent a week in the Central Highlands, and then visited Hanoi, where Vo bought tribal blankets with images of American helicopters woven into them.

Soon after this trip, Vo returned to Los Angeles. He spent a week in Carrier’s Pacific Palisades garage, going through Carrier’s Vietnam diaries and looking at hundreds of photographs he had taken there during the nineteen-sixties. “He was very nosy,” Carrier wrote, in a privately published autobiography. “Before leaving he told me he was particularly interested in using a series of black and white photographs I had taken of young Vietnamese men holding hands . . . to illustrate cultural differences between American and Vietnamese men.” (Physical intimacy between men is fairly common in Vietnam, where, for the most part, it has no homoerotic overtones.) Carrier gave Vo his enthusiastic permission to use the photographs in his work. Many of them, along with other mementos of Carrier’s time in Vietnam, appeared soon afterward in Vo’s first important solo show, in 2007, at the Isabella Bortolozzi gallery, in Berlin. “It’s a weird thing—how do I put this?” Vo said to me. “I never thought the material belonged to Joe. I thought it belonged equally to me, so I had no guilt.” Carrier wrote part of the show’s press release, and in his autobiography he states that he is immensely grateful to Vo because “my photos were being seen by an international audience instead of being hidden forever in boxes in my garage.” In his will, Carrier has bequeathed his entire Vietnam archive to Vo.

With that show, which was called “Good Life,” Vo gave himself permission to use ready-made material of all kinds, and to challenge the whole idea of aesthetic authorship. Many of his early works referred, in one way or another, to members of his family. One, dated 2006, is a glass display case containing three of his father’s most prized possessions—a Rolex watch, a Dupont lighter, and a U.S. military signet ring. Phung Vo had bought them soon after leaving Vietnam, and each one reflects his pride in acquiring symbols of Western culture. (Vo gave him the money to replace them.) The work’s title is from a Rolex ad: “If You Were to Climb the Himalayas Tomorrow.” “Grave Marker for Maria Ngo Thi Ha,” which came two years later, is a white wooden cross that had been used as a temporary marker for the Copenhagen grave site of Vo’s recently deceased grandmother until the ground settled enough to support a permanent stone. “My father made the crucifix, and when the headstone came, somebody threw it out,” Vo explained. “But my little sister saved the marker and brought it to me in Berlin. It stayed in a corner with the beer bottles for half a year, maybe, and then, one day, it just seemed to have inherited all the traces of my grandmother.” “Oma Totem,” from 2009, is a stacked tower of household appliances—a washing machine, a small refrigerator, and a television set, with a crucifix mounted on the front. The appliances were gifts from an immigrant relief program in Hamburg to Vo’s other grandmother. Her local Catholic church had sent the cross. Vo, who had spent summer vacations with his Hamburg grandmother, persuaded her to let him replace all three appliances, plus the cross, so that he could take away the originals.

This article appears in the print edition of the January 29, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Whole Thing Is Crazy.”