02/09/2018 | News release | Distributed by Public on 02/09/2018 17:24
Watching Phung Vo engraving the glass of the Guggenheim's street-level window, I thought how satisfying it is to see a person make something with the assurance of familiarity. Even as he put on a protective outfit-white overalls, mask, goggles, gloves-he moved with the confidence of all experts readying for a practice in which they are fluent. Then, using a diamond-headed drill, he traced the marker outlines of calligraphic lettering in short, swift motions, using a gloved hand to wipe dust from the glass. The words he was engraving appeared and disappeared in the shifting sunlight: 'Fabulous Muscles Take My Breath Away.'
The phrase isn't Phung's. The words come from his son, the artist Danh Vo, whose solo exhibition at the Guggenheim opens February 9 in the museum's rotunda. The words-which include the show's title, Take My Breath Away -refer both to the 1980s hit from Top Gun and to 'Fabulous Muscles,' a song with a haunting melody and devastating lyrics by the band Xiu Xiu, Vo's friends and frequent collaborators. In these few elegantly rendered words, as in so much of Vo's work, the public and the intimately personal intertwine.
Vo has brought his father's calligraphy and engraving-Phung, a former restaurant owner, taught himself the latter skill in order to create promotional glasses-into his practice for many years now, in a variety of contexts. Other works of Vo's also relate to Phung and other family members. For instance, If you were to climb the Himalayas tomorrow (2006) consists of a Rolex watch, an American military signet ring, and a Dupont lighter, all of which previously belonged to Phung.
None of this is done sentimentally. Each of the objects described above have multiple meanings: they were the prized possessions of the artist's father, associated with his escape from Vietnam and his new life in Denmark; at the same time they are the artifacts and emblems of American imperialism, and for Vo, they also represent the way his own perception has shifted with time. 'I think a lot of the works that I cherish are works that somehow have at one point changed my way of looking,' he has noted. Since childhood he 'looked at these objects that my father always carried with him . . . at a certain point, you see these objects differently.'
Exhibition curator Katherine Brinson describes Vo's oeuvre as 'predicated on a belief in the incommensurable vagaries of lived experience and the flickering instability of the self.' It's possible to view that philosophical stance as being rooted in Vo's biography, especially given the way he weaves his life into his work. When Vo was four, in 1979, his family fled Vietnam and settled in Denmark. Vo grew up in the Scandinavian country and has since lived in Germany and Mexico. His classic immigrant story has often been used to explain his work in easy terms, yet the way he invokes that narrative, and other personal biographies, is anything but cliché. Working without nostalgia, but with a keen eye for cultural contradictions and a sense of humor, he presents objects-collected, collaged, reimagined-that carry a multiplicity of meanings, and he invites us to form our own relationship with them.
A trio of pieces in the exhibition-three chandeliers that once decorated the Hôtel Majestic in Paris-exemplifies this approach. The headquarters for the Nazis during the occupation of Paris, the building was later the locale of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords (an empty action ostensibly meant to end the conflict in Vietnam). Vo was able to purchase the chandeliers when the building was sold, and he presents one of them intact, another in two segments, and the last one fully deconstructed, its hundreds of crystal parts laid out individually. Chandeliers are alluring objects, and much as he chose them for their specific past, he does not prohibit us from enjoying them. As Brinson writes, Vo is 'always alive to the potential of beauty as well as to the opposing valences that might reside in a single object.' She notes that he was drawn to the chandelier's 'operation as a glittering dream object-as an aesthetic tool 'designed to help you leave your sorrows behind.''
There is certainly a place in Vo's work to contemplate sorrows. Other objects connected with politicians responsible for the Vietnam War are included in the exhibition-chairs from the Kennedy cabinet room, gifted to Robert McNamara by Jacqueline Kennedy after the President's assassination; pen nibs used by McNamara to sign documents, including the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that enabled the expansion of the war under President Johnson; letters written during the war by Henry Kissinger about, of all things, Broadway shows.
Vo displays the Kennedy chairs reduced to their parts, the covering and upholstery separated from the wooden frames. It's often through his arrangement and presentation of objects that Vo creates his works, not dictating an interpretation, but tendering perspectives. Among the most striking examples of this tactic is We the People (2011-2016), wherein segments of the Statue of Liberty's sculpted shell, recreated at scale, are installed piece by piece, alone or in groups, radically reframing how we look at the iconic monument.
Vo also contrasts the apparent banality of some objects with their complex histories. An ordinary typewriter on display once belonged to the 'Unabomber,' Theodore (Ted) Kaczynski; two simple wedding rings were secretly bought by Vo's mother, Hao Thi Nguyen, after she gambled away the originals. Brinson describes such objects as having 'eloquence'; the material items we own and use do speak-about us and to us. Vo brings forth the voice of these human things, the artifacts of our existence, and encourages us to listen.