Part of a visual pilgrimage toward Easter, this piece is the sixth in a series of spiritual meditations by Griffin Oleynick, who will visit a different art gallery each week through the season of Lent. Catch up on past installments here.
Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away, on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, February 9 through May 9, 2018
Of the many works I’ve been able to view in New York City museums this Lent, Danh Vo’s Christmas (Rome) 2012 is one of the most arresting. Hanging like a worn patchwork quilt from the ceiling of a nearly empty white gallery in the Guggenheim, it consists of multiple strips of faded brown velvet eerily seared with the dark silhouettes of crucifixes, monstrances, and reliquaries. The strips were reclaimed from the Vatican Museums, where they once served as backdrops for religious objects; it’s the shadow of these objects, left behind after long years of exposure in sunlit hallways, we see here. Vo acquired the discarded backdrops after a 2012 visit to Rome. By weaving the fabric into a monumental tapestry, the artist indicates his ambivalence regarding the church and faith in which he was raised. Signalling the Vatican’s vast artistic holdings and the slow passage of time, the work critiques both the church’s ostentatious wealth and its plodding bureaucracy. Yet at the same time, it transforms the Vatican’s refuse into something silent and beautiful, thereby transcending the same mundanity it condemns.
Such thoughtful ambiguity lies at the heart of Vo’s conceptual art, now the subject of a major mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The exhibit, Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away, on view through May 9, presents more than one hundred works created over a period of fifteen years, unfurling in idiosyncratic, non-chronological order along the spiral ramps of the museum’s rotunda (Vo has even made a few changes to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building, uncovering the ceiling oculus to capture the play of light and commissioning his father, master calligrapher Phung Vo, to engrave a new work in a ground-floor glass window).
Even for admirers of abstraction, the show may come across as a shock. As we wind our way through, we encounter an array of objects, ranging from the playful to the weird to the borderline sacrilegious. Fused fragments of ancient and medieval statuary, swords, chandeliers, washing machines, an old car engine, even Ted Kaczynski’s personal typewriter, appear alongside cardboard beer boxes gilded with American flags, large mirrors etched with obscene quotations from The Exorcist, and ceramic flower pots stamped with 17th-century scenes of torture and dismemberment. We also find six pieces of a medieval statue of St. Joseph, which Vo has sawed up and placed casually about the museum in luggage that meets the carry-on requirements of the low-budget airline EasyJet. Photographs, archival documents, and handwritten texts, mostly copied by Vo’s father, round things out, transforming the Guggenheim into a complex web of associations: the more you go up and down the ramps, the more each object seems charged with meaning, as if they are responding to each other.
The shifting flow of objects reflects the fluidity of Vo’s own lived experience, from which he draws insights on the intertwining of personal narrative and broader historical forces. Vo was four when he and his family fled Vietnam in 1979 as refugees; they were rescued from a wooden boat by a Maersk Company freighter and found asylum in Denmark, where Vo grew up. Since early childhood, then, Vo’s sense of self has revolved around his outsider status, both as a Vietnamese immigrant on the margins of European society and as a gay man who feels unwelcome and ill at ease in the Catholic Church (a childhood photo of Vo, frowning as his sister holds a devotional image of Christ, is on view early in the exhibit). Like a filmmaker splicing sets of images to create new meaning through the process of montage, Vo’s energetic combinations eloquently narrate the otherwise silent stories these objects contain.