Danh Vo was born 1975 in Vietnam, and his family emigrated to Denmark. Although he was born at the end of the Vietnam War, the traumas regarding this tragedy, are the central part of the works on display in the exhibition Take My Breath Away, now on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City until May 9, 2018.
Danh Vo uses three overlapping strategies to criticize the United States aggression in the war. They are, approximately:
Vanity – especially under the critical lens of Imperialism from Medieval and Christian Times (as in, the Crusades from Western Europe into the Mideast were idiotic then, too);
Capitalism – as a ridiculous ideal, as reason for the Vietnam War, and as an end-goal of the war;
Terrible woeful ignorance – as in examples of the memorabilia and mementos of two of the chief architects of the war, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara;
I certainly respect the importance of Danh Vo’s works here, and in the conclusion of this essay I’ll talk about one other artist, Adrian Piper, and the writer Kurt Vonnegut.
Danh Vo has a lot of power in these works of art, but I personally was very much moved by two separate pieces involving the Statue of Liberty. In a very large sculpture, which appeared as part of the Guggenheim’s promotions for this show, Danh Vo made a copper replica of the left hand of the Statue of Liberty. The curator’s notes for this sculpture say Danh Vo’s sundering of the left hand, and all of the body parts of the statue, serves as a symbolism. One easily surmises the broken-pieces relate to the broken promises of both the United States, which received the gift of the Statue of Liberty, and France, who built and donated the gift; because both countries were culpable in executing the Vietnam War. This hand is powerful because Danh Vo broke this experience into two sculptures in the exhibit that people must walk around and willfully ignore like so much war history.
A second mixed-media entry, this time two-dimensional, again used the Statue of Liberty as its touchstone. Here, the artist used calligraphy in order to write an excerpt from Cinderella, on cardboard in red paint, with stencil-painted gold leaf of the Statue of Liberty interwoven. The paragraph from Cinderella is about how Cinderella’s evil step sisters cut off their toes to force themselves to fit into the glass slipper. This is a mockery of the American Dream of prosperity, because the United States has offers of riches in popular culture that don’t have bearing in real life. This is the basis for the “Horatio Alger Myth,” – an American version of the Cinderella fairytale. Here, the artist negates the fantasy by using its evil doppelganger; as if to say, “you ain’t Cinderella, honey. You’re the wicked ugly step sister.” They say if the shoe fits, wear it. Here the shoe shouldn’t fit, and Danh Vo wants his audience to dream a little bigger.
I thought Danh Vo lost symbolic power when he named names and specific objects. As a rule, getting specific mitigates anxieties, however, in this exhibit, Danh Vo was working to activate stresses as an entry point to awareness and healing. In a series of thank you notes, Henry Kissinger admitted to going to the Metropolitan Ballet during the Vietnam War. This is akin to the Roman Emperor Nero, “Fiddling while Rome burned,” but surely the Vietnam War wasn’t so Manichean? And, if it is only just Henry Kissinger’s fault, what does that have to do with me? Likewise making jewel cases out of Robert MacNamara’s nib fountain pens, used to sign treaties and bomb-authorizations; or, as in the above picture, the chandeliers from the room where the peace treaties were signed for the Vietnam War. Yes, these are harrowing and terrible artifacts, but does the jewel case make these -- art? The self-important pretension of showing off the macabre is undercut by the actual importance of the true tragedy.
In terms of writer Kurt Vonnegut, Danh Vo’s moralism and vengeful comedy looks a lot like scenes from Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus. The meaning behind “hocus pocus” in the book is the phrase usually translates to magic show trickery, whereas the United States was wrong to lie to the American people about the Vietnam War. Hocus pocus means bullshit. The problem with Vonnegut is his moralism seems sophomoric and sanctimonious. Although Vonnegut served in World War II, his lessons against the US government seem like a drag because they are over-simplistic, with no insight except for lament. Danh Vo’s works are self-important, too, and here he makes his criticisms in the fullest passion he possibly can. I think in spite of his similarities to Vonnegut, Danh Vo is more effective.
A second set of similarities comes from artist Adrian Piper (born 1948), who is on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art currently until July 22, 2018. In the Piper show, the artist used photographs and words in order to make a cognitive dissonance in the viewer. They are affecting and disorienting pictures. The subversive irony is against a commodity-based culture, which seeks to “pull the wool over the eyes,” of its citizens. For one keen real-life example, cynics will note popular culture has begun to ignore and accept complacency about new mass-shootings after the Parkland Massacre and the Black Lives Matter Movements. Does anyone even remember Occupy Wall Street? This speaks to Danh Vo’s use of commodities (in Danh Vo’s Take My Breath Away, carnation milk formula, and Budweiser beer), where Danh Vo uses capitalism as an overarching lie before-during-and-after the Vietnam War and Piper uses commodities to distract from the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement. Both artists are still alive, and so the future will be fascinating to see their leadership on the Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and Anti-Trump movements.