by AV Ryan
Take My Breath Away
GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM | FEBRUARY 9 – MAY 9, 2018
But before you have crossed the range you have seen rock of such varied type, age, and provenance that time itself becomes nervous…The rocks seem to change as fast as the traffic. You see vein-rich, badly deformed metamorphic rock. You see serpentine. Gabbro. One thing follows another in a manner that seems random—a collection of relics from varied ages and many ancestral landscapes, transported from far or near, set beside or upon one another…you cannot be expected, just by looking at it, to fit it all together in mobile space and sequential time, to see the congestion within this lithic barn—this Sierra Nevada, this aticful of objects from around the Pacific world—the event and the vistas that each item represents.
— John McPhee, Assembling California (1993) in Annals of the Former World (1998), compiled by Julie Ault for Danh Vo’s Death Sentence (2009)
The first thing I notice is the light. The covering of the Guggenheim oculus has been removed and natural light floods the rotunda, buoyant and bright. As I enter the first gallery, the light dims. Several velvet wall coverings from the Vatican hang high in one corner. Discolored by light, they bear the imprints of crucifixes, candlesticks, and small icons that they once displayed. Below, the stripped wooden frame of an armchair picks up the bleached and tawny golds of the velvet. The label explains that it is one of two from Kennedy’s Cabinet room gifted by Jackie Kennedy to Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War. The chairs’ black leather coverings hang in the far corner, while their insides—horsehair, muslins, nails—are distributed throughout the rotunda galleries. Other items in the first gallery include a 14th century steel sword used in the Crusades, incised with both Christian and Muslim insignia, and the foot and foreleg of a 2nd century CE Roman marble. Penciled in large Gothic script on the back wall, one can read, with some difficulty, “The Promised Land.”
Language and, more specifically, reading play a large role in all of Vo’s work. The challenge is whether we approach it, to use Robert Smithson’s phrase, as “language to be looked at…or things to be read.” The labels give the provenance of each artifact and some historical background. When read, they can snap an object into focus, inflect its considerable formal beauty with a semantic charge. A lexicon slowly emerges of memory and desire amid the vast geopolitical forces that shaped the Danish-Vietnamese artist’s life: American imperialism, the Catholic Church, the Vietnam War.
Other artifacts are themselves texts, and are accompanied by labels as well. They include, among others, the last letter of a French missionary awaiting execution in Hanoi, copied by Vo’s father in a round, almost cheerful calligraphic hand. Dated and titled 2.2.1861, [Saint Théophane] Vénard’s letter to his father is tender and serene, even as he discloses his impending beheading. In another gallery, fourteen of Kissinger’s letters to a theater critic, written at the height of the war, are displayed in individual vitrines; in one, Kissinger blithely prefers ballet to contemplating Cambodia, where he led a covert bombing campaign. Tone and import, date and context are at variance; attentive reading can recover some of the depth and complexity each text conceals. One text challenges our ability to read at all. A 60-page text, assembled by Julie Ault for Vo, is installed thigh-high along the curving outer wall of one of the rotunda galleries. For approximately 40 feet, we find passages from authors as varied as John McPhee, E.M. Cioran and J.G. Ballard, all carefully copied by Vo’s father. With my head cocked left to accommodate the rotunda’s incline and the protective glass spotted with glare, it makes for difficult but compelling reading.
None of these texts or labels makes outsized claims for their own political efficacy. Rather, each draws attention to legibility itself. I find myself wanting to read more, to penetrate deeper into the strata of time and history and memory each item contains within itself. Questions rather than answers emerge: What if we, like Vo’s father, do not read French? Can we still read the filial concern and grace with which Vénard faces execution? Do any of these texts or artifacts inspire us to do more reading? Do we discretely turn to Google to read about—or did we already know—that a million Catholics fled Communist North Vietnam for the U.S.-backed South at the beginning of hostilities? Do we remember that Kennedy was the first Catholic American president? Or that the exodus of South Vietnamese following the end of the war were largely Catholic fleeing re-education programs, including Vo’s family? Reading—as I was repeatedly made aware—is at best partial, and yet, as our reading asymptotically approaches a completeness we can never fully achieve, each object inches closer to presence. This is bittersweet territory.
Vo makes all the final decisions about where and how individual pieces are displayed. He gives his objects a great deal of space and his compositional strategies—repetition, juxtaposition, and shifts in scale—allow the objects to alter each other and the space they occupy. For example, hands recur in different scales and media, spanning an intimate photograph of two young Vietnamese men holding hands to the car-sized copper replicas of the Statue of Liberty’s hands, propped on casual wooden struts. The former, occupying less than a centimeter of space, have a larger affective charge than the Mother of Exile’s empty hands.
Space is both a lexical and compositional element. In one gallery, a photogravure of a shiny silver umbilical cord that tethers an American astronaut floating in space; in another, a tiny silver cross hangs high on the wall, having circled the earth on Gemini IV in the same year, 1965. A chandelier that originally hung in the Hotel Majestic during the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, putatively ending the Vietnam War, hangs inches off the ground; obdurate and unlit, it impedes our way. Further on, scores of iron implements—hooks, pincers, blades—hang above our heads along with gilded cardboard American flags. Like shadow chandeliers or a sky of hostile stars, they allude to air campaigns and torture at once. Further on, four fountain pen nibs stained with ink are displayed in a small inset vitrine. In one of the most vertiginous moments in the show, I thought, for a moment, that I was looking at a squadron of distant fighter planes. In the next, I seemed to be peering at tiny reliquaries. The nibs, the label explains, belong to four presidential signing pens authorizing the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Dismemberment and dislocation figure largely in Vo’s work as do conjoined fragments of Roman and Gothic statuary. In one, the torso of an oak Madonna and Child, from the early French Gothic period, nearly obliterates the delicate marble torso of a 1st – 2nd century CE Apollo. The moldering oak has erased the folds of the Madonna’s robe and most of the infant’s head. Below, the slender marble groin is broken and discolored. Mounted on a steel shaft inserted in the left thigh, the juxtaposition is both violent and hushed. Read the title—an obscenity from The Exorcist—and the work shrieks, as if the Christian statuary were expelling the pagan. The dates are also significant. The marble is contemporaneous with the adoption of Christianity, after decades of persecution, as the imperial Roman religion. Not tied to local rites and gods, Christianity could and did, literally, go anywhere. And as it did, it idealized the heavily draped body and the tortured body of Christ, eclipsing the sensuous beauty of the male form, so prized by ancient Greek and Roman culture. Vo renders this shift, spanning centuries, with visceral immediacy.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that thinking is not about intellectual prowess but about the ability to perceive the shape of a life that is different than one’s own. This crucial ability, she argues, is a bulwark against totalitarianism. In our time of rigid polarities and mutual incomprehension, it is salutary to be reminded how to do this. By engaging Vo’s syntax of personal and political forces, new synaptic connections are forged, which make the contours of his life visible. Vo has done the heavy lifting for us here; he is giving us the tools and a method to do so, if we choose.
As I retraced my steps down the rotunda, the Vatican velvets came into view again, now at eye-level or even just below. Daylight was streaming in behind me, imperceptibly erasing the traces of crosses and other relics. The velvets looked a little different than I remembered them. And that, I think, is the point.
AV RYAN is a sculptor and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.