by Luca Fiore
“A light cut of a saber will separate my head, like a gardener cuts a spring flower for his pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth that God reaps in His due time, some earlier, some later. May it be the purple rose, the maiden lily, or the humble violet. Let us all try to please the Lord and Master according to the scent or color that is given to us.” Thus wrote St. Théophane Vénard, a French missionary to Vietnam, on January 20, 1861, in his last letter to his father just days before his martyrdom. The full text in French, transcribed in beautiful calligraphy on a sheet of paper, hangs on a wall of the Milanese Viale Lombardia branch of Galleria Massimo De Carlo, which is hosting an exhibition by naturalized Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo. The artist himself, who has participated three times in the Venice Biennale and has exhibited in major instructions around the world from the Guggenheim in New York to the Reina Sofia in Madrid, admits that it is the work that best summarizes the terms of his poetics, which he likes to display in every exhibition. “If I could have created only one work in my whole career, I would have produced this one,” he tells me.
Vietnam is the only Asian country that switched to using the Latin alphabet during French rule. The artist’s father, who fled the country with his family in 1979 and landed in Denmark when Dahn was only four years old, had never made use of his calligraphy skills except for a few signs to put on display in his own grocery stores. The man, now 72 years-old, never learned Danish or any other Western language. The work, first created in 2009, comprises of Danh Vo’s father, Phung Vo, copying St. Vénard’s letter in beautiful handwriting despite not being able to understand what is written. Thus, the artist explains, it is in fact a drawing and not a text. The “drawing,” in blue pen on an A4 sheet of paper, is re-done each time a collector requests it. “So far we have made almost 2,000. It is not an edition – each sheet has a fixed price of 300 euros – but it is a single work that will come to an end with my father’s death.” And it is no coincidence that the dating of the work entitled 2.2.1861 is 2009– ongoing. Vo continues, explaining that “it talks about how language travels, returns, and mutates. It references the fact that the writer cannot read and that the text is also an image. It is a work that reflects on how violent power can return cyclically in the history of a country. But it also speaks of the distance between the creator and the observer, the distance between the French reader of today and the 19th century, and finally the distance between me and my father.” It is a reflection on the difference between human beings, but also on their possibility to be connected. And again, it is a poke at the meaning of work, the toil of manual dexterity, the precision of the calligrapher.”
This sheet dictates the atmosphere of the artist’s entire intervention in the spaces of the Corbellini-Wassermann House, designed by Piero Portaluppi in 1934, home of the gallery. Vo enters into a dialogue with the marble and wooden flooring of the former apartment, using marble scraps he procured from a producer in Bolzano. The artist uses the stone, along with softwood, iron clamps and fragments of antique sculptures, to make installations that Vo says play with the concept of “interlocking.” The fragments of ancient sculptures rest on marble, which, in turn, rests on wood. The idea is to create a pedestal for the sculpture, but the work is a dialogue between the two types of stone. “It is an attempt to look at works from the past in a different way, through the lens of time and other elements that have intervened in the material, including the human hand,” he explains. He adds, “The point is to observe the different types of beauty of the stone, what has happened to it: the cutting of the machine, the chisel that carved it, or the time that polished it.”
The most striking work in the exhibition, which the artist conceived as a single installation made on site, is in my opinion the work whose base is formed by a kind of salt-and-pepper granite bench, on which a fragment of sculpture resembling the decoration of a lion’s foot and a bronze face of Christ rest “interlocking.” The two elements are supported by small softwood supports. Christ’s face cannot be recognized except by lowering one’s gaze to the level of the bench.
The use of armless crucifixes, statues of medieval madonnas or fragments of Roman sculptures is common in Vo’s work. Their recontextualization and re-signification resembles what early Christian artists did in turn with myths, festivals, and buildings from the Roman world. In their own small way, the Vietnamese artist’s elegant and balanced compositions participate in the same language as Rome’s Pantheon, where the grandeur of the pagan temple becomes a celebration of Marian worship. For Vo, this is not ancient art at all: “These pieces do not belong to the past. They are objects that we still come across today. And many of the ones I choose communicate the sense of destruction wrought by time.” By the same logic, he took the original frame of the Caravaggio stolen in Palermo in 1969 to the 2013 Venice Biennale: “It was like a scar. It had to do with the idea of the fragment.” In a sense, the words of Saint Vénard, the French missionary, are also used in this same way.
Vo’s relationship with the Catholic Church is not linear. In the 1960s his father had secretly converted from Confucianism to Catholicism in silent protest against the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem. As a boy, the artist was educated in his parents’ religion and tells me he went to Mass every Sunday until he was 18 when, hating doing it, he stopped for good: “I got rid of a trauma.”
One of his great points of reference is Cuban artist Félix Gonzalez-Torres, whose exhibition he curated in Brussels in 2010 as part of the “Specific Objects Without Specific Form” project. Vo says that Gonzalez-Torres “taught me to embrace contradictions. He works using oppositions. He could make a private fact public, showing his bed pillows on a billboard, and he could touch the private dimension of a public fact, such as the plague of AIDS.”
Bringing opposites together, showing contradictions remains one of the goals of Vo’s art because, he explains, “That’s the way life is.” Art, he says, must have to do with what one believes in, “and I believe in the contradictions of things. We learn that there is always meaning in life, but things often go in the opposite direction, contradicting it. And these two phenomena coexist. It is important for me to come to terms with this paradox.”
For the past five years, after a stint in Mexico City, Vo opened a studio in Stechlin, a village in the countryside an hour and a half from Berlin. The building is surrounded by a large plot of land that he is turning into a large garden. The artist realized he did not know the names of the plants, flowers and birds he was seeing. “I thought it was wrong,” he says, “So I decided it was time to learn them.” At first, not knowing German well, he tried baptizing plants with invented names. Then he decided to use their botanical names in Latin. This is how a new series of works, presented for the first time in the exhibition by De Carlo, was born, in which photographs of flowers taken by the artist himself are presented in prints with their Latin names underneath, written by his father Phung Vo in his perfect calligraphy. “Having a garden teaches you patience. It is good to watch things change over time. My exhibitions live for a limited time. When they come apart they disappear. Plants, on the other hand, keep growing and changing. The lockdown gave me a chance to notice the seasons. It had been ten years since, travelling all over the world, I had witnessed this phenomenon.” This, like the St. Vénard letter series, is also an ongoing work that is constantly growing. It will perhaps one day baptize the purple rose, the maiden lilac and the humble violet in Latin.