Among a rising generation of international artists, Berlin-based Danh Vo has one of the more dramatic biographies. Born in Vietnam in 1975 (the year the war ended), he and his family escaped a refugee camp five years later using a boat built by his father. They were rescued at sea by a Danish tanker, landing them in Copenhagen, where Danh grew up. This personal history was not overtly addressed in his exhibition, “L’artiste et le décorateur” (The artist and the decorator), but it was there in the background. Conflating sculpture and interior design, the show juxtaposed Asia and Europe, departures and arrivals, quest and limitation.
In the middle of the room, a freestanding partition covered on both sides with white glazed tiles functioned as an austere sculpture, a plausible (if dislocated) bathroom wall and a hefty barrier. Each tile was screenprinted (according to Danh in “warm red ink”) with a small, quietly gorgeous and ethereal plant detail. Pods, wispy fronds, gracefully curving leaves and delicate stems seemingly float in the white grounds, their designs based on engravings of southern Chinese and Tibetan flowers by the 19th-century French missionary and botanist Jean-André Soulié. In the gallery’s garden, Danh installed various Asian rhododendrons, also chronicled by Soulié, alongside European plants.
While Danh’s tile wall suggests high-end domestic design, it is also suffused with the history of European encounters with “exotic” Asia, which led to, among other eventualities, the French colonization of Vietnam, subsequent wars, and the death or displacement of millions. Arrayed around the wall were domestic objects from different eras and contexts: a crimson 19th-century ottoman (its very name an instance of orientalism), a white ceramic bidet, and a lumpy, oddly captivating, sculpture made of hotel robes, slippers and a chair.
In the next room, a semitransparent shower curtain stretched along one wall and in front of a doorway. Imprinted with a scene from an anonymous 19th-century Vietnamese painting of the decapitation and dismemberment of a French missionary named Jean-Charles Cornay, the curtain functioned as both scrim and portal: you looked through it at works on the wall, and parted its images of severed limbs and splattered blood to access the office and garden. A passport photograph of the five-year-old Danh and an 1852 photograph of five young French missionaries about to leave Paris for the Far East looked almost apparitional behind the curtain, suggesting powerful yet fading memories. One of the missionaries, Théophane Vénard, was later captured and beheaded in Vietnam, and his farewell letter to his father also appeared here, beautifully copied out by hand by Danh’s father. This was a spare, disquieting exhibition, resonant with the traffic and collisions of East and West.
[Danh Vo’s exhibition “Autoerotic Asphyxiations” is on view at Artists Space, New York, through Nov. 7.]