In his work, Danh Vo proposes that you don’t necessarily have to have made an object in order to call it your own. The very typewriter that the Unabomber used to pen his manifestos was included in his 2018 Guggenheim Museum retrospective, as was a chair used by a member of the Kennedy administration. Neither of these objects would have been out of place in a history museum. In Vo’s hands, however, they become art.
And so it can be somewhat alarming when Vo crafts anything at all, no matter how amateurish it is. The artist, too, seems to feel a bit of discomfort with showing anything that he personally has made.
In a recent interview, he described plans to show recent iPhone photographs of flowers spotted in his garden. With a chuckle, he labeled doing so a “selfish” act.
Vo was speaking from Venice, where he was at work installing a show at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, an art space known primarily for its holdings of Baroque and Rococo art. (Occasionally, there are also exhibitions of contemporary art there.) This week, those centuries-old paintings will be in the company of much newer works by Vo, as well as the late modernist sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi and painter Park Seo-bo, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Working with the space’s curator Chiara Bertola, Vo organized the exhibition, which has been designated a “living archive” by the two.
On the surface, none of the three contemporary artists have much in common, other than that they are all of Asian descent and represented by White Cube gallery (which was an organizer of the show). Noguchi made sculptures and design objects that are sleek and elegant, with plenty of allusions to the art of Japan, where his father was born. Park paints understated abstractions that have won him fame in South Korea. Vo’s conceptually minded objects feel far removed from both oeuvres.
When it comes to the biographies, all three artists diverge sharply as well, although two are members of the Asian diaspora. In 1979, when he was still a child, Vo fled South Vietnam with his family for the West after the fall of Saigon. Meanwhile, Noguchi was born in Los Angeles 75 years earlier, and later spent time in Japan. Park, on the other hand, has always been based in Korea, although he and his family shuffled around during the first half of the 20th century due to a variety of conflicts on the Korean peninsula.
Asked to explain the similarities between his own life and work and those of Park and Noguchi, Vo demurred, saying, “We have a tendency to try to make sense of things. I think we live in a world that doesn’t make sense. I mean, why should we try to make sense of it? What we can do is try to get a grip on what our daily life means and what the society we live in today expresses. I hope that it’s personal.”
As it happens, this is not the first time that Vo has offered up others’ art for his own shows. He famously did so in 2013, when, as part of a show held on the occasion of winning the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize, he exhibited a collection of ephemera and artworks related to Martin Wong. Wong was a queer painter associated with the 1980s East Village art scene who died in 1999 of AIDS-related causes. In the almost 15 years after his death, Wong’s work wasn’t as well known as it is today. Now, however, he is, thanks to the resulting Vo piece, I M U U R 2, which many consider a classic of its era.
Katherine Brinson, the curator of Vo’s 2018 Guggenheim survey, once wrote that, with I M U U R 2, Vo was “‘authoring’ a work with a formulation of merged identity.” In other words, he was collapsing the divide between original and non-original, between his own work and someone else’s. Could the Fondazione Querini Stampalia show be considered along the same lines? Not quite, Vo said.
“I wanted to just take these three traditional mediums, and see what we could make out of these artists from different times,” he said.
When it comes to Noguchi’s work, anyone’s natural impulse would probably have been to go for his sculptures, which translate modernist abstraction into the third dimension. “People are taking care of that,” Vo said, referring to the sculptures’ frequent appearances in various spaces across the world, including, most recently, the White House Rose Garden. Instead, Vo is showing design objects by the artist. In the ’50s, Noguchi began producing his Akari lamps, which have been prized for their ability to turn traditionally chunky mass-produced objects light and elegant.
The Akari appear alongside examples from Park’s famed “Ecriture” series, which made him a leading purveyor of the South Korean movement known as Dansaekhwa. For these works, Park incised still-wet blocks of paint on canvas with thin pencil lines, creating repetitive patterns. “They’re just really beautiful,” Vo said.
Vo referred back to the flower photographs he has been producing, which also evince a similar understated quality. Vo has been taking the pictures for the past couple years, having been first moved to utilize the little camera that’s constantly in his pocket, courtesy his iPhone. Phung Vo, Danh’s father, is a frequent paid collaborator; Danh once had Phung design his own tombstone, which will be shipped from Minneapolis to Denmark upon Vo père’s death. Here, Phung wrote the scientific classifications of each colorful bloom in calligraphic lettering below each image.
When he first rose to fame during the late 2000s, Vo was considering the many ways that plain objects get subjected to complex systems. “I think today, 15 years later, I’m more interested in why I have this lack of knowledge about things that are so simple,” he said. The Latin scientific terms used below each image are a reference to these gaps felt by Vo, who is based in Berlin, and his gardener, who predominantly speaks German, almost entirely at the exclusion of any other languages.
Overlays of past and present are common in the universe of lightly used things that Vo has constructed, and they will be felt at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia show, too, where art movements, continents, and personal histories are going to be bridged. “It’s a good way of putting things in perspective,” Vo said of the show.