For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the seventh installment of this 10-part journey.
VI. Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water
Any of the recent copious articles or features on the work of artist Danh Vo generally begin with a story: Danh Vo (pronounced “yon voh” according to a helpful recent New York Times article) was born in 1975 in Vietnam; in 1979 he escaped on a boat built by his father.1 The boat was picked up by a Danish vessel and because of this Vo and his family ended up in Denmark, where they eventually became naturalized citizens. That’s it. After that things diverge. There are different stories to tell, different moments in his industriously productive career to explore. The narrative has taken on the status of a foundation myth (albeit empirically provable), one that the artist has variously resisted or manipulated, which has paved the way for work that engages, among other things, questions of identity and biography, though not as one might expect. In an interview in Dutch magazine Metropolis M in 2010, the artist talked about his emergence: “I just started to do things but my work was quickly categorized as ‘working with identities.’ But I thought: if I am working with identity, then it should be a bit more fucked up, because identities aren’t stable nowadays, they are complex and schizophrenic.”2
Vo’s work can be seen as a philosophy of practice that runs through his many projects, exhibitions, and relationships—a keen attention to art-historical precedence as well as geopolitics and the implications of living in a world that is more imbricated than ever before. People, objects, history, and various identity formations all become material in his expanding and accumulating oeuvre, producing a profound portrait, not necessarily of himself, but of the complicities and complexities of life today. In this sense, Vo can often use the personal as a bridge to wider considerations, or fold contexts into his work less as a form of appropriation than as a meditation on context and relation that spans time and geography. What happens if I bring this into my lexicon? And now this? And now this? It’s a shifting, rich, and provocative world of references and strategies that also sidesteps a binary approach to, say, the history of colonization or questions of sexual identity. Biography is mutable and contextual, history fluid and unsettled, always inhabiting the present as an evolving open work capable of producing new revelations. Friendship and intimacy are key and often reflected in unexpected quarters; the artist has turned the incidents of history into so many collaborators as eclectic and vital as his roving and expanding entourage (friends, family, artists, writers, and supporters), many of whom have become key agents around and within the work.
To give an example, in 2002 Denmark became the first country to legalize gay marriage, but the rights afforded to LGBT couples did not include several afforded to straight, such as the right to adopt children. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, city authorities began clearing trees in a park that was traditionally associated with gay cruising. Vo felt that the institution of marriage being offered to gays and others was about the exertion of a certain form of control. And yet life is full of institutions with which we can engage that are meant to serve specific functions. Vo wanted to make the institution meaningful for himself, so he decided to use the marriage system as a way to project personal memories within his name (I think of it almost as marriage-as-tattoo). He married people with whom he felt some personal affinity, and then divorced them while retaining their legal names. So far he has married two individuals, a Rosasco and a Rasmussen, but conceptually the project is still ongoing, and theoretically he could (as one critic pointed out) marry people until ultimately there are too many words to fit on the marriage certificate.3
There is something fascinating about this project and how it relates to a story Vo once told me about coming out to his parents. Catholic and socially conservative southern Vietnamese, they seemed fine with it, and began trying to get him to marry acquaintances in Vietnam so that they too could escape to Denmark. His point was that with their Vietnamese make-do attitude, they could always find the use in something even if they couldn’t find the meaning. The Rosasco Rasmussen project is interesting when aligned with that sensibility. Vo finds the use in marriage, even if he can’t find the meaning. But then again, the opposite could equally be true, and perhaps that’s the point—it depends upon your position in relation to the something being discussed.4
It’s worth noting that when Vo arrived in Denmark as a child, the authorities mixed up the family’s names. Many Asian countries put the family names first and the given names second. Vo’s name in Vietnam was Vo trung ky-Danh (“trung” means “middle” and “ky” means “special”). On his arrival in Denmark, the authorities simply shuffled the “Vo” to the end so his middle name became his first, Trung Ky Danh Vo. When you add in the names from the marriages, and then the different combinations with which the artist uses them, you have someone who has embedded within his legal nomenclature a shifting range of potential identities. This is something with which the artist plays in his own movements, as his existence is fairly nomadic—constantly on the go from one project, exhibition, residency, or opening to another—requiring him to have at least some structure in various cities where he lays his head. The names become tools in the process of navigating through the various legal, immigration, and financial bureaucracies he encounters. Vo often sends his acquaintances JPEGs of images he has shot on his travels. A few years back, I received one of a debit card from Bank of America. He had chosen to have a themed card, and his template featured the words “Military Banking” in large black type and a Blackhawk helicopter hovering in sinister silhouette against a sunset. The name on the card reads “Trung Rasmussen.” Somehow this simple gesture, one that is likely never intended to be viewed in an “art” context, captures so much about the ways in which Vo both utilizes and points to the bureaucratic absurdities that condition our world. The gay Danish artist of Vietnamese descent with a militaristic banking card that features a US air force helicopter and names that are as apt to describe the owner as any other: the army of the individuals indeed.
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” So reads the inscription on a black stone with gold-leaf engraving that was installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in the spring of 2012. Titled Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010), it’s one of several works by Vo recently acquired by the Walker Art Center. On the death of the artist’s father, Phùng Vo, the stone will be shipped to Denmark and placed over his grave in Vestre Kirkegård, a large cemetery in Copenhagen. It is in part Vo’s history that has given him a profound understanding of the importance of documents, which the artist has described as “equivalent to a performance, since through paper and institutions our society has already determined our movements and actions.”5 Just as immigration documents have controlled his family’s movements in life, the Walker’s acquisition of Vo’s work has led to contractual obligations that will impact various activities after his father’s death: among them, Phùng Vo has created a will for the Walker that confirms arrangements for his funeral.6 In addition to other details, the will bequeaths to the institution four artifacts of personal significance, including a gold crucifix with a chain and three objects he purchased soon after he arrived in Denmark. These items—a Dupont lighter, an American military class ring, and a Rolex watch—have since been “upgraded” to newer models. Phùng Vo bought them originally because to him, as a recent immigrant from communist Vietnam, they symbolized a particularly Western brand of success and masculinity.
Whereas the tombstone will rest within the protective enclave of the Walker until it is sent to the cemetery in Copenhagen, these four objects will be part of Phùng Vo’s daily life until he dies. After the tombstone arrives in Copenhagen, the artifacts will be delivered to Minneapolis, where they can be installed in a vitrine designed by the artist. In this regard, the work can be seen as a performance scripted by a series of documents—the contract, the will, export papers, etc.—that enacts itself over many years and involves many players, from Vo family and Walker staff members to the lawyer whose expertise was needed to ensure the purchase and anyone else who finds out about the work and becomes engaged with it over time. The tombstone is not just the sum of its parts, but also the stories that coalesce around it in its journey from the institution of the museum to the institution of the cemetery.
One of the remarkable things about the tombstone is the way in which it manifests relationships and lines of thought that move across geography and history: relationships, for instance, between two individuals who were buried in exile and one individual who will be, someday. Near the end of his life, French playwright and activist Jean Genet taught his lover and his lover’s son to mimic his handwriting so they could help him forge the old manuscripts he sold to stay afloat. After his death in 1986, Genet was buried in the Spanish cemetery in Larache, Morocco. When the plaque on his gravestone was stolen, his lover’s son carved Genet’s signature into the rock. Because he was trained to write in Genet’s hand, it was as if the playwright had signed his own grave.7 This story was a key strand in Vo’s thinking about the tombstone work, as was a visit to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome in 2009, where the artist came across the grave of Romantic poet John Keats, who died in the city in 1821 at the age of 25 after traveling there to seek a cure for tuberculosis. Largely unknown at the time of his death, Keats asked that the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” be carved on his grave. Vo later wrote, “When I first encountered Keats’s tombstone, I believed everybody deserves such a beautiful inscription.”8
The artist asked his father, a skilled calligrapher, to make sketches of the inscription. Phùng Vo experimented with a number of treatments before settling on a Gothic type style (prevalent in Rome) because he found it “exotic.” Using his father’s design, Vo had the inscription carved onto a slab of black absolute granite and inset with gold leaf. At some point in the process, he asked his father if the work could serve as his tombstone. Phùng Vo assented.9
In the future, people wandering through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will come across the rock sunk into the earth amid a line of trees on the fringes of a pathway just feet from the traffic of Hennepin Avenue. Then someday on a return visit, they will perhaps notice that the stone is gone. If they care to dig further, they will realize that it has made the trip across the water to Copenhagen. The stone will remain a part of the collection, though the Walker will have no legal obligation to maintain it over time. Rather, it will act as any gravestone would, kept in good care by the Vo family until the reasons for doing so are forgotten.
1Roberta Smith, “Awash in a Cultural Deluge: ‘The Hugo Boss Prize 2012,’ Danh Vo Works at the Guggenheim,” New York Times (March 14, 2013), accessed June 13, 2013.
2DanhVo,interview about his then current Stedelijk Museum exhibition Package Tour, in Erik van Tuijn, “Danh Vo: Identities are complex and schizophrenic,” Metropolis M (July 30, 2008), accessed June 10, 2013.
3See curator Luigi Fassi’s fascinating text on the artist in Luigi Fassi, “Terra Incognita,” Artforum International (February 2010): 152–159 .
4 The artist in conversation with the author, 2011.
5 Francesca Pagliuca, “No Way Out: An Interview with Danh Vo,” Mousse Magazine 17 (February 2009), accessed June 10, 2013.
6The contract that governs the acquisition was negotiated over the course of a year with the assistance of Mary Polta, the Walker’s chief financial officer, Walker registrar Joe King, and lawyer J. Hazen Graves of Faegre Baker Daniels LLC. It also required the collaboration of Marta Lusena and Isabella Bortolozzi of Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, in addition to, of course, the artist, his father, and family. The negotiations included a provision whereby Phùng Vo drew up a will establishing his assent to the terms of the agreement, and the Vo family was obliged to buy a family plot in the graveyard in anticipation of the exchange.
7The incidents of this event are elaborated in Edmund White, Genet: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
8The artist in conversation with the author, July 2010.
9This work was first shown in the exhibition All your deeds in water are writ, but this in marble were presented at the Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, October 2 to November 7, 2010. See also the Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie website, accessed June 10, 2013.