Danh Vo: We The People
Peer UK, London
4 October - 7 December 2013
Review by Binghao Wong
Public monuments are tricky things. Embodying unyielding frictions and contradictions, monuments often resemble anachronistic ruins of idealised pasts rather than symbols of contemporary national unity. Memories that monuments are supposed to ossify within public consciousness are lost in the tides of time and history, making them vulnerable to promiscuous manipulation and distortion into personal, rather than national or public, symbols.
Lauded contemporary artist Danh Vo capitalises on the malleability of monuments in his ongoing international exhibition ‘We The People’, currently making Peer UK, London its port of call. In this ambitious international project, Vo tackles perhaps the most recognisable monument of all: the Statue of Liberty. Spectators, however, would be hard-pressed to identify the unforgettable Statue in this exhibition, as the artist dismantles its iconicity and constructs its constituent parts from scratch. ‘We The People’ therefore consists of seemingly generic, trans-historical and trans-cultural copper plates reminiscent of Minimalist sculpture. Leaning almost helplessly on the gallery walls, Vo’s industrial banalities pale drastically in comparison to the Statue’s triumphal monumentality.
In this project of ostensible devaluation, Vo uncovers the forgotten history of the Statue as gift from France to the United States for its independence from the United Kingdom, a fact perhaps overshadowed by its prominence as a national (and global) symbol of freedom. The Statue’s own implication in various national narratives mirrors the artist’s own complicated genealogy (born in Vietnam, raised in Denmark, and currently working in Berlin and New York), which he exploits and incorporates into much of his work. Vo’s own complex personal narrative and genealogy aligns with that of the Statue of Liberty, allowing for commentary that infects and problematises the notion of a monument’s singular, timeless function. The competing memories and histories of both monument and artist generate necessary tension that reflects the degeneration of the once monolithic, but now fragmented Statue in Vo’s exhibition. By inscribing his biography and genealogical memory onto that of the (deconstructed) monument, power shifts from the monument to the artist.
As Anna Chave trenchantly notes, Minimalist sculpture of the likes of Judd, Morris and Serra perpetrates a brutal, imperialist quest for power and colonisation of space. Power, as indicated by critics and artists of Minimalism, can only be found in unity. By resisting intimacy, as Robert Morris put it, and pursuing uninterrupted wholeness, Minimalist sculpture retains its stronghold in space. In an act of defiance and autonomy, Vo subverts this art-historical notion of unity, producing parts and isolated Minimalistic remnants, as opposed to a fortified whole. Much like his personalisation of the Statue’s history, Vo once again dictates the power play between canonised ideals and the artist, ultimately emerging victorious. The artist thus shows that grand, supra-individual categories like formalism and history are fallible, and thus open to manipulation through autonomous action.
It is perfectly ironic, then, that Vo adopts the rooted monument - an anchor for civilisations and receptacle for historical memory - for his itinerant project. The peripatetic artist and his equally nomadic exhibition insolently defy the dictates of history, oneness and locality. Through this continuous enterprise, Vo performs the incommensurability between the ideology of nationhood and citizenship and the fashionably hackneyed topic of globalisation in contemporary art. He chooses not to sensationalise his own personal narrative in ‘We The People’, but rather to internalise it as a parallel to the equally complex and fluid history of the Statue of Liberty. Perhaps, in a similar vein to the Bolshevik avant-garde, Danh Vo calls for an equally utopian, yet post-Revolutionary perspective through negation and critique in his work. There might not be formal unity in the sculptural fragments on display, but there might just be solidarity to seek, as implied in Vo’s optimistic exhibition title.