Danh Vo‘s 2013 has been a year filled with fame and exhibitions in worldwide acclaimed institutions and events. Winner of the Hugo Boss Prize 2012, he exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York, had a recent solo show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and at Museion in Bolzano, and participated in the central pavilion of the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale. Needless to say, his work doesn’t fail to surprise and make you gape in wonder. And it’s no surprise to me that his work does recall in some ways that of the great Chinese artist Zhang Huan, another one of my favourites, I must say.
The hot question is… how did he manage to salvage and export from Vietnam/import into Europe the (almost) entire remains of a French colonial era Catholic church? Wasn’t it under national historical patronage? But in fact, it was going to be demolished, so was that why it was easy (to buy it off)? Perhaps, with the right connections, it is an entirely possible feat. Or did it all work because of art’s sake? All I know is that an artist friend and her father from Hanoi helped him in some (mysterious, at least to me) ways locally and then flew over to Venice to help him with the installation of the work at the Arsenale.
This said, the result is surely brilliant. Particularly for someone like me, with an art and archaeology background, who is always attracted to “old things”, ancient, decrepit, ruins of all sorts, laden with history and memory and tradition and voices of the past. Just think of the smell of slightly moulding wood and of humid stones, of run down carpets and green bronze sculptures covered in the tell-tale green patina, testimony to the inexorable passage of time. Bliss!
The venue heightens the feeling of “sacredness”, of holy (and also terrifying war) phantoms, look at the empty structure and then close your eyes quickly to imagine the idiosyncratic beauty of the original church during colonial times in Vietnam, a mixture of French and Vietnamese architecture and ornaments, complete with the chanting of Bible verses and priestly sermons with the final chorus of “Amen.” Amen. And then maybe imagine the other aspect of that… the not so beautiful colonialism that imposed even its religious views upon a foreign population. And then open your eyes again to see the ruins of it all. The end of colonialism and now its return, defeated, to Europe.
“The fact of bringing the material rests of an unwanted building back to the cradle of Catholicism embodies the suffering of invaded peoples through the architecture of imperial domination,” says Deconcrete. Danh Vo is concerned about the effects of colonialism in the post-colonial era and the interconnections between people coming out of such periods of imperialism.
Chris Wiley, writing for the Venice Biennale catalogue, calls the church as an embodiment of “the melding of traditions that permeates many aspects of Vietnamese religious and cultural life”, as its architecture combines typical Vietnamese elements with more Western ones. He goes on to cite the anthropologist Marc Augé who wrote that the encroachment of imperialism is also a “war of dreams”, through which colonised people are robbed not only of political agency, but also of the power to fashion their collective identity through myth.
“… The ruins of the church, which had been slated for demolition, are a visible symbol of European efforts to colonise not only the land of the Vietnamese, but also their imagination.”
About the artist
Danh Vo was born in 1975 in Ba Ria Vung Tau, Vietnam. In 1979, he escaped with his family on a boat built by his father, which was intercepted by a Danish ship. The family was brought back as refugees to Denmark, where the artist grew up. Danh Vo studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark and the Städelschule, Frankfurt. He now lives and works in Berlin. Danh Vo’s work has been shown in major international venues, including: Art Institute of Chicago (2012-2013); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2012); National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen (2012, 2010); Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (2009); MoMA, New York (2009); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2008); Bergen Kunsthall, Norway (2006). He also took part in the Shanghai Biennale in 2012.
“In his work Danh Vo reflects on colonialism, migration and cultural identity, interlaced with personal memories of his childhood in Vietnam and the hardships his family faced during their escape to Europe.” (Curator Letizia Ragaglia)
All Photographs: Danh Vo, Hoang Ly Church (approx. 200 years old), Thai Binh province, Vietnam, 2013, wood, stone, bronze; Untitled (Christmas, Rome) 2012, velvet, approx. 230 x 164 cm each; wooden stretcher of Caravaggio’s ‘Natività con i Santi Lorenzo e Franceso d’Assisi’, stolen in 1969, 230 x 197 x 3 cm . Installation at the Arsenale for the 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Photos: C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia.