Thursday, 4 July 2019


Danh Vō said not a word during a recent presentation of his work in Fontainebleau, France, at the 9th Festival of Art History.

Instead, the Vietnamese-born Danish conceptual artist sat quietly on stage, occasionally sipping a glass of water, as American scholar Joshua Chambers-Letson delivered an erudite study of his art, accompanied by slides and a video. The session - the festival’s opening event - had been billed as a “conversation”.

Danh Vo. (Photo: M. Engelund)
Afterwards, the audience was perhaps too dumbfounded to ask questions, so artist and scholar left the stage with a simple “thank you”.
The message seemed to be this: an artist doesn’t need to speak, as his or her output already says volumes. And why talk anyway when there is an expert to do so for you?
In the case of Vō, his iconoclastic installations do tell stories – about migration, struggle, resistance, individualism, history.
In one notable work, for instance, he created art from the refrigerator, television set and other items that his grandmother received as an immigrant to Europe, thus depicting her journey via his presentation.
In another, the main object is a chandelier that might have come from some palace or castle. Viewers are invited to question its meaning.
“I see my work as sculptures,” Vō told SWAN in an interview at the festival, after agreeing to discuss his art. “When you look at the chandelier, you don’t see the castle, but it’s all there too - the history, the colonialism. Our vision gets easily blurred, so the real work is to continuously remember to look at things. We close our eyes too often.”
Born in Bà Ria, Vietnam, in 1975, Vō was still a child when his family fled the war-torn Asian country in a homemade boat. They were rescued at sea and eventually settled in Denmark, according to his media biography.
Danh Vo and scholar Joshua Chambers-Letson on stage.

The assimilation into European culture and the events in Vietnam that forced the departure have influenced his art, with a critic noting that Vō’s work exposes the “intertwining of collective history and intimate experience that shape our individuality”.
An intriguing aspect of his art is also the way he addresses colonialism by using objects associated with this history - such as the chandelier or a throne-like chair. During the interview, he joked that some of the furnishings at the Chateau de Fontainbleau (where the festival was held) would make a good artistic narrative.
Such objects, Vō believes, accumulate a “symbolic burden”, and by interacting with them, viewers can examine their own history and heritage.
Vō said he was often urged not to cling to the past while growing up, but he thinks the avoidance of history can be a problem for personal development. “There are traps on both sides - being immersed in the past as well as being determined not to look back,” he told SWAN. “We have to find a balance.”
At the Festival, he was representing Denmark, as the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) were the guest of honour at the event. He said he embraces his various identities, seeing this as enrichment, and the multiplicity of perspectives does add to the impact of his work.
“The idea that people don’t move is a crazy concept,” he said. “We’ve been led to believe it - that territories are for some and not others.”
Vō and his art are in fact constantly on the move, with exhibitions in Asia, the United States and Europe. In France, Paris’ Museum of Modern Art held a major show of his work in 2013, and last year he was a featured artist at Bordeaux’s contemporary art museum, the CAPC.
But not everyone gets his work. After the presentation at the Festival, a member of the audience told SWAN that “all this talk about colonialism was not interesting” and that it was “pointless” to keep bringing up the past. “That lecture was awful, horrendous,” the spectator said.
It’s a reaction that is familiar to artists and scholars who address colonialism. “Being in France is always a learning experience for me,” Vō said. “I like to see what the reaction is to my work.” - SWAN