Danish Vietnamese artist Danh Vo is quickly turning into a coveted item this summer. An article in Frieze about his research in Vietman and his participation in Manifesta 7 have no doubt turned heads in his direction. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is now showing Vo’s Package Tour as part of Docking Station, a series of small presentations of young and upcoming international artists. Metropolis M spoke with Vo in Amsterdam about the influence of Western imperialism on his family’s life, and how he traces their complex personal histories through his work.
—Erik van TuijnEven your name is part of an art project I believe? You married and divorced two people in order to add their family name to yours?
—Danh VoYeah. The beginning of the Name Project actually came from a mix up with my own name. In many Asian countries the family name precedes your ‘first’ name. When I came to Denmark, the bureaucracy couldn’t handle this, so what happened was that my family name became my first name and my first name my family name. My middle name ended up as my very first name on the official documents, which is rather funny, because my middle name actually means just that: ‘middle’.
—Erik van TuijnDoes the project tie in with your migration background, the fact that you yourself have taken on a coincidental identity? You came to Denmark by chance after all [Vo and his family were picked up by a Danish cargo ship while fleeing Vietnam on a self-made boat].
—Danh VoThe names are memories. The project was a reaction to the fact that Denmark was the first country to legalize gay marriage. In my point of view this defines gays as second hand citizens, because you get a ‘privilege’, but since you are not allowed to adopt children for instance, you don’t get all the benefits.
—Erik van TuijnThey’re buying you off in a way.
—Danh VoExactly. It’s a way of exerting control. I thought people were crazy doing this. But what interested me was that it created the possibility to use the marriage system in another way, using the bureaucracy for personal reasons. In my case: to project personal memories in my name.
—Erik van TuijnYou married those people because they meant something personal to you and you wanted to make that visible.
—Danh Vo Yes, and this was made possible by the government that had already excluded me. The work is about traditions that are leftovers from a system that doesn’t make sense anymore. As everybody else, I just try to make it meaningful for myself.
—Erik van TuijnLet’s talk about your exhibition at the Stedelijk. Why 'Package Tour'?
—Danh VoI called the exhibit Package Tour, which is a budget holiday, so there was no reason to ‘conquer’ the space, using all of it. I just put everything I had with me in it. The ‘gate’ at the entrance is a leftover from Marc Boulos’ All That Is Solid Melts Into Air show, which was here before mine. I decided to have the crates of the objects on display installed here as well, because a package tour is about moving things from one place to another.
The casing at the entrance displays objects from my father, a Rolex watch, a Dupont lighter and an American military class ring. He acquired all these objects after he came to the West. They are the manifestations of desires from the time he was still in Vietnam. The most radical one is the military ring, because in Vietnam this means you either came from a very rich family or you got it because you were very intelligent and were sent to the US to study at the military academy. For the pro-American South Vietnamese it was very prestigious. All the objects are in fact parts of US, French and capitalistic propaganda. It’s one of my favorite pieces, because it’s not only about my father’s memories but it’s also the idea of masculinity and power: time, fire, war, that’s attached to them.
—Erik van TuijnSo they’re also a form of memory: Status objects your father wanted to have when he was in Vietnam, but couldn’t afford. Where does the white cross fit in?
—Danh VoThe cross is the temporary grave marker that my father made for my grandmothers grave when she died two years ago. When a grave is fresh, the sand still has to settle before you can put the tombstone on, so the grave essentially stays unmarked. My father, a devoted catholic, could not stand this idea, so he made one. What struck me is that it is a typical grave mark from the war. The cemetery had never experienced such a thing and threw the cross away when the tombstone came, where my sister rescued it. But because my family is very middle class, they of course didn’t want it standing in their own gardens.
—Erik van TuijnYou appropriated it?
—Danh VoNo, I don’t think it was an appropriation. I have a deep fascination for the identity lying in such objects. I mean, I had it on my balcony for a long time, at first I was in shock, I really saw it as a thing related to my grandmother. But in my projects I always try to separate these things, to de-personify them. In reality this object consists of traces of imperialistic influences: The alphabet from the French, Christian Faith…
The meaning of the objects I use only exists because they have taken a detour from the usual route they travel. Take the calendar made by my sister after she went on a budget trip, a package tour, to Gambia. It shows a holiday picture of my little niece playing with the local children. My sisters and brothers are very integrated into the Danish system, they have virtually no interest in their past. I have always thought this weird: you come from a country that has been totally fucked up by Western interest, but you have become an unquestioning part of it, even going on budget tours to Gambia. I always thought this madness.
—Erik van Tuijn You regularly incorporate objects by others into your presentations.
—Danh VoI 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. So that’s when I started my current direction.
—Erik van TuijnIn that case, do you see the article about you by Dominic Eichler in Frieze also as part of your work strategy?
—Danh Vo I generally don’t like the idea of texts being written about my work. There is something weird about it. So what we did is that Dominic travelled with me to see the research I was doing. It didn’t actually think Frieze would go along with my idea, because they are usually very strict but they gave me a free hand. I think an artist has all this material, research and then has to transform it into some kind of display. In this way the article is a way of distributing my work. I thought it was interesting to see how a critic would see my research. Dominic was actually more a mediator in this case. With the photos by Pratchaya Phinthong there was also a practical side: I shouldn’t take photos, I am really bad at it!