Wood, Metal, Paper: Danh Vo at the Guggenheim

In an exhibition whose title highlights breath, I found myself drawn to the concept of touch. Not simply touch as a sense, but as a concept, because of the implications of such a thing: the pressure of stone on wood, the force of a pen tip scarring paper, the impact one life has on another.

Danh Vo (born in Vietnam and now working between Berlin and Mexico City) appropriates, alters, and re-purposes found materials and objects to create new meaning, often merging the personal and the political with a deft hand. His artwork, while on the surface sparse and approachable, sits with you the more you sit with it.

With a light touch, a case containing a watch, lighter, and ring becomes a meditation on perceived masculinity, ownership, and inheritance. These objects – once belonging to Vo’s father – are at once minuscule and monolithic. Touch: a metal clock against soft skin.

The Unabomber’s typewriter is dethroned, sitting innocently on the floor, small and unassuming – non-mythical without a label shoving away the subtlety. Fingerprints on letter keys, one tapping against the other.

Further along, Beauty Queen is unassuming on the floor – a 400 year old wooden torso of crucified Jesus, separated from the rest of the body, placed in a box to the perfect fit. Above, dismembered pieces of a copy Statue of Liberty (We The People) strewn across the floor – a thumb as big as a child; the curve of a wrist large enough that I could tuck myself into it; a sheen on the horizon becoming a shine against the white of a gallery floor. People step among the story of Vo’s connection to immigration, and the repeating motif of “an iconoclastic approach” (as described in one of the exhibition’s labels); these ideas are simultaneously evident and nuanced – like the light reflecting off of the installation.

Vo’s work is dense, but it never feels too heavy.

In an exhibition filled with mighty materials, stone, wood, and metal aged to earthy musty richness and worn nostalgic metallics, I was most drawn to the delicacy and intimacy of paper.

2.2.1861 – one in an ongoing series of letters – is understated among the range of materials and physical dimensionality of the other works in the exhibition. Where other objects are gold and brown and slick and woody, this one is smooth and quiet. Phung Vo, Danh Vo’s father, has copied this letter numerous times over the past nine years. Each time, it is the same – a correspondence from Théophane Vénard to his father before his decapitation in 1861; each time it is different, featuring nuances of the hand at work – a letter with a slightly steeper slant, a bolder dot where pen first met paper before skimming off into a looping letter turning word. The letter is in French – a language that Phung does not know – and he copies it in a beautiful, swooping calligraphic script that he has mastered. He can touch and sculpt the words, but cannot feel the language. The letter echoes – father to son/ father to son, copy/ copy/ copy/ copy, ink flowing from pen tip, border crossings between writer and artist and receiver.

danh vo

2.2.1861 (2009- ongoing)

When I returned home from the exhibition, I wrote a postcard to my family, not thinking about my purple marker or the crispness of my penmanship – and not writing about an impending decapitation. As I wrote, my pen made little scratching noises against the fiber of the paper, pressing ink and color against the substrate.

To emboss is to stamp or carve onto a surface so that the pressed portions become raised. If you look at it that way, while of course the letter coincides with Vo’s conceptual oeuvre, it also feels like a tactile companion to the other works. If you were to draw that link in the air between each artwork, what would it feel like to touch?

 

Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away is on view at the Guggenheim in New York City through May 9, 2018. 

 

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Metamorphosis

You are the most beautiful thing I have ever felt.

Somewhere out there, a star laughs for you – it sings praises to your soul and illuminates the sky so you know you aren’t alone.

Somewhere in the Universe someone is thinking of you, wishing for you. Even if they don’t know your name yet, they want you.

Somewhere champagne pops and pink-gold sweetness crosses someone’s lips. Bubbles rise, and then tickle a throat as they descend. They are happy.

A book closes, chapter after chapter complete. There is a pause. A quiet thump of completion. A brush of the cover.

A voice rises from quiet, releasing nervous words. There is a pause. An excited inhale of air charged with possibility. A smile that sounds louder than the pounding of your heart.

Things change, but you don’t always see it right away. That little happy star can still be seen long after it has faded. Words stay, the shape of them caught up in your ears. Light becomes yellow pink blue grey. Light becomes light.

Where you are now, can you feel your breath entering and leaving your body?

#6: Frisson Espresso

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fris·son
frēˈsôn/
noun
  1. a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear; a thrill.
    “a frisson of excitement”

 

The coffee shop is tiny, making the smell of espresso seem even more concentrated as the door swings open and warm air overpowers the outside chill. A few small tables, a crowded counter, and a compact window seating area keep everyone close within the brick walls.

Scurry to the counter. Sit. Sip at your warm, strong drink. Scurry, sit, sip. It happens over and over – sometimes with the variation of dropping the sit. People file in and out, most stay at least for a bit. It isn’t too crowded or too busy even though it is small. Perhaps a large mirror hung on one wall makes it seem like more than it really is. But probably not. Size should not be taken for granted here.

The strong espresso smell is an indicator of the richness of the drinks. The name does not oversell the place. With the first smooth and balanced taste the cappuccino does thrill – sending a warm buzz through me beneath my layers of clothes. It is just outside of the trap of Times Square, relevant for the area, but not loaded down with clamoring tourists.

Much like their drinks, Frisson is tasty (or rather, tasteful), uncomplicated, and completely satisfying. Breathe in the espresso-stained air, scurry, sit, and sip.

 

Frisson Espresso is located at 326 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036

To Annie Dillard

What does it feel like to be alive?

What does it feel like to wake up every day and go?

Go.

Every second, constantly moving forward, constantly progressing, evolving. Never going back.

Being alive is this feeling of forward. This feeling of the push of the universe against your back and the pull of time drawing you closer to its outstretched hands. Time drawing you closer to an ending that no man has ever escaped, an ending that can never be avoided, a story that must conclude with “The End”.

And in between this push and pull is you.

Riding the wave that is created between Time and the Universe. Learning how to swim in it.

This is it.

This is the only chance you get.

This is getting the part and learning the lines and playing the role and earning your standing ovation. This is the worry that the butterflies in your stomach will come fluttering out of your mouth and replace the words that you were going to say. This is trying to have the perfect image, trying to find your character and be that person all the way through. This is the feeling of jitters as the curtain goes up, the sound of the murmurs dying, and the breath before it begins. This is the relief of the first clap ringing through the air as the lights fade to black.

This is when you run too fast too quickly and your feet cannot keep up with your body and your body cannot keep up with your mind and suddenly your mind is up and your body is down and your knees burn as they are attacked by the shadowy opposite of the clouds that you were trying to reach.

This is the dizzying, exciting, nauseating truth that tomorrow will come, and you have no option but to face it head on, you only get to choose the face you greet it with.

This is the feeling of laughter. The feeling of bubbles. This is the feeling of light. The feeling of flying or falling or floating through the atmosphere. Of jumping and knowing that you will land, but still hoping that you don’t. This is the feeling of roundness, and oneness: the circulation of blood through your veins, the inevitable next inhale, next exhale, next… inhale, next… exhale… Even when you are sure that your heart has skipped a beat and is now incapable of getting back on tempo. When you are sure that your lungs will forever have an insatiable want for air. This is the connection between the roots of the trees and the cutting of the umbilical cord – the all at once letting go and incredible need to connect. This is a cycle.

This is acknowledging mistakes. It is the feeling of those tiny pebbles of doubt or shame or guilt that keep you grounded, but that slowly erode until you know that the sand that is inside you is only a place for the water to rest on the beach, not a field of land mines waiting to explode at the worst possible moment.

This is here. And this is now. And this is next. Even cycles happen forward.

You get no choice to remain still or to go. Even when you do not lift your feet yourself to carry on, you are moved. However heavy. However light.

You are moved.

So you feel life from its deepest, most terrifyingly steep drop, all the way to the highest peak on which you are the ruler of the world.

You realize that the best performances always maintain a little bit of magic in the improvisation.

You feel the sting of the hard truth of failure every time you fall, every time you skin your knees and burn from the outside in.

You embrace every time you fly – every second in which you are airborne, because it cannot be known which will be the last. When will Time will claim its prize? When will he win the game which has always been rigged in his favor?

You let yourself float in the bubbles, right on the edge of the laughter. You live in this moment, in this bubbly eternity in which volume and sense and time and location all fade into the background and all that is left is a little round being.

You do not hold onto the rocks.

Because this collision of burning and falling, of flying and circling, of running and fading, this push and pull, this forward motion, this massive run on sentence that you title “My Life”:

This is it.

 

Lingering in the Liminal

Every so often people experience moments in their lives that are pivotal. It is often only in looking backward that we are able to recognize these instances – the seconds that bridge before and after, the exact breath of realization, the time something clicks, or when it falls apart.

These are liminal moments – almost-instantaneous times when change occurs. They are the second the water goes from simmer to boil, the first brush of skin in a handshake, the exhale of an “I love you”, the shift of weight, the spark of an idea… Liminal.

Sometimes you are able to see those shifts. Sometimes you notice the way the light morphs from gold to blue at dusk. Sometimes you catch the glance. Sometimes you sense the feeling bubbling up.

And then – in a split second turned infinite – you can grasp the liminal. You can pick out the single grain of sand from the hourglass and hold it and examine it and treasure it before, in the blink of an eye, it has passed.

So if you ever find yourself in one such lucid liminal moment, linger there.

Courting the Universe: Romantic Beauty vs. the Romantic Sublime

In the Romantic Era (late 18th century to approx. 1850), poetry developed and blossomed through the works of beloved writers such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Today people remain captivated by their words and the stories they told. I believe this is – at least in part – because of two ideas: beauty and the sublime.

Romantic beauty is the appreciation of lovely things. Perhaps this is the delicacy of a flower of a stream. It is the sweet feeling of calm appreciation of (often) small things from nature.

The romantic sublime is very different. Though also an appreciation of beautiful things, it is of monumental scale rather than of that which can fit in the palm of your hand. Romantic sublime imagery includes the Alps, or a magnificent sunset. The sublime reveals human smallness and the fragility of mortality, instead of the fragility of nature.

These two types of beauty inspire two types of awe: titanic and gentle. They are two parts of humanness, manifested in poetic terms – arguably the best way to explore and define humanness. They truly are romantic ideas, not just because of their period, nor in the Valentine’s Day kind of way, but because they ignite the soul.

These two poetic devices merge internal and external and person and nature, contextualizing humanity on a grand scale. This literature turns readers into Gulliver as he learns about human nature from the view of a Lilliputian or a Brobdingnagian. There is nuance. There is playfulness.

Ultimately the beautiful and the sublime establish a flirtation between the poem and the Universe – a courtship not taken lightly.

Between Paint and Poetry: A Dialogue with Keats and Turner

Study of Sea and Sky, Isle of Wight 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Study of Sea and Sky, Isle of Wight 1827 Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851); Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856; http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02001

ON THE SEA

By John Keats

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinn’d with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody, –
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!