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. 


Making Connections


Light string by Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea

Art is about connection. Connecting ideas and stories and people and more art. These connections can happen serendipitously.

For example, at the Whitney Biennial – among all of the clamor over VR violence and questionable portraiture – stood a quiet alcove. Across from the gaping mouth of Anicka Yi’s video room was a classic white box gallery space containing six brightly colored canvases. These paintings by Shara Hughes were vibrant, abstract, and full of life. They made me stop and sit for a moment on a bench in the center of the space. I paused. The next day, I stumbled across another Shara Hughes show at Rachel Uffiner Gallery in the Lower East Side. Engagement, then a second, unexpected opportunity.

Visual art is, of course, associated with the eyes. But it can connect to all of the senses.

Sound was also featured in the Biennial, in various ways. There was the awful sound of skull on concrete in Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence , on the other hand there was the calm voice of the narrator in Anicka Yi’s The Taste Genome. Plus the glorious hum of museum goers, quietly discussing, debating, dissecting.

Taste. Following the Biennial, I went to David Zwirner, where a new Felix Gonzalez-Torres show was up after the recent change in representation. It is undoubtedly the best gallery show I have ever experienced. Experienced – not seen – because I did not simply exist in the space, I participated. I bent down and plucked a sweet, minty candy from the pile of Ross in the corner of the upstairs gallery space. It was hard and real on my tongue. Substance from substance.

And touch. In that same show I walked through a curtain of beads. I heard them click against each other and I felt their weight shift around me and over me as my body disrupted the solid but shifting barrier. There were blue curtains, too. Light and thin and airy, they covered the windows in a long room upstairs. I could imagine them flowing in the breeze if the windows were open. I could imagine the fabric – smooth on my fingers.

My pen was blue, too, that day as I wrote what I saw. I touched it. I felt it.

Smell is tricky. I wasn’t knocked out by Pope L.’s bologna at the Biennial – it was disappointing, in a way. But today I spent all my time among art and people that love it. Young museum professionals, as we connected in museums. Together we looked, and then we smelled through time – experiencing Ancient Rome through six bottles (like Hughes’s six paintings those few weeks ago) containing ghosts – from flowers to fish sauce. Along the way we talked and listened, too.  We touched – with a handshake our connections expanded. All of our senses worked today.

Feeling needs to be distinguished too. It is different from touch. Feeling is the most important sense in connecting with visual art. Maybe feeling is a well-placed bit of dismembered metal on a wall – a Trigger, left by Puppies Puppies as subtly as a landmine. Or maybe it’s those curtains – beads and fabric – blue and blue. Maybe it’s the way color can get wrapped up with a person, so blue becomes love. Maybe it’s taking that moment on that bench in the center of that white room broken by Shara Hughes’s fantasy environments.

Art is about more than eyes. Eyes are a part of a larger body – your larger body. And it is made of so many connections.


Shara Hughes “Same Space Different Day” at Rachel Uffiner runs until June 25, 2017.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner runs until July 14, 2017.

Nick Cave “Until” at MASS MoCA

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Nick Cave “Until” is on view at MASS MoCA through August 2017 (massmoca.org/event/nick-cave-until/)

The first time I viewed Nick Cave’s work was at the Denver Art Museum in the fall of 2013. The show, “Sojourn,” featured perhaps Cave’s most well-known work: the Soundsuits. These large creations are built to envelope a person and turn them into something or someone else. They create protection and anonymity, but they are heavy and imposing – made of anything from sticks (as Cave’s first suit was) to stuffed animals or buttons. That show featured the suits on raised platforms so one could marvel at them  walk around them. Then you entered a room where there were videos playing of the Soundsuits in action – people dancing in them, or moving frantically and seemingly without order. If you  put on the accompanying headphones, you were assaulted with the sounds the suits made when they moved.

“Until”at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was decidedly different. It is immediately apparent in the titles: Sojourn – a temporary stay; Until – also temporary, but suspended, waiting, liminal.

This apparent lack of definition continued in the experience of “Until.” Unlike “Sojourn,” this show was more immersive – truly an experience, not just a viewing. To see the work you had to get inside of it, unlike the Soundsuits at the DAM.

Viewers enter the space through sets of double doors and immediately see the warehouse-sized room that houses the installation. First there is color and light. Then there are questions: What are those things? What does it mean? As you step forward, down the stairs and onto the floor, onto the path between the hanging pieces, you are within the suspension, as though walking in a scene on pause. As you are in the space, you see that the hanging pieces are metal spinners – hundreds of them looking far more impressive than the usual one or two that one may see hanging over a patio. They move and rotate with the movement of air in the room, including the breath of the people that walk between them. Breath that moves the bullets and guns at the center of each spinner – making you a part of Cave’s consideration of violence and race. For a few minutes, as you wander along the path, you are covered and exposed. There is no real protection in there – unlike the full-body Soundsuits – yet from the outside it is difficult to distinguish viewers from the light and color and movement that makes up the rest of the sculpture. Cave puts you in the art, forcing you to see and pay attention, even if only so that you don’t step off the path, drawing attention to what you are able to see, both from between the gaps in the forest of spinners, and in the reflections of the metallic work itself.

Upon exiting the forest you come to the rest of the work: a raised garden that you have to climb a ladder to reach, underneath which hangs sparkling chandeliers; a huge, beaded net draped over half the room; a room with video projections of the Soundsuits layered and mixed so it becomes a kaleidoscope, and again you are inside of it, as the projections cover all the walls and the floor; and upstairs a wall of metallic, fringy, plastic being blown from behind by a fan – inviting you closer and closer.

Everything about this installation pulls you toward it and forces you to exist within it if you want to see the entire show. You become a part of the spinners until you climb up to the garden until you are caught within the net until you are off-balance among the videos until you come face-to-fringe until you look out over the show and witness it. Until you leave. Until it finally gets out of your head. Until a few years from now when Cave’s work will certainly resurface somewhere else for me.

Until then.