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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Not-Glass

Once I broke a plate

and glass shattered everywhere.

And by that I mean

that it broke into two pieces –

one large, and one smaller

(a crescent moon and its other). But

 

tiny little particles,

atoms of not-glass that, when combined with other atoms of not-glass, make glass-glass,

took this chance to escape.

They shook themselves off of the

surprisingly clean

edges

and vibrated away into corners and up walls, bouncing against floorboards.

 

 

Once I broke a plate and it cried when it hit the floor.

And by that I mean

that it sounded like lightning posing as thunder,

sharp and loud and booming all at once

and then over.

 

Once

I broke a plate and caused a sand storm.

And by that

I mean that brown rice spilled across the floor,

grain by grain on the grain of the wood

in lost heaps.

 

When you’re little

and you brake a plate

someone comes and tells you to

Stand Still.

while they clean up all of the little landmines

waiting to go off in your foot.

When you grow up

and you brake a plate

(like I did)

you have to clean it up yourself,

so it’s nice when it only brakes into a moon and an other.

(In any case,

all of the not-glass is probably still around

somewhere.)

90 Minutes at the MFA

“The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract.” – Max Beckmann (translated by Q. Beckmann and P.T. Rathbone) from Letter to a Woman Painter (1948)

I am not often caught without a notebook and pen. They are comparable to an appendage – naturally just there. This proximity enables frequent use. On my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I challenged myself to not pull out my notebook, to just look. I was unsuccessful – Renoir shattered what little determination I may have had to stick to the challenge. For me, apparently, looking – soul-seeking – necessitates writing.

One may not immediately think of energy when they think of museums. Perhaps they think of white walls and long hallways and people speaking in too-long words and too-quiet voices. But, without a doubt, museums are full of energy – charged with it. Visitors are constantly in it – perhaps little stray sparks are what draw us toward one piece or another. They send out little invitations: Here, they say, walk through this doorway. Pause. Turn, slowly. Survey. Find the one that catches your eye and let it pull you into its undeniable gravity – there’s no point in fighting, something will draw you in and you will obey, observe, enjoy. Take it in one piece at a time: after all, you can’t see the world in 90 minutes.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883)

Pause. You are struck by the light, the color, the movement. You are caught mid-twirl with the woman. You can imagine heavy skirts, taste the smoky setting. Trees bend in the wind – or maybe not the wind, but the breeze of the twisting dress fabric. There is music and conversation. The air is thick with excitement – a woman tips forward on her stool.

The man (looking suspiciously like van Gogh) cannot take his eyes off of the fresh-faced, coy girl. The pair is on their toes. Their mid-step is forever captured in oil. The maybe, want-to-be, almost-and-forever lovers hold each other close. It certainly isn’t the worst way to spend an eternity: safely suspended, together. The painting waits for people to sit on the nearby bench and watch. It, too, sends out an invitation: imagine the inhale that comes at the end of the twirl, imagine the smiling eyes beneath the brim of the man’s hat, imagine fingertips on fingertips.

Imagine: eventually, in a foggy someday, the woman’s stool settles safely back onto the dusty ground.

Scratch, scratch, pencil on paper, canvas to hand to sketchbook – carefully copied. The noise guides you through the massive galleries, drawing you from one space to the next – one painting and sculpture and subject and place and feeling and thought and not-quite-time-machine to another…

All the way to Pollock.

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Jackson Pollock, Number 10 (1949)

Here’s a challenge: trace it. Pick a drip, isolate it, follow it. Don’t get dizzy – don’t get too close. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Relax – it’s all in the flick of the wrist, flick of the paint can, flick of the eye following frantic motion frantically. Take a step back so you can see the whole image, all the way to the edges. Feel it out. Feel it. Can you decipher this drip-calligraphy? It is an unlimited, although not always easily-accessible, language. Try to learn it. Become bilingual – say you can speak energy disguised as paint on canvas.

Nearby, a few Picassos are mislabeled. There has to be some metaphor there, right? Something about the superiority of the image? Some condemnation of the crutch of a label?

Remember following that Pollock paint drip? Did it have a name? Did it need one to have a soul?

Rothko at RISD

“If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” ~Mark Rothko

Sitting on the floor (yes, the floor – despite the guard offering me a stool), looking up at the painting, it is imposing, but not overly so. There is energy here: an orange soul and white light. It is centered, but not balanced – a sickly greenish hue sneaks its way in, keeping the painting from being too powerful. It, too, is mortal.

But monolithic.

There is variation. A clear human hand. Finger prints (or maybe just pigment imperfections) mark the orange zone. Human. Touch.

Above, the white is a cloud. Frothy. Under the gallery lights, the pigment glistens.

The piece is fire and smoke. The red is an aura; it is embers: quivering, imperfect, uneven, clinging to life. Everything is fuzzy around the edges – like looking into heat. The white-red-orange feeling of the painting is dreamy, but in a desperate way; like waking up sweaty, clutching the receding half-memory of a running dream.

Brushstrokes run up and down and sideways. Indecisive, but with a clear mood.

The piece has a whole section of the gallery to itself: a rounded-corner space that draws you in – asking floor-sitters like myself to scoot closer. The reason for intrigue and contemplation of the work is clear. It is arresting. It burns with a crackling fever and gravity and gravitas.

Rothko isn’t usually my style, but today I couldn’t leave him alone.

RISDM 71-091

Mark Rothko 
Untitled, 1954 
Oil on canvas 
238.1 x 143.2 x 4.5 cm (93 3/4 x 56 3/8 x 1 3/4 inches)

Image and info from: http://risdmuseum.org/pages/channel_71091

 

Palimpsests: Being Haunted by the Ghost of a Ghost

In just over the past week the word “palimpsest” has come up in my life in three different contexts. This seems to be a sign from the Universe (with a capital “U”).

A palimpsest is an old animal skin, such as parchment, which has been written on, then scraped over so that new text may be added. It is a document with attempted erasure, but which still has underlying traces of its past stories.

And so: I am being haunted by the ghost of a ghost.

The word’s repeated appearances have gotten me thinking about palimpsests of the world, outside of literature. I heard a great example of a “cultural” palimpsest in my first recent encounter: when an adult uses a cutesy word from their family or their childhood, such as “jammies”, that could be considered a palimpsest. People may do this and create verbal palimpsests without even realizing it.

Another example I heard was New York City. It was in my second encounter, and it floored me. I have a certain romantic obsession with New York – the lights, the people, the art – and the more I thought of it, the more I realized how perfectly the comparison works.

Initially I had thought of Rome as a city-palimpsest. But Rome has been built over itself in layers, creating a situation in which the further you dig down the more you find. That’s more of a messy manuscript than a carefully kept recycled story board.

But New York… New York is constantly in flux, keeping up with the times, modernizing, destroying to create and create and grow and grow. It maintains its status as a shiny beacon of the world by being just that: shiny and always new. Undoubtedly some ghosts have been created there in the process, but not buried alive like in Rome.

No, these urban ghosts linger; ready to draw you in with a whisper and ask you to join them in the city, even if it means that someday you will be just another layer in the palimpsest of time.