Danh Vo at the Guggenheim Museum

Danh Vo at the Guggenheim Museum

“Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away,” the midcareer retrospective of the Danish artist (b. 1975, Ba Ria, Vietnam) at the Guggenheim Museum thru May 9, 2018, did not take this museumgoer’s breath away. But I did stop to draw breath. And think.

Hardly a typical “art” exhibition (there is nothing of outstanding beauty here), this is a visual memoir, a personal narrative about Danh Vo’s life journey, beginning in war-torn Vietnam, his native land, and continuing in Europe and the United States. Thoughtful and didactic, it explores such themes as politics, religion, sexuality, colonialism, capitalism, immigration and assimilation. Heady stuff. The 100 or so installations, sculptures, photographs and works on paper are sparingly displayed on the Guggenheim’s ramp. Vo’s materials are found objects and acquired objects (“things” purchased at auction, for exaample). The art comes in how Vo, a scavenger in many ways, manipulates and redefines these materials.

The works are not self-explanatory; their meaning depends upon their context. Therefore, reading the in-depth wall labels is essential to understanding Vo’s intentions. How else would one know that two deconstructed Chippendale-style armchairs, flayed of their leather covering, gutted of their padding and stripped to their wooden frames, were Cabinet Room chairs used during President Kennedy’s administration? Or that after Kennedy’s assassination, his widow gave them to Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense during the escalation of the Vietnam War? And that after McNamara’s death, Vo purchased the chairs at an auction of McNamara’s personal effects and deconstructed them into “art”?

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave., 212.423.3500, guggenheim.org

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