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Artists at Work: Danh Vo

Danh Vo, Good Life, 1966/2007, C-print, 9 x 13.5 cm, detail. Courtesy the artist AC: When did Elmgreen & Dragset become aware of this duplication? Was it important that it remained secret up until the opening of the exhibition in Berlin?
Dahn Vo in conversation with Adam Carr  
Danh Vo, Good Life, 1966/2007, C-print, 9 x 13.5 cm, detail. Courtesy the artist AC: When did Elmgreen & Dragset become aware of this duplication? Was it important that it remained secret up until the opening of the exhibition in Berlin?

ADAM CARR: The first time I encountered your work was through ‘Not a Drop but the Fall’, a solo exhibition held at Galerie Klosterfelde in Berlin in 2005. With this project you seemed to break some rules and push some boundaries that both the art world and this world in general seem to impose. Since I have heard various conflicting stories, rumors and accounts with regards to this show, I would be interested to hear your take on the events. I believe the project involved some stealing on your behalf – both metaphorically and literally. What happened?1

DANH VO: Check out my gayromeo profile ‘Danhvo’, there you will find some explanations for why I am single. But it’s really not because I’m unsentimental…I mean, McCabe and Mrs. Millerby Robert Altman is one of my favorite love stories. My kind of romance is just like the rest of my way of living, based on what I consider a certain refined complexity and what others might label as fuck-ups.

When Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had the opening of the closed Prada shop in Marfa, Texas, I really wanted to join them. But I was broke and didn’t have the money to travel to the desert of Texas. Therefore I decided to use their names and signatures without them knowing about it, to make a fake application to the Danish Arts Council. I applied for money to have a photographer and a photographer’s assistant to go to the opening and make visual documentation of this remotely located art project by Michael and Ingar.

The Art Council approved the application, since they thought it was written by this more ‘famous’ artist duo and money was given to the project. A friend of mine who is a photographer went there, and I went along as her assistant. For the show at Klosterfelde I wanted to present a photo of the shop and another photo of me with Michael, who was my boyfriend at the time, kissing under the dark sky of Marfa. In addition to these snaps I wanted to present the public documents showing my fake application.

I never considered this presentation to be breaking any rules, I mean, I’m a chicken, and I was feeling very safe because Michael was my boyfriend. I was using his signature in order to invent a reality for a bureaucratic system, and then I tried to construct this reality parallel to my private interest. It’s a very common strategy of low-class refugees – something that has been part of my education and upbringing. If you live on the edge of society, your moral perspective is of course slightly different from the one you have when you belong to a fully integrated white middle class.

DV: Yes it was urgent for me that it wasn’t a collaboration. I didn’t want to have the role of being a sucker on their status as more established artists. I wanted to be a hacker, a friendly hacker. I didn’t want to get them involved in the project before the opening of the show.

To scam the Arts Council or my boyfriend was not arbitrary. I wanted to blow the codes for what was seemingly right and wrong, I wanted to not give a fuck about the conventional views on privacy and authorship and relationship, and I wanted to take the risk of ending up in this beautiful mess, where trust was all that would be left.

AC: The idea of operating within a system only to alter and deconstruct its mechanics that you just mentioned is exemplified in an earlier and ongoing work of yours Vo Rocasco Rasmussen(2003-), which results in a perpetual extension of your surname. Your work seems to be a recurrent questioning of the nation-state, the absurdity of rules and non-rules in a so-called liberal society and, by addressing issues of sovereignty, this piece relates particularly to your own personal history and identity. This issue seems to be the underlying principle of your practice. Could you elaborate on it?

DV: When I pity myself I tend to call myself a refugee, but in reality I’m no longer sure what it means. I was a boat refugee when I was four, but I’m pretty dry now. The thing I’m sure of is that I really understand the innovative ways in which some refugees operate on their own premises, but that might be my own romantic projection. I can’t really appoint myself a spokesman for other refugees. I’m an artist and I’m gay and I might have some perceptions of my “parasitic” role that are quite off compared to many other refugees.

All my projects tend to deal with issues that are taking place right around me – my private sphere, my love life, my desires, other people’s projections on me and my identities. It’s all in there. My ideas derive from how I experience various miscommunications between who I am and how the outside world looks at me. The projects are like throwing in various clothing items into a washing machine that doesn’t stop working. Sometimes you throw in a pair of red socks and what happens is that these socks dye all the white shirts. For me marriage has always been a hangover from the past. I don’t want to be a part of it and I don’t want to fight it. I want to reconstruct the meaning of it so it makes sense to me. And my continuously extended last name is making the custom officers very confused, which is a nice side effect in itself.

I started the project when I was still studying at the academy in Copenhagen – a place were there is no reason to produce more traditional art crap – and I wanted to use the marriage institution to marry people that had been important to me, but I wanted to get divorced again immediately because I have another agenda. I only wanted their names. I’m not interested in any given rights because most rights turn out to be repressive after a short while. I’m only interested in amending my name by having their last name as memories. I can take the name with me, a name that has been produced by the very institution that previously wanted to exclude me. It’s a kind of revenge, a soft-core revenge.

AC: How many names have you temporarily adopted to date?

DV: I have been married twice and divorced twice. It’s a project that takes time. You have to be separated for half a year before you can get the divorce (unless you go to Las Vegas)…and then another thing is that it’s not that easy to convince people to marry you. Maybe I don’t seem like a reliable person to marry. By the way, I’m addicted to art projects that have a long time span; I love Michael Asher’s Caravan for Münster – it has magical qualities!

AC: Michael Asher’s work is occupied with pointing to change around itself, or better said, making the invisible visible by not enduring change/changing itself. I wonder if your piece has a relationship with this strategy of producing a form of consistency that sets out to point at change around itself, but something so intertwined with the fabric of everyday life that it could be missed. Is the work a lifetime commitment, just as marriage supposedly should be?

DV: Ask me again in 2047.

AC: A few years after you started Vo Rocasco Rasmussen, it was time for your Copenhagen graduate show. As opposed to exhibiting your own work in a traditional sense, you chose instead to employ a strategy that spoke of a desire to be represented in a particular context – as an outsider. Could you explain what you did?

DV: The world would have been an even more depressing place if I had continued painting. I was a pathetic painter. I don’t know how I ever managed to enter the academy as a painting student in the first place. Maybe they pitied me; maybe they just wanted to add some spice to their very mono-cultural group of students.

For my graduate show I was a guest student in Frankfurt, so the whole project was founded on practical circumstances. I couldn’t be there physically, so instead I asked my family to do the show for me, participating in the many meetings and the whole planning and organisation that preceded it. However, we stayed in touch through the Internet. Since my siblings are working during the day it was only my parents that could join me in the examination of the project, but they didn’t say much. I wasn’t interested in controlling any kind of outcome of the project; I was interested in the decision of involving my family in the process and production, the topic of randomness, and the meanings that this decision suggested.

AC: Aside from your own artistic contribution, which oscillated between setting up the conditions for the show – to be played in a somewhat autobiographical manner – and the outcome of these conditions, what did the pieces that your family produced consist of?

DV: It was all about testing multiple personal interactions, the fuck-ups, the mishaps, the dialogues between me, the art educational institution of the academy and my family, who never really knew what I did at my studies. It was the beginning of a very chaotic life and I wanted to present that.

This project was not about neglecting the object completely. The immaterial is not an interesting issue for me. But I was not necessarily interested in the control of the outcome, either. My mother made the most queered up project, which was a personal letter addressed to me about her life, written on one sheet of paper in Vietnamese (which I can’t read); and my brother, who is a real academic nerd, decorated a kitschy plastic Christmas tree in order to illustrate the way our family had celebrated Christmas. I was aware from the beginning that the objects from my family would be a kind of virus that infected the perfect body of the institution. It was not an allegory and it was not immaterial but it was non-appreciated art objects in an art institution. It was aliens in a self-indulgent nation-state, in a situation in which artists were supposed to show what they had learned and everyone was keen on promoting him or herself as the new “promising artist.”

AC: Art’s capacity to be foreign or even alien to a particular context, or more precisely a virus as you just remarked, was something you recently encountered in the exhibition “My Blue Genes” that you curated, which took place in your parents’ apartment (11-18 of march 2006, Copenhagen). Could you tell me a little about the exhibition and the reasons for choosing such a peculiar venue?

DV: I don’t know, but I have a feeling that at one point in time, civil rights had very much in common with gay rights, but we don’t have such a situation today. Just think of Pim Fortuyn, who was best known for being an upfront racist. I wanted to recreate a bridge between the two minorities that are equal parts of my identity: being a fag and being an Asian immigrant in a Northern European country. So I asked my parents if they could lend me their apartment in the suburbs of Copenhagen to do a show, where I borrowed the work Biology is Straight by Henrik Olesen, Sleeping Man/Hanging Man by Robert Gober, Powerless Structure fig.123 by Elmgreen and Dragset, Cold Blue Snow by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and AIDS, a poster multiple by General Idea. You can say that all the invited artists were men sexually attracted to men, but for me they where invited mainly because they all have a strong desire of making this place a better place.

It ended up being a very ambivalent show: on the one hand, to get these iconographic works for an exhibition in some refugees’ private home in no-man’s land, and, on the other, to convince my parents to go on vacation while I was installing the pieces in between all their domestic stuff, including Gober’s wallpaper of lynched black men decorating their dinning-room walls (my mother is hysterically afraid of ghosts). I didn’t know if I should tell the visitors not to go too close to the works or offer them a cup of coffee, but it was the most personal show I ever did.

AC: These are all artists whose work shares artistic and personal affiliations with one another. I just wondered if there are other artists in particular whose work you feel closely connected to and find a significant affinity with?

DV: I really like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I like that their movies look like they’re filmed in a documentary style, but in fact they are very carefully constructed. I like the fact that they made a script of Le Fils based on the body language of Olivier Gourmet (the actor who plays the role of the father) and that they took months to find the right overalls to fit him. I like things that are not necessarily obvious. I think they are among the most important cultural producers today. I greatly admire their work.

AC: Your work defies categorization; it doesn’t comply with any boundaries between disciplines. In fact, it seems to overcome the rigidity of borders completely, and not just those associated with the field of art. If one were to even seek to establish definition, would you say that this is close to a form of performance? For instance, your marriage piece, I Do, which we spoke about earlier, has an interesting performative element.

DV: Yes. When I go to the city council to get married or write an obituary for my grandmother (Ngo Thi Ha, 2006), it’s a performance, but not a stage performance with a live audience, I’m not a drag in a gay-pride. When I’m mimicking social rites I do it as a performance that is perversely interested in performativities. My Blue Genes(11-18 March 2006) was more about making a stage design with no script, only props, where all the participants had to improvise their roles.

AC: Something closely related (in a literal sense) to your journey from Vietnam to Denmark was exemplified in the work Go Mo Ni Ma Da, which you produced in 2004. What may seem to be a portrayal of your journey is not actually as straightforward as it may seem. The story of your journey was not the only starting point; rather it was mixed together with a more complex issue of authorship – something that relates to the Danish Academy show, which we just spoke about. Could you please expand on this piece in particular?

DV: My initial idea was that Tobias Rehberger would make a replica of the boat that my family used to escape from Vietnam. This related to his own early works, in which he asked people to recreate famous design objects from their own perspective. But Tobias had his own take on it. He started to transform the original design of this very simple boat into a hyper hi-tech design which was naturally closer to his own aesthetics, and in that way the project gradually drifted out of my control and, from an exhibition triggered by my family’s real-life drama, it turned into a show with objects reflecting the typical Rehberger coolness and play with commercial-design aesthetics. In a way it was grotesque, but somehow also a beautiful clash of realities.

Go Mo Ni Ma Da is not baby language, I read it in the travel section of New York times, were the journalist was quoting a Vietnamese person saying, “Good morning, Madame.”

AC: What may have appeared as a co-authored work from the offset, however, resulted in a work authored by one artist: Tobias Rehberger. I’m interested in your decision to revoke any claim to authorship, instead choosing to dissolve and disguise your role into the system and mechanism behind the work.

DV: My mother was addicted to horror and ghost movies when I was a kid. My mom always made my sisters, brother and me watch them with her because she was too afraid to watch them on her own. Nobody dared to go alone to the toilets after the movies, so we would do it all together. We peed in the bathtub, sink and toilet all at the same time…I guess I was raised to share my fears, my sorrows and love with other people. Today I thank heaven for good colleagues like Prachya Phinthong for reminding me of this precious gift. I really wish that I could have my roles just dissolve into the system more often. Those made-up borders and confinements of authorship remind me in many ways of the nation-state.

AC: I’m very interested in how you decide to display work. In the aforementioned case, Go Ma Ni Ma Da was a piece disseminated and narrated through word of mouth or by presenting it through the habitual indexing mechanism proper to exhibition making, the press release. Could you say something about the presentation of your earlier work – perhaps something about your decision to display certificates and how they function as a way of marking a sequence of actions? Another question related to this is, when do you actually register or document the work?

DV: I have a very exotic relationship to certificates and documents. I like the idea of doing something with your body that ends up in just a piece of paper. I was sitting in a detention centre in the Bangkok airport for five days because my passport wasn’t proper (it was broken in two parts, and taped up) and I was seeing all these bodies that were imprisoned because they didn’t have the right papers. It was an experience that really made me aware of the relationship between body and paper. I see the documents as equivalent to my performances, since our society has already determined our movements and actions through papers and documents.

It is very easy to understand ink on paper as art, so it was logical that this piece was displayed in a traditional sense like drawings in a white cube. In other cases it’s not so clear, but I try always to work and direct each project on its own terms instead of making projects fit into a square.

AC: Just going back to the Rehberger work, I find it incredible – the story of both your family and your own personal experiences – as fascinating as the story that led to something you are currently working on for a solo exhibition in Berlin. Could you elaborate on this piece?

DV: This project literally fell into my lap. I was cruised by this elder American guy Joe, who turned out to have spent a considerable amount of time in Vietnam – from 1962 to 1973! What is incredible is that he kept diaries, papers from the RAND Corporation, love letters and lots of photos and original negatives. What’s more incredible is that he gave it all to me!

Primarily I think this whole affair I have with Joe’s material is an act of divine justice for not really having my own history. As a refugee my parents left it all behind, mentally and also physically. No pictures or documents of my family’s life in Vietnam exist, and its a kind of magical coincidence that I got this archive which I strangely but sincerely feel belongs to me.

For the show at Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery in April of this year, I used a particular selection of his photographs. One of Joe’s passions was to take photographs of boys that where holding hands or sleeping together, which he would project as a homoerotic act, but was in fact just a cultural thing.

These photographs are incredible, because they’re just photographs of boys with no names, no stories, and they exist only as a projection of a person that had the ability to take them and conserve them. It’s a kind of a self-portrait where I’m not sure whether I’m Joe or the boys without names.

– Adam Carr