History Boy

Vietnamese-Dutch artist Danh Vo's carefully collected pieces of the past

Text by Christabel Stewart & Ajay RS Hothi

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Where the Lions Are (2009). Courtesy Kunsthalle Basel and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and the artist 

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Left, Tombstone for Nguyen Thi Ty (2009) Courtesy Kunsthalle Basel and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and the artist. Photography by Serge Hasenböhler


As a Vietnamese born in 1975, the year of the fall of Saigon, I have never had firsthand experiences of the war, but have been raised in the aftermath of the geopolitical conflict. In 1979 my family decided to escape from Vietnam by boat, and we were among the lucky ones to survive the trip and receive asylum in the West. In my practice as an artist, I try to research into and work with these historical events in order to understand the circumstances of my life”—Danh Vo, 2009

Walking through a gallery installation by the Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo is like being inside a scrapbook come to life. Faded photographs, letters and newspaper clippings sit alongside the domestic objects that people build their lives around – washing machines, refrigerators, TVs. These ragged mementoes – detritus, by any objective measure – point towards a life spent traversing the Far East, Europe and America of the last 60 years. The more abstract objects, such as the diaries of long-dead strangers and single-entry cards to a casino, are less straightforward: a collection of mysterious signifiers that hint at the “complex and schizophrenic” identities that Vo’s work explores.

The items in Vo’s installations are all deeply personal: totems and tokens he has found, bought or been given. They shed a watery light on his own history, whilst also hinting at the interconnected yet distinct histories of a vast network of refugees and immigrants – the 20th century’s great human movement from east to west. Vo cannot speak Vietnamese and hardly remembers the country, having left when he was four. His memories are mostly based on the stories and idiosyncrasies of his parents, and his wider observations of life as an immigrant. The objects in his installations illuminate political and personal aspects of his Vietnamese inheritance, as viewed from a refugee Northern European perspective. They shape a path by which we can begin to navigate his history, and perhaps a wider history as well. “His research-oriented art is not the kind of issue-fed conceptualism that you are meant to ‘get’ or solve, even while it raises questions relating to the construction of identity and the legacy of colonialism and war,” Dominic Eichler wrote after a research trip he took with Vo to Vietnam last year. “Rather, it exists in the relations and negotiations between people and authorities of all kinds, as well as in the multiple, contradictory and revealing projections of his viewing public.”

Vo has often brought his family into his work: in the exhibition Package Tour (2008) at the Docking Station, Stedelijk Museum, one piece was actually a calendar his sister made after taking a package holiday to Gambia. There was no family pride on display: rather, it highlighted his sister’s unquestioning stance on their joint Vietnamese-Danish heritage and her lack of interest in their past (quite aside from the questionable morality of any Westerner participating in a budget group tour to a third-world country). He has also displayed a Rolex watch, a Dupont lighter and an american military ring, all belonging to his father. They represent not only his father’s personal history, but also the aggressively masculine military and commercial history of the west.

One of Vo’s most prized collections was bequeathed to him by a friend, Joe, an older american man who worked in Vietnam as an anthropologist from 1963 to 1973. His memorabilia includes detailed diaries, love letters and lots of photographs – many of them of boys holding hands or sleeping together. “As a refugee, my parents left it all behind, mentally and also physically,” Vo says. “No pictures or documents of my family’s life in Vietnam exist, and it’s a kind of magical coincidence that I got this archive, which I strangely but sincerely feel belongs to me.” The photographs of the boys are particularly poignant. Vo describes them as “a kind of self-portrait, where I’m not sure whether I’m Joe or the boys without names.” §

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Left, Dress (2008). Right, Mask (2008). Both part of the BSI Art Collection, Lugano and courtesy Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and the artist. Photography by Nick Ash