Danh vo history of the world in new pieces

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IN THE CORNER of a room, an American flag is breaking down. Several stars have become loose and fallen to the floor. The flag is in tatters, you might say, except that Danh Vo’s version of the Stars and Stripes is made of wood rather than cloth. Every day logs are taken out of the stack into wood burning stoves until the flag goes up in smoke before the presidential election.

The Vietnamese-Danish artist has made a major transformation of the White Cube gallery in London, dimming the lights and installing a network of pipes to connect the stoves. Amazingly, he has created a lush wildflower meadow – aphids, spiders and all – in the gallery’s largest space. Titled “Chicxulub”, after the place in Mexico that was destroyed by a 66m asteroid years ago, the exhibition invites its audience to think about history, from the rise and fall of empires to the details about the artist’s own history.

Mr. Vo was born in 1975, a few months after the capture of Saigon by the Vietnamese People’s Army and the Viet Cong. Four years later, his family fled the country by boat. They were rescued by a Danish freighter and spent time in Singapore (a photograph of the artist with his siblings in a refugee camp is included in the exhibition), before settling in Denmark. After studying in Germany, Mr. Vo has exhibited his work internationally, including an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, and represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale in in 2015.

His art consists of an elegant arrangement of fragments. He scours obscure auction houses, picking up a bronze-age ax head, a Roman foot, a Madonna, a crucifix and a putti. Next to the old ones are the trappings of world trade: worn wooden boxes used to transport Coca-Cola, Beefeater Gin or Carnation Milk, sometimes decorated by the artist. “Danh Vo is a traitor!” says Hannah Gruy, curator at the White Cube.

The clips often point to a darker story: for example, the beloved Pekingese featured in “Looty 1865” (2013) was a dog given to Queen Victoria after British and French soldiers stormed the Summer Palace Beijing was looted during the second opium war. But it’s always up to the viewers to piece together the pieces for themselves. “I think there should be gaps, like when you’re editing a film,” said Mr. Vo. “If you look at the work of Ingmar Bergman and other great directors, they edit so that there is room for the viewer’s imagination. I work with sculptures and making exhibitions a little like that.”

One less enigmatic fragment in the exhibition is “2.2.1861” (2009), a magnificent piece of calligraphy. A copy of a letter written by Jean-Théophane Vénard, a Catholic missionary who was executed in Vietnam in 1861, it is the work of Phung Vo, the artist’s father and a professional writer. The elder Mr. Vo rewrote the letter at first without understanding French, and only afterwards did he find out how dry it was. Nevertheless, it was especially important to him, as he converted from Confucianism to Catholicism in the 1960s after the assassination of South Vietnam’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem.

Struck by his father’s “silent protest”, Mr Vo remained a dutiful church member until he was a teenager. “By then I had learned that God didn’t like gay people,” he says with a laugh. He still finds Catholic imagery attractive, but he often deals with the violent history of the religion in his work: a Madonna with a severed head standing on the head of an axe. Elsewhere he has neatly boxed the “broken” body of Christ.

Art was once Mr. Vo’s way of exploring life’s mysteries, including his own. “I still don’t understand what it means to decide my parents and grandparents – to put your family at risk to go to a place you don’t know,” he said “The art world was a great place to deal with that.” But in lockdown on his farm outside Berlin – where the exhibition was designed and provided the materials for its lawn – his perspective has changed. Living in the country between “the chickens and the composting station”, his belief that art could give him answers dwindles. “Today I’m in a different place – and I can’t remember being so happy in my life.” It will take time to “digest these experiences,” he says, unsure how much his new perspective has changed his actions. In the meantime, an exhibition planned for November will see his new delight in nature transform part of the Vienna Synagogue into a greenhouse.

Back in London, Mr Vo has helpfully created a timeline of empires for visitors, starting with Alexander’s defeat of the Persians around 330BC and ending with the fall of Japan and the rise of America from 1945. e what will happen to the American empire after November 3 is the question that Mr. Vo has left visitors pondering.

“Chicxulub” continues at White Cube, London, until November 2. “Danh Vo” opens at Secession, Vienna, on November 20 and runs until February 7, 2021

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