Review | David Hansen on Danh Vo’s Slip of the Tongue in Venice

slip poster

Slip of the TonguePunta della Dogana, Venice

12 April-31 December 2015

Curated by Danh Vo in collaboration with Caroline Bourgeois

Venice: home of Marco Polo; key entrepôt on the Silk Road; the heart of a great and glittering maritime and mercantile empire. For hundreds of years the Most Serene Republic reached out across the Adriatic and the Mediterranean to the Eastern Empire and beyond, trading and plundering; the famous lion of St Mark atop the right-hand column of the Piazzetta, next to the Doge’s Palace, is probably 4th century BC Persian-Hellenistic; the Byzantine water-marble facing of the basilica of San Marco was stripped from Hagia Sophia during the sack of Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade.

Yet the city also has an intense historical and cultural specificity: an essentially Græco-Roman and Roman Catholic identity that underpins all its great artistic achievements. It is simply not possible fully to appreciate the glories of San Marco or the Accademia, of Titian or Tiepolo, of Monteverdi or Vivaldi, without at least a passing familiarity with the stories of Homer and Ovid, of the Bible and the Saints. Even so, many of the millions of international visitors who wander, lost, through the city’s commerce-clogged arteries, engrossed in their ‘must-see’ maps, remain blissfully ignorant of the iconography of Hercules and the Erymanthian Boar, or Europa and the Bull, of the symbolism of the four Evangelists, or of the difference between a Last Supper and a Feast in the House of Levi.

The Venice Biennale of Art is similarly an international hub, and in its 56th manifestation rather self-consciously so, under curator Okwui Enwezor’s rubric of ‘all the world’s futures.’ But in the contemporary, post-postmodern, global visual art environment, there is none of that anchoring historical consensus of meaning or of value, no Panofsky, no Bullfinch, little to counter the drift of aesthetic-touristical ignorance, to offer an objective, empirical alternative to the solipsistic phenomenology of a culture in terminal decline.

So it might be possible to consider Danh Vo’s Slip of the Tongue exhibition as nothing more than a fashionable and elegant Venetian capriccio. Here the artist’s own art of acquisition and arrangement is displayed alongside other much-dropped names and subjects and gestures, mostly selected from the house of one of the great and glittering collectors of the twenty-first century, François Pinault. To begin with, the inclusion of temporal outliers in mediæval miniaturists and Giovanni Bellini, in Rodin and Brâncuşi and Picasso, suggests something of the transhistorical wunderkammer curatorial aesthetic pioneered in such exhibitions as Tra and Theatre of the World.[1] Then there are the revivalist heroes, sixties and seventies artists like Francesco Lo Savio, Carol Rama, Paul Thek, Nancy Spero and Lee Lozano, ‘since about 2006-2007 … considered as “the” rediscovery of the 21st century,’[2] as well as a range of usual biennalist suspects from Marcel Broodthaers to Hubert Duprat, Elmgreen and Dragset to Fischli and Weiss.

Slip of the Tongue; installation view, with works by Nairy Baghramian, Danh Vo, Peter Hujar and Charles Ray

Slip of the Tongue; installation view, with works by Nairy Baghramian, Danh Vo, Peter Hujar and Charles Ray

It could all seem rather conventionally avant-garde, a field of fully-authorised, artworld-certified curatorial transgressions, in which the cool may safely graze according to their personal consumer tastes, and in blissful ignorance of any kind of intellectual foundation. But for this viewer at least, Slip of the Tongue is infinitely more complex than that. Vo, shopping artist par excellence, trader of ideas and images, cut-and-paster of economic and social relations, has here created a rich and intense psychological and political acrostic, a naughty gestalt in which individual art objects and their meanings are subordinated to his will, in which the entire exhibition apparatus becomes, quite simply, a new, complex and industrially-scaled work of art.

Of course, since New Criticism in the 1940s and post-structuralism in the 1980s, regard for authorial intention has been superseded by the post-facto play of text and reader, and the exhibition is moreover of such dimensions (more than 180 works spread through more than a dozen spaces within the Punta Della Dogana, and one satellite at the Accademia up the Grand Canal) and variety (of date, style, authorship, form, medium and provenance) as to make precise exegesis impossible. But each of those 180 is within a short and eye-navigable distance of another work, or two or three, and the appearances and the meanings shape each other. As the artist puts it, it is ‘when you see things in space that they create something … you see little signs; you say, “of course”.’[3] The selection of works, and more importantly their disposition – both within each separate space, and in the more extended temporo-spatial narrative of a visit, here evinces a consistent and transparent agenda, the imagery and themes of the component objects constituting an extended meditation on identity: sexual, familial, racial, linguistic, national and cultural.

It is hardly surprising that Vo should be alert to such matters: born in Vietnam in 1975, the year that Saigon fell to the NVA, he left the country of his birth at the age of four. His father, Phung Vo, had hoped to escape to America, but his home-made boat was picked up by a passing Danish tanker, and the refugee family ended up being settled in Copenhagen. As an Asiatic Roman Catholic growing up in Nordic Lutheran Denmark, Vo’s fundamental cultural orientation was that of the Other, his artistic language formed from fragments and shards, shadows and dust. (His very name can be translated into English as ‘shiver’, connoting both the trembling of fear and the shattering of glass.)

Of course, all of our private, personal cultural domains are built from disconnected, partial experiences and historical accidents, from the fragmentary lookings, listenings, touchings and readings of our formative years. In Vo’s case, for instance, the seemingly bizarre constant reiteration of vile sexual insults in titles can be traced back to repeat viewings during early childhood of The Exorcist, in company with his horror-movie devotee mother. However, these holy Hollywood obscenities can also be seen to track forward to a primary focus of the artist’s practice in general, and of this exhibition-work in particular: the essential, inherent treachery of language. The 2013 exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris that confirmed Vo’s developing international reputation was entitled Go Mo Ni Ma Da, a sentence ‘borrowed from an article by an American woman journalist travelling in Vietnam, who was regularly greeted with the words “Go mo ni ma da,” a mix of English and French meaning “Good morning, Madame.”’[4]

Bertrand Lavier, La Bocca sur Zanker and David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffalos) (photo Christian Sinibaldi for The Guardian)

Bertrand Lavier, La Bocca sur Zanker and David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffalos) (photo Christian Sinibaldi for The Guardian)

Thus the very first object you see when you enter this show is Bertrand Lavier’s La Bocca sur Zanker, a lip-shaped sofa mounted on a freezer chest. Not only does the name of the work contain words from three different languages, but the conjunction of the two objects also seems to imply silencing, a freezing rather than a freeing of speech. Beyond, the unfolding exhibition also reveals a healthy quotient of text-based works, all of which proclaim a distinct unreliability. In one of Vo’s own, Jamie Stewart’s erotic pop lyric Fabulous Muscles is writ large but largely illegible on the gallery floor, the gothic letter forms echoed elsewhere in the exhibition in a variety of decorated initials cut from 13th – 15th century illuminated religious and musical manuscripts. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Julie Ault) comprises a collection of significant words and dates assembled from Ault’s memories, but is here presented as edited (albeit with permission) by Roni Horn, mutual friend of the artist and the sitter, while in one of Lee Lozano’s ‘language pieces’ she makes the profoundly ambiguous offer to ‘think about something for anyone.’ There are also twenty-six panels of Nancy Spero’s wordy Codex Artaud, as well as a number of the earlier Artaud Paintings. Of the latter, All Writing is Pigshit chimes neatly if distantly with Tetsumi Kudo’s Portrait of Artist in Crisis, a ghastly diorama in a birdcage depicting the absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco inscribing a turd.

Nancy Spero, Artaud Paintings – All Writing is Pigshit (photo Sophie Kitching for Art Observed)

Nancy Spero, Artaud Paintings – All Writing is Pigshit (photo Sophie Kitching for Art Observed)

Amongst Danh Vo’s ‘own’ textual fragments we can number not just the Exorcist titles and Fabulous Muscles, but also 02.02.1861, the last letter written by French Indochina missionary martyr St Jean Théophane Vénard, copied out in beautiful copperplate by Vo’s largely Vietnaphone father,[5] and Self Portrait (Peter), a rather tart letter of reference from Peter Bonde, Vo’s professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.[6] All of these artefacts proclaim equivocation, mistranslation, incomprehension. In them, the smooth surfaces of language, speech and writing are shattered by contingency.

Jean-Luc Moulène, La Toupie (photo Lisa Brice for Artthrob)

Jean-Luc Moulène, La Toupie (photo Lisa Brice for Artthrob)

The ontology of objects would appear to be similarly undermined, with Vo’s selection highlighting works of art whose physical integrity has been seriously compromised, works which speak of erosion, breakage and repair. In the first of the larger spaces of the Punta della Dogana, after the Lavier foyer, stands Jean-Luc Moulène’s La Toupie, a concrete statue of a girl whose torso has been worn into a bell-curve profile by being rotated against another garden sculpture in the form of a goose. In this object movement and stasis, matrix and tool, positive and negative space are oddly compounded to form one bizarre image, the abrasive bird a nuzzling prosthetic attachment to the girl’s body. It exemplifies the central thesis of the exhibition, its assertion of what art is: a shaping of our perception of the world by intractable objects. Elsewhere in the galleries we find other bits and pieces: Rodin’s spread-legged Iris, Messagère des Dieux, its head and left arm severed; broken eggshells in Marcel Broodthaers’ Armoire de Cuisine; pierced and torn plastic veils or ghosts of abstract expressionism in David Hammons’ Untitled; and Cameron Rowlands’ salvaged scrap – a bag of bits of copper, orphan shelving system fittings and a car’s catalytic converter.

Nairy Baghramian, Slip of the Tongue (photo Sophie Kitching for Art Observed)

Nairy Baghramian, Slip of the Tongue (photo Sophie Kitching for Art Observed)

Against all this entropy runs a dialectic descant of building and repair: Martin Wong’s Nuyorican brickscapes; the grid framing of Sigmar Polke’s Orgone Box Kartoffelhaus; the aluminium armature of Nairy Baghramian’s brobdignagian dental brace Retainer. A number of works by Hubert Duprat (not from the Pinault collection, so highly conscious rather than opportunistic inclusions) constitute a collective tribute to adhesion: flints mounted in florists’ foam (Tribulum); coral branch fragments glued together in a dense, vascular tumbleweed, the joins masked with pellet-rings of bread (Corail Costa Brava); a glacial boulder deliberately shattered then imperfectly re-assembled (Cassé-Collé); and of course his signature Caddis Worms Building their Case, in which aquatic fly larvae make their chrysalises from gold and precious stones supplied by the artist.

Hubert Duprat, Caddis Worms Building their Case (photo Designboom)

Hubert Duprat, Caddis Worms Building their Case (photo Designboom)

Once again, these works serve to harmonise with and to amplify the apparent preoccupations of Vo’s own practice: with breakage and reassembly, with the making of the self. Here we find a bag containing a horizontal slice from a mediæval sculpture of St Joseph (the father), the section sized so as to conform to the carry-on baggage limits of European discount airline Easyjet (Untitled); the polychrome wooden torso of a Gothic Madonna (the mother) sitting atop the marble thighs of a Roman Apollo (Shove it up your ass, you faggot); a life-cast of the body of Vo’s nephew (the child), presented in six hollow bronze fragments (Gustav’s Wing); and one of the 250-odd pieces of the artist’s ambitious 2011-13 project to recreate, piece by piece, at one-to-one scale, the topography of the exterior copper sheath of the Statue of Liberty, a work he archly titled We the People.

Danh Vo, We the People (detail) (photo Lisa Brice for Artthrob)

Danh Vo, We the People (detail) (photo Lisa Brice for Artthrob)

Perhaps the most baffling or the most profound of all the exhibition’s poetic deconstruction-reconstructions is a head of Christ by Giovanni Bellini. This small surviving detail of a destroyed Transfiguration altarpiece was found in the late 19th century to have on its reverse another Bellini panel, a piece of landscape with a painted scroll bearing the artist’s signature. The two fragments were identified as having originally come from the same work, and have since been mounted in a double-sided, double-glazed box frame. Vo displays this work on/in a wall between two gallery spaces, so that the synthesis, the comprehension of the two parts – the reconciliation of painting and artist, divinity and humanity, image and document, object and viewer, artefact and significance – is teasingly occluded, deferred, delayed.

Giovanni Bellini, (Head of Christ and scroll, Fragments of a Transfiguration) (photo Conceptual Fine Arts)

Giovanni Bellini, (Head of Christ and scroll, Fragments of a Transfiguration) (photo Conceptual Fine Arts)

Finally, there are intimacies. To begin with, there are those works which involve the representation of Vo’s family: his mother, through her wedding ring and a gambling confession (Untitled (Ring)); his father, through a watch, lighter, signet ring and his as-yet-unused gravestone (If You Were to Climb the Himalayas Tomorrow); his grandmother, through a stack of whitegoods given to her by Germany’s Immigrant Relief Program (Oma Totem); and his nephew Gustav, through the above-mentioned body casts.

The show is also rich in homosexual iconography, presenting both implicit and explicit sexual references: from the Hockneyed gay-LA ‘Bigger Splash’ resonance of Elmgreen and Dragset’s diving board (Powerless Structures Fig. 13) to the prison-rough-trade aesthetic of Martin Wong’s INRI; from the title of Moulène’s Tête à Cul (Head over Arse) to the sphincter flowers of Piero Manzoni’s bread-roll Achrome and the flaccid polystyrene penises of Baghramian’s eponymous Slip of the Tongue; from Peter Hujar’s elegantly-draped male nudes to the more abstract, more viscerally-charged wax body bits of Hujar’s partner, ‘the man-of-the-meat,’[7] Paul Thek.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, fig. 13

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, fig. 13

As well as this lewd fleshromp, there is a parallel exploration of darker sexual matter, the inevitable (especially for a young man growing up gay in the late 1980s and early 1990s) fear and tragedy associated with the AIDS epidemic. Peter Hujar was also sometime lover of David Wojnarowicz, whose Untitled (Buffalos) is, along with Lavier’s La Bocca…, one of the show’s ‘opening remarks.’ This work, a photograph of a museum diorama showing bison tumbling off a cliff, began in the context of a meditation on gravity, on the Weight of the Earth.[8] Widely published, the image soon came to signify the personal and societal grief-burden of HIV mortality; Wojnarowicz died of an AIDS-related disease in 1992. In a similar vein, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ not only recalls Vo’s Roman Catholic upbringing, but also summons the spirit of another of the fallen, Robert Mapplethorpe, whose Perfect Moment exhibition was, with Serrano’s work, a lighting rod for America’s ‘Culture Wars’ of the early 1990s. Roni Horn’s Gold Field is presented as in its 1990 MOCA Los Angeles manifestation, the historical setting for an encounter between Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his lover Ross Laycock, then dying from AIDS. As the catalogue explains, Gonzales-Torres later made a work in response (Placebo – Landscape – for Roni), prompting a further backatya in Horn’s Paired Gold Mats for Ross and Felix.

Roni Horn, Gold Mat and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Julie Ault)

Roni Horn, Gold Mat and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Julie Ault)

This is where it starts to get difficult. It has to be said that these connections could seem exclusionary, even alienating to the viewer, a set of in-crowd incestuous in-references that serve simply to enhance Vo’s own artistic lineage and prestige. (Thus, for example, the inclusion of Martin Wong points directly to Vo’s 2013 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim – a curated display of Wong’s eccentric collection of ceramic knick-knackery – with the painting Statue of Liberty specifically reminding us of the ubiquitous We the People.) Yet this very suspicion, this ‘get your hand off it, Danh’ response is actually part of the package, an affect every bit as significant as mourning for the dead, confounded frustration at the anachronism of the nation-state, anger at the amorality of transnational monopoly capitalism, love for partners, parents and extended family, even delight in dumb-giggly word play.[9] Vo’s generous definition of sociality – the essence of his project, if you will – entails antagonism as much as sympathy.

Danh Vo, (Slip of the Tongue limited edition sipping tequila)

Danh Vo, (Slip of the Tongue limited edition sipping tequila)

Besides, it is probably inappropriate to rebuke for egotism an artist whose habitual manner is self-deprecation to the point of virtual disappearance. It is hard to complain about his obscurantism when the exhibition catalogue (a modest black and white, matt paper, stapled affair) gives all the necessary significatory clues in its carefully-crafted, deadpan commentaries on individual artists and works of art. It is impossible to dismiss as mere modishness such a rich array of symbolic capital, assembled and positioned with such refined formal instincts, such quiet intelligence, such sublimated passion.

Yet still they come, the Veniceworld Artworld tourist hordes, cruising through the show in an hour or even less, nodding sagely at works familiar from art market magazines and news feeds, occasionally checking the catalogue for the credentials of unfamiliar ones, and generally treating Slip of the Tongue as any other curated collection, as a miscellany from which you can pick and choose and take smartphone snaps of the things that have immediate appeal. Some might describe this response as a form of aesthetic false consciousness, others simply as inattention. Either way, it means missing the point. Slip of the Tongue is cultural practice of a very high order, which demands (and rewards) slow, careful, thoughtful reading. Without close consideration of its intense historical and cultural specificity, and of the meanings implicit in its web of individual objects and relationships, well, you might as well just be reclining in a gondola, looking at Venice from the end of a selfie-stick.

© David Hansen 2015

Associate Professor, Centre for Art History and Art Theory

The Australian National University

 

[1] Tra: Edge of Becoming, curator Axel Vervoordt, Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, 2011; Theatre of the World, curator Jean-Hubert Martin, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 2013

[2] Danh Vo, Caroline Bourgeois, Elizabeth Lebovici and Amy Zion, Slip of the Tongue, Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2015

[3] Danh Vo, interviewed at press conference, Danish pavilion, Venice Biennale, 7 May 2015

[4] Angeline Scherf (ed.), Go Mo Ni Ma Da, Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2013, p. 8

[5] ‘When my father writes these letters, he recognises the alphabet, but does not decipher its meaning.’ (Danh Vo, in Slip of the Tongue, op. cit.)

[6] Bonde declares: ‘Trung Ky-Danh Vo has been in my class for one year, and I might/might not understand his agenda, but I strongly recommend him to quit painting.’ (ibid.)

[7] Paul Thek, quoted ibid.

[8] This was the title of two series of photographs by the artist that explored ‘the weight of gravity, the pulling in to the earth’s surface of everything that walks, crawls or rolls across it.’ (David Wojnarowicz, cited in Cynthia Carr, Fire in the belly: the life and times of David Wojnarowicz, New York: Bloomsbury, 2012)

[9] Petrit Halilaj’s ocarinas are in the same room as Moulène’s La Toupie, linked by the Italian word ‘oca’, meaning goose, while Zoe Leonard’s photograph of a stuffed cat hangs adjacent to Vo’s Log Dog.

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