CONVERSATIONS Mousse 17
No Way Out. An Interview with Danh Vo
by Francesca Pagliuca
All of his projects primarily deal with what happens around him, his personal life, his desires, his identity, and what other people project onto him. All of these issues have become material for public discussion through his work. Born in Vietnam but raised in Denmark, Danh Vo is interested in breaking down communication, in illuminating paradoxes. For one of his well-known, ongoing, long-term projects, he marries people and (immediately) gets divorced. He just wants their names and it all ends up in pieces of paper, mere certificates from an institution. He undermines conventions, the institutional sphere. He doesn’t like interpretations; he doesn’t expect anything from his viewers. And he would like all his work to have this quality: existing because there is no way out.
The First Story: Background
FRANCESCA PAGLIUCA: How has your history influenced the way you produce art?
DANH VO: In high school I failed History class; I knew literally nothing and still don’t know much about it. Instead among the things that have inspired me a lot are these travel experiences I had with my mother. When we traveled to Vietnam for the first time in 27 years, she would complain about almost everything because it was very different from her memories and naturally it would never match her ideas, not only because of the time that had passed, but also because of the filter of American propaganda she has in her head. On the other hand, when she visited me in Berlin I took her out to this Vietnamese cultural center left over from the old DDR. A center that was built in order to help North Vietnamese contract workers hold onto their culture, since they would only stay for 5 years and were not meant to become integrated in society. This became my mother’s favourite place in Berlin, since she identified so much with them, as a pure labor force that was working for many years a long way from their origins. I thought this was interesting because it was in spite of their ideological beliefs and my mom’s hatred of Communism. She always hangs out there now when she visits me in Berlin…
FP: What about your own history?
DV: I don’t really believe in my own story, not as a singular thing anyway. It weaves in and out of other people’s private stories of local history and geopolitical history. I see myself, like any other person, as a container that has inherited these infinite traces of history without inheriting any direction. I try to compensate for this, I’m trying to make sense out of it and give it a direction for myself.
FP: During a residency program in Los Angeles, you met an American guy who was in Vietnam from ’62 to ’73 and over that period collected material—photos, letters—that is valuable documentation of homosexuality in wartime. He gave all this material to you and it became one of your pieces. What’s the role of chance in your work?
DV: Yes, most of it is made by chance. I don’t believe that things come from within you. To me, things come out of the continuous dialog you have with your surroundings, I need that in order to work, and in this dialog things often come to me by chance and you just have to catch them at the right moment… whenever that is. That’s something I still need to learn and be more specific about…
I don’t know if you know this piece, about my grandmothers temporary grave marker…
FP: Yes, I saw it…
DV: That’s a piece that’s quite interesting in its relation to chance… This cross is a temporary grave marker that my father made for my grandmother when she died in Denmark two years ago. When a grave is new, the soil still has to settle before you can put the granite tombstone on it, so the grave essentially stays unmarked for a long time. My father is a very devout Catholic and he couldn’t stand this idea of a grave without a marker, so he started to build a temporary one. This was the first grave marker he had built since the Vietnam War. It came out looking like one from that time—simple, white, wooden and with my grandmother’s name written in Roman letters… When the real tombstone came, the cemetery didn’t know what to do with it and left it in the container. Coincidentally my family came to visit the grave on the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And found it dumped in the trash. They didn’t know what to do because no one from my family wanted to take it home, but they couldn’t leave it in the container either. Then my little sister came up with this idea that maybe I would like to have it, so they agreed to bring it to me in Berlin. Of course I was shocked when she brought it in a black plastic bag and delivered it in person to my door. This cross was standing out on my balcony for half a year before I could detach it from the personal life of my grandmother. It took time to see this piece as something not connected to my grandmother, but only representing the different things that had an impact on her. And that’s how work like this starts to exist; I think it’s a process of bending your own way of thinking. This piece was purely made by chance, in the end. And this is also to point out the fact that I don’t see things immediately, I don’t see immediately whether they have the qualities of a piece of art. I usually have to stay with them for a long time. This piece is very important in terms of the way I work with history. How can I expect people that pass by for a moment to understand? I can’t expect anything. This is just another hermetic sculpture, and it’s on this level of abstraction that I find the quality of the work. I’d like all my pieces to be like this—that they exist because there is no way out.
An Ongoing Project
FP: Is it hard to convince a person to get married?
DV: Yes, of course.
FP: One of your well-known ongoing projects is about the institution of marriage. How do you convince a person to marry you?
DV: The people I ask to marry me in order to get their last names are people I respect a lot and consider to have a role in shaping me. I use their last names as a concrete thing I carry with me, a souvenir produced by the system that by definition has excluded me. Since they’re people I know quite well, I have a good starting point for negotiation, but it takes time. Even though I have tried it several times, I’m still scared to confront the authorities…
FP: Denmark—where you started this project—was the first country to legalize gay marriage. Denmark is also where you have lived for a long time. Through this project, you are trying to exploit certain structures of the institution itself, identity issues, and the paradoxes of the society live in. In what ways do you feel like a product of Western society?
DV: What happened in Denmark was that on the one hand, they invited gay people to adopt the heterosexual system, while on the other hand, they were cutting down the trees in the main cruising park of Copenhagen. This legislation was not an act of opening up society, it was an act of exclusion where gay marriage was used as an alibi. I always felt that marriage was a hangover from the past, and what I attempted to do was to try to make sense of it. To give it a meaning at least for myself. Ever since my parents found out I was gay they have asked once a while if I could help friends of theirs by marrying them pro forma, so they would have a way to come to the “West”. They saw it in a very practical way because they considered my choice of sexuality as inconsistent with the meaning of marriage. It’s this way of thinking I admire very much in my parents. To see the use of things when you can’t find the meaning in them. This project exists only because of a certain constellation of events, I don’t know if it’s Western or right. I just try to deal with the problems I’m confronted with.
FP: How do you exhibit the marriage project?
DV: I show the marriage and divorce papers.
FP: What is the connection between bodies, papers and institutions?
DV: I have a very exotic relationship with 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 in a proper state (it was broken in two places, and taped together) and I was seeing all these bodies, mostly from Bangladesh, 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, paper and institutions. I see the documents as equivalent to a performance, since through paper and institutions our society has already determined our movements and actions.
Private / Public
FP: Most of your projects deal with what happens around you, your personal life, your desires, your identity and what other people project onto you. What is private to you?
DV: Privacy to me is mourning, mourning for the loss of it.
The Last Story
FP: You don’t like interpretations. Tell me a story that can sum up your forthcoming show…
DV: The title is Last Fuck. I talked about the title with a friend of mine and he said “Danh, that’s really a bad idea”. And I asked him why he thought so. And he compared it to Sarah Lucas’s exhibitions where she also uses these up-front titles and your expectations would be fulfilled visiting the show. He told me in my case it was a bad idea because it would mislead people. He is right… but I think that’s the intriguing part of it.
Originally published on Mousse 17 (February-March 2009)