Danh Vo “Garden with Pigeons in Flight” at Casa Luis Barragán, Mexico City
by Francesco Scasciamacchia
Danh Vo’s site-specific and environmental project for the house of the modernist Mexican architect Luis Barragán is primarily a subtle reflection on and a gentle reaction to the standardized museographic mechanisms of historical preservation through cultural artifacts. Vo’s understated intervention is a thoughtful and insightful commentary on the conventional ways in which history is treated as a frozen entity in an untouchable and auratic vitrine, as epitomized in the Casa Luis Barragán press release, according to which the house “has been preserved just like it was back when he lived in it, until his death in 1988.”
Vo’s project, Garden with Pigeons in Flight, points to the necessary instability of historical narration through almost imperceptible displacements and gentle new touches. For instance Vo removed the original carpets to reveal the light traces on the floor formed by the sun throughout the years, moved pieces of furniture to give breath to architectonic forms and ambiances, and opened up areas previously inaccessible to the public. Also he commissioned new floral decorative elements from one of Barragán’s employees who still lives in the house and who, when the architect was his employer, collected tree branches and leaves from the outdoor garden to create new compositions.
Inspired by vintage photographs of the house, Vo uses the floral compositions not merely as added decorative elements that echo the past life of the house before it became an international celebratory monument, but more as a metaphor for the impermanent, living nature of what we consider solid, fixed categories like architecture and history. Leaves and tree branches are perishable—they cannot stay the same, but need to be changed out, necessarily mutating the style and atmosphere of the rooms. History and architecture likewise become organisms that continue living: furniture moves; historical pieces are restored; excessive elements are amassed visibly in the last room of the guided tour; visitor safety barriers are removed.
Vo’s light displacements do not alter the historical essence or the architectural style, but rather give them vitality, destabilizing the usual preservation dictates; museographic approaches to historical buildings; impressions of second-time visitors and the house’s employees. Such disorientation works also on a larger, symbolic level, namely by disrupting the usual narration of history through the meticulous preservation of cultural artifacts and personal anecdotes conveyed by souvenirs and memorabilia.
In this sense Vo questions how systems of knowledge and thought—history and architecture, in this case—are governed by rules that are not only linguistic and grammatical, but also discursive and institutional. In a manner that to me recalls Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), the artist points out that we are inclined to project already-existing rules governed by inherited knowledge onto any period we encounter, thereby for instance transforming historical data into a coherent narration that influences the reading of history. Thus history, like any other knowledge, is a discourse, a way of speaking and interpreting that includes not only the object but also the rules around it.
Vo’s gestures of subtraction and addition, then, are an attempt to reveal not just a more vital and organic Casa Luis Barragán, but the “object”—that is, the episteme (the knowledge) of it, free of the rules that govern it. This becomes even clearer when the artist shows visibly such gestures of reduction, for instance amassing the objects and furniture that he decided to remove from the rooms as an installation made simply by this accumulation. Such elements then become not historical gems but “irrelevant” archaeological finds, at least for Vo, who points out through their visible display as an installation the subjective nature of knowledge, and therefore its non-totality. History is made by interruptions, not through a total linear narration, and Casa Luis Barragán becomes the “stage-metaphor” of a historical and cultural artifact that is part of the discourse of knowledge—that is to say, turned into a narration.
Among Vo’s interventions of addition is an installation made from numerous beeswax candles handcrafted by master artisans in Oaxaca. Partly accumulated in an installation and partly distributed all over the house, the carmine candles are another perishable element, consumed day and by day. Their ephemeral nature, together with the different densities of the carmine, are visual metaphors for the fragility of material history and the many layers that constitute it, like the history of Mexico that is behind the material process of making those candles. The candles refer to the history of carmine dye, made in pre-Hispanic times by extracting color from the cochineal insect, which was a fundamental part of the economy of New Spain. Those layers of history, symbolized by the different consistencies of the carmine color, are usually excluded from historical narration because they are an obstacle to the universalizing way in which history is usually constructed—that is, as a logic that connects partial and disconnected data into a totality.
The candles and the floral composition, together with the action of adding and reducing, tell a story that is both particular to Barragán’s house, but also relevant to any cultural object. It is a story that reveals rather than hides its different layers, the interruption and the non-totality of systems of knowledge and thoughts. Vo attempts to disclose this mechanism not by foregrounding it, but simply through displacing it temporarily.