February 9 — May 9, 2018
Danish artist Danh Vo welcomes visitors to his survey exhibition, titled Take My Breath Away, at the Guggenheim Museum with three disparate works in the High Gallery. Acting as a prologue, the works show not only a historical milestone in the artist’s personal history, but also the history of Vietnam, from where he fled at the age of four. Through the display of ephemera and physical remnants from history, Vo creates an experience that is not historically factual, but rather a fragmented journey through religion, colonialism, diaspora, and confrontation. Take My Breath Away is unapologetic, satirical, but nuanced in the struggles that many diasporic Vietnamese and artists can relate to. In the centre of the gallery, against the back wall, Vo places one of the two armchairs from Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs (2013), while the other one is located further up along the ramp. Once used by President John F. Kennedy, the two armchairs were acquired from an estate auction of the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, along with correspondences from the White House. Vo stripped the chairs down to their wooden frames, then scattered their parts across the museum. Christmas (Rome), 2012 (2013), hovering in the upper right corner over the mahogany skeleton of the first chair, shows tableaux of silhouettes resembling recognizable religious icons such as crucifixes, chalices, and religious boxes. Their shadows permanently imprint upon layers of brown velvet wallpaper that once hung in the Vatican’s museum. On the floor is Take My Breath Away (2017), a second-century marble statue with half of a leg and a foot still attached to its base.
What Vo presents in the High Gallery, and eventually throughout the exhibition, reveals his perception of history. Vo views history in fragments of events and encounters. He collages deconstructed items in ingenious, provocative, and sometimes even disrespectful compositions. As viewers walk up the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim, they casually encounter Vo’s series of Medieval religious wood sculptures which have been severed and reattached to Roman marble statues. Each sculpture is accompanied with vulgar titles such as: Your mother sucks cocks in Hell (2015), Lick me, lick me (2015), or Shove it up your ass, you faggot! (2013). The aggressiveness in Vo’s titles is juxtaposed with a series of collected ephemera displayed along the museum walls and the railing of the ramp. The series includes personal letters and correspondence from McNamara’s office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, photographs of young Vietnamese men taken by an American Research Analyst during his assignment in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and a long vitrine showing the ongoing project 2.2.1861.