In a 1995 interview the Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres discussed his spy-like approach to art-making, in which he infiltrates art’s rarefied spaces with visually pleasing but seemingly unremarkable objects that surreptitiously reference autobiographical elements and contemporary politics. A worthy heir to Gonzalez-Torres, Berlin-based Danh Vo deploys a comparably clandestine approach in “Where the Lions Are,” his spare but suggestive solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel.
Vo was four when his family fled Vietnam in 1979, in a boat his father built; they were rescued at sea by a Danish ship, eventually gaining asylum and settling in Copenhagen. Appropriating and re-presenting found artifacts, images and documents—from family mementos to objects he purchases online—Vo intimates narratives that weave together biographies (his and other peoples’) and broader collective histories, frequently addressing relations between Vietnam and the West. His displays function, to borrow a term from German philosopher Walter Benjamin, like “constellations:” loose aggregations of seemingly unrelated fragments that reveal the fluidity of historical truth; history is always a contingent set of relations between artifacts, and the viewer engages with them as an archaeologist or historian might.
Vo’s interventions in the light-filled galleries of the 19th-century Kunsthalle were intentionally inconspicuous, often mimicking elements of the building’s fin-de-siècle interior. In the first room, a large hanging chandelier blended in perfectly with the architecture. Lying flat in the back right corner were three carved stone tablets—detailed reliefs of the fronts of a television, washing machine and fridge—with a wooden crucifix atop the middle one, suggesting a cenotaph. The next room was empty save for its red and white wallpaper; the delicate and precise botanical drawings repeated on it were a subtle play on the baroque floral patterns one might expect. A loosely tied bundle of knotty branches sat in the back corner of the final room, adjacent to a well-worn wood-and-glass display case that held a faded black-and-white framed photograph of five solemn young white men in priestly habits and a tiny curio containing a lock of hair.
At the end of the exhibition the viewer found two wall-mounted brass plaques that served as the show’s map, checklist and wall text; the plaques provided a surfeit of information about the displayed objects, often elucidating the works’ banal yet cryptic titles. We learn, for instance, that the three tablets, collectively titled Tombstone for Nguyen Thi Ty (2009), commemorate Vo’s maternal grandmother: she was given the appliances by an immigrant relief program and the Catholic Church upon arrival in West Germany in 1982. We also learn that the chandelier once hung in the ballroom of the former Hotel Majestic in Paris, where the 1973 Peace Accords that formally ended the Vietnam War were signed, and that the botanical drawings are of plants discovered in Southern China and Tibet by Jean-Andre Soulie, a French missionary who was tortured and killed in 1905 in Batang by Tibetan monks. The photograph is of another group of Vietnam-bound French missionaries taken before their departure from Paris in 1852; the lock of hair belonged to one of their number, decapitated in Tonkin eleven years later. And the branches are from a tree that served as a landmark for the now-lost grave of Vo Trung Thanh (the artist’s brother, though the text does not mention this) in Vietnam, who was buried in a makeshift coffin built from American ammunition boxes.
The exhibition’s title suggests its conceptual terrain. From the Romans on, European cartographers used the phrase Hic sunt leones (“Here there are lions”) to designate unmapped regions, and the frontier has always inspired both fear and fascination, holding the promise of untold wealth and opportunity that inspired many a doomed colonial endeavor. The objects serve as repositories for episodes from the checkered history of colonialism in Southeast Asia. They align France’s earlier imperial pursuits with the Vietnam War, which directly impacted Vo’s family. They suggest that the well-intentioned and often life-risking missionaries who set out to convert and civilize natives might have inflicted a more insidious type of colonial violence, a gesture somewhat repeated in the charity offered to incoming refugees in contemporary Europe. But Vo allows for ambiguity: the wallpaper recognizes both Soulie’s invaluable contribution to botany and his appropriation of these native species (the plants are all named after him). And the other murdered missionary serves as a perverse analog for Vo’s lost brother. Given this preoccupation with death, the show seemed to question whether historical artifacts might function as secular relics of a sort—holding out the promise of direct access to a dead relative or to the past itself—and whether they ever truly give up history’s ghosts.