DANH, 2.2.1861, 2009, ink on A4 paper, 29.6 × 21 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

Danh Vō

White Cube
Hong Kong

Danh Vō is no stranger to the concept of possession—of objects, of artwork and of souls. Last year, the artist finally settled a prolonged battle against a lawsuit brought about by art collector Bert Kreuk, who had allegedly commissioned Vō to create a major installation piece for him (due to be shown in a prime position at an exhibition of Kreuk’s amassed work in 2013). The issue became heated when accusations were thrown from both sides. In an open letter published on Artnet.com, Vō snarkily proposed he’d create a brand new “site-specific wall work” bearing the sentence “Shove it up your ass, you faggot.” This was in reference to Vō’s salacious body of work, in which the 1973 cult film The Exorcist is heavily featured. With the smell of tumult and art-world dealings gone wrong still lingering, Vō opened his first solo show in Hong Kong’s White Cube, where similar language plays a fundamental part in the installation. Hosted across the gallery’s two floors, sourced artifacts such as sculptures and bones, factor into Vō’s transformation of the space. 

Hidden on the first wall by the gallery entrance hung a single piece of A4 paper covered in blue calligraphy. The piece, 2.2.1861 (2009), is a hand-copied text by Vō’s own father Phung Vō, which replicates St Jean-Théophane Vénard’s (1829–1861) last letter before his execution, addressed to his father. Since it’s conception, the piece has been displayed in a variety of Vō’s exhibitions worldwide. Embodying layers of information, the ongoing piece can be seen as a symbol of resistance toward the French colonization of Vietnam (1887–1954), while simultaneously a representation of the relationship between fathers and sons (both Vō’s and Vérnard’s).

DANH VŌ, Lick Me, Lick Me, 2016, refrigerator, wooden head of polychrome Jesus, 16th-century sculpture and marble Roman sculpture, 1st–2nd century AD, 126 × 64.5 × 61 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

DANH VŌ, Untitled, 2016, gold on cardboard, 45 × 134.5 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

The next room, separated from the entrance foyer, reveals two more pieces situated in the sparse white space. The first, a stacked sculpture titled Lick Me, Lick Me (2016) was presented to the side of the room. The work was made up of accumulated fragments sourced from various institutions—a marble Roman statue, a refrigerator and a wooden head of Jesus—its title is taken directly from the film The Exorcist. Jesus’s head lies sideways and helpless, contained in the cold, silver vessel; the distorted Roman statue, meanwhile, sits overbearingly on top of the case. The words of the work’s title are those spoken by Regan, The Exorcist’s 12-year-old protagonist who becomes possessed by a demon, in the film. They hint at the content of the major installation on the floor above, as well as provide insight into the installation’s distorted body parts, which allude to The Exorcist‘s iconic scenes: Reagan’s head twisting 360 degrees, and her spidery crawl down the stairs. Another piece, Untitled (2016), leaning against the wall, consists of a cardboard box with a lid that flaps open. Reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (Soap Pads) (1964) and Robert Raushenberg’s “Cardbird” series (1971), one could see it as a commentary on consumerism and commercialization, with its usage of ordinary objects to create new artistic value from the mundane. In making the work, Vō printed the Budweiser logo in gold on the cardboard box’s sides, thus immediately increasing the value of the found object. Vō recycles cardboard boxes and sends them off to Thailand, where the exterior images are hand-painted with gold leaf. The artist was inspired by the use of gold leaf in Bangkok’s temples, which led him to combine it with common items to transform them.

In the main space upstairs is the focal installation of the exhibition, You’re gonna die up there…Let Jesus Fuck you…What an excellent day for an exorcism…Shove it up your ass, you faggot…Why, Dimmy? (2015). The extensive title, again, references The Exorcist, a film Vō resonates with personally—a connection that he has been exploring in his recent work. Vō has repeatedly mentioned to several media outlets that the works’ titles are chosen for their overt profanity, to make gallerists and collectors speak the obscenities. The minimal works placed in the majority of the gallery creates an unexpected confrontation in the single upstairs room. The installation feels ominous and intense, with the presence of an artifact and a dead creature’s bones looming overhead. More than 450 mammoth fossils hung from a (false, second) ceiling has created an immersive environment, which is in fact an adaptation of a 2015 work that was shown at the cavernous Crystal Palace of the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofia in MadridUnlike the Crystal Palace’s vast glass structure, White Cube offers a drastically smaller space, which enhances the density of the items that are strung up one by one. Among the fossils, all of which are from the late Pleistocene period, is a single 17th-century ivory figure of Jesus Christ on a cross. Vō’s accumulated archaic objects eerily unleash a host of historical, religious and social references. At an early age, Vō’s family fled from Vietnam to the Netherlands and it was there that he watched The Exorcist for the first time, at age seven. Having been greatly affected by it, Vō has expressed in various interviews that the vulgar language from the horror film opened him up—potentially as an act of self-exorcism—allowing him the freedom to express himself. In the film, the devil inside Ragan speaks the “truth,” calling out the priest (who performs the excorcism) for his troubled past. By “possessing” others to forcibly speak the artwork titles, Vō may perhaps be criticizing issues of free expression within the art industry; while also critiquing his Catholic upbringing and inferring discussions of sexual identity. 

DANH VŌYou’re gonna die up there…Let Jesus Fuck you…What an excellent day for an exorcism…Shove it up your ass, you faggot…Why, Dimmy?, 2015, mammoth fossils (late Pleistocene) and a 17th-century ivory Christ figure, dimensions variable. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

The installation at White Cube is a successful recreation of its initial presentation in Madrid, and has also been condensed in size, which has allowed visitors a more intimate viewing experience. The collected objects throughout the rooms present a multitude of layers, both historically and personally, that allows for freedom of discovery and interpretation.

Danh Vō’s solo exhibition is on view at White Cube, Hong Kong, until November 12, 2016. 

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Katherine Volk is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.