5811 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637
A familiar eye in luminescent, freshly hewn copper stares up from a wooden cradle against a backdrop of anthropomorphic lions ripped from the palace walls of Sargon II, an Assyrian king who ruled in the 7th century BCE. This is probably the most striking installment of Danh Vo’s We the People in Chicago—an indefinite project brought to Chicago as a collaboration between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Renaissance Society that reconstructs the Statue of Liberty’s façade and installs segments of the icon around the world. Hammered in repoussage to the thickness of two pennies, pieces of the remade Lady Liberty are stationed in Chicago until mid-December in the Pritzker Garden at the Art Institute of Chicago (September 23, 2012–Sunday, November 11, 2012 – after which it will move to the Bluhm Family Terrace). There are sections of the face, gown and others at the Oriental Institute, Booth School of Business and the UoC Law School at the University of Chicago, each installment lending different contextualizations to the iconography of the famous symbol. These installations coincide with Vo’s solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society entitled Uterus.
Uterus is sparse and open. A tunnel of intriguing correspondences between Henry Kissinger and Leonard Lyons, a lifestyle columnist for the New York Post, leads into the open, womb-like gallery. The lighting is purely ambient, no spotlights and no dividers. The works populate the edges of the gallery like a fringe of curiosities. A collection of 19th century animal traps, a stack of firescaled copper bars that weigh the equivalent of the flame from the Statue of Liberty’s torch, a photo of Vo’s cousin staring out a window, a bouquet from a Lincoln Park florist, a sweetened condensed milk box containing a pair of cement legs adorned with silver nail polish—the march of objects continued.
Danh Vo, For Susanne, 2012, Gold, cardboard, 40 flower stems, dimensions variable; Courtesy of the Renaissance Society.
I had the opportunity to be guided through Uterus by Mr. Vo, a kind man in his mid-30’s with a penchant for collecting old museum hygrometers. He took me around each piece, relating each acquisition story excitedly. The image of his cousin occurred when he asked Vo if he would “like to see his wing” during a visit to the artist’s home. He lifted up his shirt and dislocated his shoulder blade, popping out his scapula in front of a window. The phrase and the image struck him and so the work was made, or taken. This often seems to be Vo’s process: more often than not a collector of artistic moments and an installer of objects rather than a maker of objects. The image of Vo’s cousin is not framed, not even the printing info was cut from the photo paper sheet.
The iron traps, rusted and worn with paper tags detailing price and purpose (i.e.: “Bear Head Trap”, $1200) are arranged on the floor amidst metal clamps and logging paraphernalia. None of the traps are set; they are innocuous but reminiscent of the cruelty of a past existence that is now hidden behind abstractions and rhetoric. I walk cautiously around the collection as Vo steps heavily between the vicious metal objects. The artist purchased them from a shop in Montana during his cross-country road trip to this exhibition.
When asked if narrative was important to his work, as it seemed with each object a story unfolded and became central to the meaning of the work, he replied quickly that narrative wasn’t the goal. “It’s a fallacy. Why represent things narratively if that’s not how we experience the world? It’s stupid.” The space between each work was beginning to make sense. The isolation of each constellation of objects needed the emptiness to be defined, to find some sort of coalescence. The empty womb of the gallery became the creative space in which the art of the installation was birthed.
I spoke with Susanne Ghez, Director of the Renaissance Society, regarding Uterus and We the People and she commented on the precision and detail with which Vo installs his work by relating: “You know the flower piece? There was a Gordon’s Gin box right next to it that was a little off-kilter and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to move that box and straighten it out but I just knew that that was deliberate so I finally asked him and indeed it was deliberate. So every little thing is done expressly and you feel that when you walk in.”
Vo’s work rests in an uneasy area as far as the art world is concerned. By ignoring conventions of making, presentation and installation when needed yet exploiting those same conventions to the aesthetic benefit of his work, he plays with the practice of contemporary art to exceedingly amazing manifestations. Truly, Vo’s work reminds us that the locus of art is not within an object, but in the artful contemplation of experience.
(Image on top: A fragment of Danh Vo’s ongoing project "We The People"--full-scale replicated pieces of the Statue of Liberty--is on display in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago as part of The Renaissance Society's exhibition of Vo's work from September 23 - December 16, 2012. Three installations of fragments of "We The People" will be on display across campus in addition to "Uterus," a solo exhibition of Vo's work at The Renaissance Society gallery; Photo courtesy of The Renaissance Society)