Through performance-based works inspired by his life experiences and historically rich readymade objects, Vietnamese-born, New York–based artist Danh Vo interrogates the construction of inherited cultural values, conflicts, and displacement. The objects that Vo selects contain multiple levels of meaning—complex political and poetic systems with which the artist perceptively links art and life. Recent projects by Vo evince an interest in how objects mark the intersection between individual biographies and historic events. When he was a child, Vo’s family left Vietnam in a boat built by his father. By chance, they were picked up by a Danish freighter and brought to Denmark, where they became citizens. Vo’s conceptual work draws on small documents and artifacts that both directly and indirectly touch on this experience—such as the watch, ring, and lighter that his father acquired upon arriving in Denmark as a refugee or hand-copies of a personal letter written by the canonized French missionary Théophane Vénard days before his execution in Vietnam—to examine how such items are dispersed across borders or symbolize transnational movements.
This fall the Art Institute of Chicago is presenting a new work by Vo in conjunction with his solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society. The installation will constitute part of Vo’s two-year project, We the People, which seeks to reconstruct on a 1:1 scale the colossal Statue of Liberty by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. The artwork’s title echoes the first three words of the preamble to the United States Constitution. Included within the preamble is the promise to secure the “Blessings of Liberty” for posterity, a promise that the statue embodies as a long-standing symbol of hope for a better life for refugees and immigrants arriving to the United States. The objective of We the People, however, is not to erect another statue in its totality but to reconstruct its individual elements and disperse them. The scattered fragments (some of which are unidentifiable, such as parts of the robe) remain connected to this universal symbol but emphasize the abstract content of the concept of freedom. Vo’s recreation of only the statue’s thin copper skin—at its actual thickness of two pennies—reveals the material and conceptual fragility of this monument, contrary to the original’s bold proclamations of stability and impermeability. The installation by Vo not only works against the mythical position of the statue today but, in fact, recalls the original contexts in which the statue made its first public appearances: prior to its full assembly and dedication in New York in 1886, the torch-wielding hand was displayed in Philadelphia at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, while the head was shown at the Paris Exposition of 1878.
The artist will select several fragments, which will first be exhibited in Pritzker Garden beginning September 23, 2012, before moving to the Bluhm Family Terrace, November 8, 2012–April 2013.