To what extent is the meaning of art the product of its display? For Danh Vo’s latest exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong the answer is entirely. This is the great perversion of conceptual art: it asks the viewer to put meaning into the artwork instead of offering up its own. It is by nature elusive and opaque, and therefore highly contingent on the context it is viewed in. This becomes even more problematic when the artists are amongst the most complex; Vo is undeniably one of them. Born in Vietnam shortly after the war and raised in Denmark where his family settled after being rescued at sea from a raft his father had built to flee, Vo experienced from a young age the profound questions of identity and cultural displacement. History, personal or otherwise, permeates his oeuvre, embodied in seemingly random objects. By choosing not to provide any explanations, Vo gives the viewer complete freedom in the reading of the work. The viewer, however, left to his own devices, cannot replicate the artist’s journey, be it geographical, cultural or creative, a necessary step in appreciating the exhibition’s many layered meanings.
On the ground floor, by the secondary entrance, a discrete yet significant work hangs against the wall. It is a replica, carefully created by Vo’s father, of a poetic goodbye letter written to his father in 1861 by Théophane Vénard, a French Catholic missionary in Vietnam who was soon-to-be beheaded. This letter has become Vo’s signature in recent shows as it broadly crystallises many of the fragments that make up his practice – Vietnam, family, history, religion, identity and death – and as such provides an ideal entry point into his work. In the centre of the space on the same floor sits an industrial-looking glass refrigerator containing the severed head of a wooden sculpture of Christ. The atmosphere feels inhospitable for the display comes closer to a cold room than it does to a museum showcase. No explanation is given, but it anticipates what is yet to come.
Around the corner from a 14th-century sword from the Mamluk treasure, which has, as it turns out, an untold, fascinating history of its own, the central installation materialises. No less than 450 late Pleistocene mammoth fossils of all shapes and sizes hang from the ceiling. Amongst them, an Ivory crucifix appears to be hovering in the air. The title of the work, borrowed from the film The Exorcist (1973), plays an important role in this macabre juxtaposition. The association with the unholy tirade spoken by the possessed little girl suggests an iconoclastic undertone applicable to the whole show. Throughout, Christian figures — be they the Christ himself or a French missionary — exist only as incomplete symbols for a religion Vo chose to reject despite his Catholic upbringing.
The fossils were shown previously in the Crystal Palace of the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofía in Madrid, and for all the interpretations we can extrapolate from the bones themselves, the true value of the show reveals itself in this drastic contextual transfer. Moving a show from a national institution to a commercial gallery has many implications on the meaning of the work, here the most significant one simply being the transition from one physical environment to another. Whereas the museum elevated the bones to the status of ancient relics in a cabinet of curiosities of sorts, the white space of the gallery is inadequate for a work of such grandeur because it robs these historically-rich objects of their gravitas. In contrast to the natural light afforded by the glass dome of the Crystal Palace, the stark neon lights of the gallery give the setting an all too clinical feeling. If the fossils initially belonged to the realm of natural history and archaeology, they have been transposed here into that of natural science and osteology. As such, it seems like the grand themes Vo set out to explore got lost in translation.
Consequently, this exhibition forces us to re-evaluate the terms within which conceptual art operates. This in itself is a laudable outcome for a gallery show as it furthers the dialogue on curating and display that is so fundamental to contemporary practices. In this case, it is not that the works are hollow or banal, but rather that they lack context and explanation, or clues to decipher the artist’s intentions and fully grasp them. After all, the line between endless interpretations and confusion is fine.
The exhibition runs until November 12, 2016 at White Cube Hong Kong.
Originally published on HongKongTatler.com