Highlight: Danh Vo ‘2.2.1861’

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Danh Vo, Vietnam/Denmark b.1975 / 2.2.1861 2009-ongoing / Ink on paper / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

With the generous assistance of Michael Sidney Myer, the Gallery recently acquired this deceptively simple yet emotionally complex work by Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, for the Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art.

Over the past five years, Danh Vo has emerged as one of the most acclaimed young artists working internationally. Since 2008 he has participated in numerous biennales and major exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the United States, and in 2012 was awarded the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize. His work has struck a chord at a time when the operations and lineages of modernity, globalisation and cultural exchange have become key preoccupations in contemporary art. Using found, purchased and reproduced objects, Vo entwines personal history with references to wider social movements and political events, making evident the complex web of relations between private lives and the public sphere.

A particular focus of Vo’s work is the symbolism and distribution of power around the world, from French colonial incursions into Indochina to the global promotion of democracy by the United States. Icons such as the United States flag and the Statue of Liberty are remade and reworked, while items that were witnesses to history — such as the chandeliers from the Paris hotel ballroom where the treaty ending the Vietnam War was signed, and chairs from the Kennedy White House, which were owned by Robert Macnamara, the Secretary of Defense who led the US into that war — are displayed like holy relics. Indirectly, these objects enormously affected Vo’s own life: his family were Vietnamese refugees who fled South Vietnam on a boat in 1979, were picked up by a Danish ship, and then resettled in Denmark, where the artist grew up.

2.2.1861 (2009–ongoing) is a letter handwritten by Vo’s father, Phung Vo. It is a copy of a letter written in 1861 by the French Catholic missionary Jean-Théopane Vénard (1829–61) to his own father just before his execution. Vénard was based at a mission in West Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and was captured and imprisoned due to an edict from the Nguyen emperor banning proselytising (Vénard was beatified in 1988 by Pope John Paul II). The French were then in the process of strengthening their presence in Vietnam, partly in response to the treatment of French missionaries, and undertook a series of invasions between 1858 and 1861 before signing the Treaty of Saigon in 1862, granting them control of the city and surrounding provinces. French and Catholic influences remain profound in Vietnam to this day.

Phung Vo cannot read French, but his elegant handwriting forms a beautiful transcription of this emotional letter from son to father. Through this process, the work links to the artist’s own relationship with his father, and is restaged again and again as Phung Vo copies letters for whoever acquires one. It remains an open edition until Phung Vo’s death, at which time the letters will be editioned. 2.2.1861 is one of several document-based works by Vo, which include Vo Rosasco Rasmussen (2002–), an archive of legal documents accumulated from a sequence of marriages and divorces the artist undertook to acquire a collection of surnames. Vo’s experience as an immigrant — where identity is constructed through a bureaucratic relation to the state — plays out through this work, although the artist turns the tables and produces his own identity through official paperwork. Vo’s deployment of an historical personal document in 2.2.1861 creates a concise yet richly layered and compelling work, one that reflects the complex and often violent history of South-East Asia, and how it affects and has been affected by individuals.