A breath of fresh air

Danh Vo has arranged a special collection of artefacts in the Danish Pavilion at the Biennale,  and injected a breath of fresh air into the medley.

Danh Vo, Danish Pavilion, Biennale 2015
See also Hector Módica, Carlos Ledezma, Lourdes Del Rio project for the artist’s house in Mexico City and the text by Francesco Garutti published on Domus 991, May 2015.


The pieces are splendidly equivocal. Extracted from the ground, dusted off and transported, they have an air of times past. The air and sun of a place that they have, perhaps, never known.

The objects, artefacts, works and fossils collected and rearranged in the Pavilion – lined up before new eyes – are fragments of a material/technological/natural culture with which to reconstruct scraps of history and narrate a possible ancient society. All conjectural as archaeological finds are poetically mute before us. It is up to us to reconstruct the narrative they belong to. It is up to us to re-imagine and retrace their journey, calcification, layers, wounds and transformations.

Danh Vo, Danish Pavilion, Biennale 2015
Top: Danh Vo, Ο Θεός μαύρο, 2015. White crystalline Greek-marble sarcophagus fragment from Rome, end of second century AD; The Virgin of the Annunciation carved from poplar wood with traces of polychrome, Italy, School of Nino Pisano, c. 1350. Silk on the walls dyed to RAL 3020 with reactive chemicals, cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) fixed with alum and unknown mordant. Above: 03.01.1752, 2015, Nine Chinese glazed stonewear plates, sea deposits, shells. 24 × 37 cm. “Nanking Cargo” is the name given by Christie’s auction house to the items recovered in 1985 from the “Geldermalsen,” an eighteenth century Dutch East India Company vessel that sank on departure from Canton. Table bench with cushion, designed by Finn Juhl in 1953. Palisander (Dalbergia nigra) and brass edges, yellow foldable cushion. 40 × 182 × 45 cm each.
The Vietnamese artist has stripped the architecture of the pavilion, designed by Carl Brummer (1930–32) and Peter Koch (1959–60), of all the additions that have been inflicted on the modern design of the building, since the 1960s. The Burmese teak door/window frames and the limestone skirting boards have been revealed, liberated of the white paint that had covered them from Biennale to Biennale. Square windows at the top of the building are once again the only way to bring light into the dual-height space. Two doors opened over the years but never used have been closed to restore integrity to the side of the brick front. Another window, on the ground floor, is accessible again and, after years, frames a small lemon tree rooted in the soil of the Giardini. The electrical system has been dismantled and the Pavilion will only be illuminated by natural light – as had originally intended. On autumn evenings, it will fill with half-light.
Danh Vo, <i>Lick Me Lick Me</i>, 2015. Danish Pavilion, Biennale 2015
Danh Vo, Lick Me Lick Me , 2015. White crystalline Greek-marble torso of Apollo, Roman workshop, c. first–second century AD; wood; nails. 21 × 32.1 × 48.5 cm. Title excerpted from lines delivered by the demon in The Exorcist (1973).

This is no architectural fetishism. Vo wanted to reconstruct a space – structure and materials – in which to observe how his objects react without being disturbed by other things. It is the design of a propitious space where people gaze silently at the objects as they mix without touching each other; meeting but not in a forced relationship.

This artist was born in Vietnam, grew up in Denmark and now lives in Mexico City – his life as much in constant migration as the pieces forming his work. Objects acquired at auction and ancient pieces sourced on his travels and explorations are rearranged and recombined in space, telling stories in which cultures and religions dissolve, are absorbed and clash.

Danh Vo, Judas table, Danish Pavilion, Biennale 2015
Danh Vo, Judas , table designed by Finn Juhl in 1949 Palisander (Dalbergia nigra) with thirty circular silver coins inlaid. 73 × 200 × 140 cm. Manufactured by cabinetmaker Niels Vodder, Denmark
The Judas table designed by Finn Juhl in 1949 is a sophisticated piece of Northern-European modernity. Thirty silver coins have been inlaid into the grain of the Brazilian rosewood chosen by the Danish designer. So it is that the evangelical image of Judas’ bag of 30 pieces of silver evoked by Vo in Juhl’s piece entwines its story with gnarled branches collected in Mexico City – oak and privet – to the cut end of which has been applied the chiselled face of an angel. Beside the branches on the polished table is a hand-made tequila bottle, signed and entitled Lick me. Lick me . Four words spoken by a demon in William Firedkin’s Exorcist (1973). Modernity, Christianity and the ancient baked smell of the agave leaves in the alcohol design and define a space where seemingly very distant pieces seem to speak one of the other.
Danh Vo, Untitled, 2015, Danish Pavilion, Biennale 2015
Danh Vo, Untitled , 2015. Wax tree privet (Ligustrum lucidum), oak (Quercus lepidobalanus). Wood sourced in Mexico City
In the dual-height room, a wooden sculpture of the Virgin of the Annunciation (1350) – almost fossilized poplar, a scrap of transformed nature attributed to the school of Nicola Pisano – is installed on a base formed of another artefact, part of a Roman sarcophagus carved in Greek marble. Wood and stone blur against the red backdrop of precious silk, both ancient and sharply modern, redesigning the space in the room.

Vo commissioned the ceramic paving of the small garden at the rear of the pavilion from Oaxaca, Mexico, mixing a traditional Aztec design with Moorish geometries.

On a small bench by Finn Juhl  – intended for rest but also a base for objects and works – Vo exhibits cushions and nine Chinese plates, encrusted with limescale, welded to form a single mineral and marine figure. Nine plates – Nanking Cargo is the name given by Christie’s auction house to the pieces purchased by Vo – recovered in 1985 from the wreck of a Dutch East India Company vessel that was about to sail from the Cantonese coast. The pieces of stoneware crockery – decorated but inexpensive plates – are now a concretion, testimony to a colonial past and presented in the exhibition on the hardwood of a modern bench.

Danh Vo, Danish Pavilion, Ceramic tiles handmade in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2015
Danh Vo, Danish Pavilion, Ceramic tiles handmade in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2015 with motif found inside the former the Great Mosque of Cordoba, built in 784-86, currently the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (since 1236)
The crockery is the archaeology of a history to be traced. A story of conquests, colonies, trade exchanges and cultural pressure. Another piece of the pavilion where issues centred on the very idea of political and national identity, the pain of separation  and the silence of time merge in seemingly simple domestic surroundings.
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Danh Vo, Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter? 2015. Danish Pavilion, Biennale 2015
Danh Vo, Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter? 2015. Chestnut wood and polychrome Christ figure in Flemish style, produced in Portugal c. fifteenth- sixteenth century; Burmese teak; glass; engraving by Phung Vo. 253 × 360 × 12 cm. 223.5 × 450 × 12 cm

until 22 November 2015
Danh Vo
Danish Pavilion
Giardini della Biennale, Venezia

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