There Is No Need to Understand

Dahn Vo Exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York

I visited New York, although it was only for a few days. I went to see Dahn Vo’s exhibition, “Take My Breath Away,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which I always visit. The artist, who is the same age as me, was born in Vietnam. However, his family set sail in a wooden boat made by his father when he was still young, becoming “boat people,” in order to escape the communist party. Fortunately, they were rescued by a cargo ship, and as fate would have it, they ended up defecting to Denmark.

At his exhibition were items displayed almost exactly as they were, unaltered, such as ready-made goods associated with the war and the history of colonization in the country of his birth. The items included rusted cookware and farming equipment, photos, a Rolex watch and a Dunhill lighter that his father took with him when escaping the country, the tip of a fountain pen, a gorgeous crystal chandelier from a hotel in Paris where the Vietnam War peace talks were held, and a letter written by Henry Kissinger. Of course it was Dahn Vo himself, who chose which items to display how inside the peculiar spiral gallery designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The exhibition tells a real and personal story that only Dahn Vo can tell. But his form of conceptual art originates from Marcel Duchamp’s readymade who once created a furor over his exhibition of toilet seats, or Joseph Beuys who sowed the seeds for much debate by exhibiting garbage, uncompleted artworks, signboards, etc., and as such, I also expect Dahn Vo’s exhibition to create great controversy among those who see it.

A valuable Greek sculpture made of marble, a wooden crucifix and an image of the Virgin Mary had all been slashed ruthlessly by Dahn Vo, then rejoined to create a new work of art. Whether you are able to appreciate the beauty of such a creation, or you are disgusted by its hideousness is entirely in the eye of the beholder, but I personally found myself attracted to the profound boldness of this creations, which seemed to be an expression of the inner struggle and contradictory emotions within himself.

Dahn Vo rose to fame in the world of art through his exhibition titled, “We The People,” in which he created a life-sized replica of the symbol of New York, the Statue of Liberty, in individual pieces of copper. At the exhibition this time too, there were several pieces scattered carelessly over the floor.

In an age when countries all over the world struggle with the problem of refugees and immigrants, it is no doubt very meaningful that Dahn Vo, a refugee himself, should recreate and exhibit the world’s most popular copper statue symbolizing freedom for the people who in the past crossed to America from Europe.

Dahn Vo’s creations make people uncomfortable, and sometimes even unhappy and uneasy. This is probably because his creations have the power to completely overturn our sense of values, which we held so dear to us. By boldly exhibiting junk from his past life at the Guggenheim that artists all over the world aspire to, Dahn Vo is apparently trying to be provocative, and perhaps even poking fun at the current monetary system, consumer society and the way we are being manipulated by the monotony of information available through the media. At the same time, by exhibiting ready-made products and letters written by other people, and modifying the works of others to turn them into his own creations, he is sowing the seeds for controversy as to who the works can be accredited to.

I have yet to fully understand his works. But I believe that you need not pretend to understand such works, or go out of your way to try and appreciate them. In fact, they are intended to invoke different emotions in each and every one of us, and the works only attain completion upon the intertwining of the different perspectives of all who see them.

I felt that the space at the Guggenheim was a little too narrow for this exhibition.
If the exhibition had simply been held inside a white square space, allowing us to appreciate it a little at a time, it may have left a different impression on me.

At night, I went to Carnegie Hall to immerse myself in the flood of sad yet pleasant dissonance of Adagio, the first movement of Symphony No. 10 composed by my favorite Gustav Mahler, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

For more information, check out my article series, “Fumi-wa Yaritashi,” in Shousetsu Gento.

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