Whisky bottles, Budweiser boxes and some dirty dancing: Danh Vo’s two shows in Brussels

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Sometimes I am at a loss. I don’t know what to make of what I see. Take Danh Vo, for instance, currently with two shows in Brussels, one at Xavier Hufkens (‘New Sculptures’, through October 26) and one at Etablissement d’En Face (‘Dirty dancing’, through October 20). I know he’s a well-respected and hip young artist – selected for the official exhibition at the Venice Biennale – and just that fact makes these two shows must-see’s. But having visited the exhibitions, and having taken in all the necessary info, I still am at a loss.

A letter. Whisky bottles. An old shop counter. A huge reproduction of the Coca Cola-logo. Windows with texts written on them. An old, wooden African chair. Cardboard Budweiser boxes. And a dark gallery space that looks like it’s closed. These are some of the elements making up Danh Vo’s shows in Brussels.

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At first glance: unimpressive. Hermetic. You wonder what to make of all of it. It’s only after you have been given some clues, that both exhibitions start to get more depth, and become more interesting. (The old issue: does art benefit from some explanation, or should it speak for itself? Funny detail: when I asked for clues at Etablissement, the gallerist sighed at first, thinking: here we go again, somebody who can’t think for himself, who wants me to tell what all of this means. I had to explain that I didn’t want to know what every single object meant; I just wanted a few clues, so I would grasp better what was going on.)

DanhVo_Hufkens4So, the letter, to begin with, part of both shows. It’s a copy of an old letter in French, written by missionary Théophane Vénard in 1861 to his father from his prison cell before he was decapitated in Vietnam. You can actually order your copy: Danh Vo asks his father to make one for you, handwritten. The Coca Cola logo? Also made by Vo’s father. When the canvas turned out to be too small for the whole logo, they had to add a part. The chair? Bought in Brussels at an antique shop. Vo has added an inscription and plans to make a bronze cast of it. The counter? Also bought in Brussels. It’s deliberately left empty: an object that has lost the function it was designed for (the presentation of luxury goods). And the cardboard boxes? They were sent to people in Thailand who normally cover inscriptions on temples with gold leaf. This time around they had apply gold leaf to the Budweiser-logo.

The empty Johnnie Walker-bottles? Also a reference to consumerism (the bottles are square, so more bottles can fit in a box), and also a way to just play with your mind: Is this party just over? Did I miss it? The same goes for the dark gallery space; it wants to make you think: Is it already closed? Did I miss the exhibition? All the info on the windows at Xavier Hufkens? Written by some of Vo’s nephews, copied from a book. Apparently they didn’t even know the meaning of the English words they were copying.

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And so, bit by bit, both exhibitions start to come alive, and get some more depth. You realize Danh Vo (born in Vietnam; he grew up in Denmark after the boat his father made to flee the country was picked up by a Danish tanker), an artist always interweaving his art with references to his personal story (and asking members of his family to create some of his works) is playing with a lot of elements: conceptualism, appropriation, history, ancestry (and the weight of that), family, consumerism, colonialism, imperialism and American pop (and gay) culture (references to Top Gun and Dirty Dancing).

Fair enough. (Do read more about Vo’s work. The more you read, the more intriguing it becomes.) But in the end, I was still looking at an uninteresting copy of the Coca Cola-logo, at an old counter, a strange wooden chair and empty whisky bottles. Sometimes, exhibition rooms come alive. Start buzzing. It didn’t happen this time, and so I was at a loss. Wondering what to make of it. Did I miss the point? Or was I allowed to say: interesting and respected artist just passing through, repeating his tricks? Or: the Brussels episode, not one of Danh Vo’s best moments?

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More info on Danh Vo? You’ll find his Wiki-page here, and interviews here and here. By the way: he’s also the artist who was invited by Wiels (Brussels) to make a second version of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres exhibition, in 2010.

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