Upon entering the first room of The Paul J. Sachs Drawings Galleries, where the exhibition I Am Still Alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing is currently on view, visitors will encounter a crystal chandelier methodically disassembled and laid out in pieces directly on the floor. Seemingly simple in its dismantled readymade state, this installation by Danh Vo, like many other works in the exhibition, in fact resonates profoundly with the artist’s personal history. Vo was born in South Vietnam but grew up in Denmark after the boat his father constructed to flee the country was picked up at sea by a Danish commercial tanker. He obtained this lighting fixture from the ballroom of the former Hotel Majestic in Paris, where delegates from the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed the Paris Peace Accord on January 27, 1973.
Vo references his own personal history in his art while simultaneously raising larger concerns about Western colonization and the radically arbitrary nature of identity. Disassembled and arranged in pieces on the floor of an art museum, the chandelier is a ghost of its former self and a silent marker of a historical event. The related 60-page drawing installed in the front vitrine, titled Death Sentence, contains passages addressing death and commemoration from English and French literary and historical sources. The passages were compiled by the artist’s friend, Julie Ault, who is herself an artist. Alluding to France’s historic involvement in Southeast Asia, these texts were handwritten by the artist’s father, Phung Vo, who cannot read either language but still attended to them carefully with his elegant handwriting.
- On view in the last gallery is 2.2.1861, a work comprising a copy—also handwritten by the elder Vo—of the letter French missionary Jean-Théophane Vénard (1829–61) wrote to his own father the night before his execution in Vietnam for Christian proselytizing. Created through a simple gesture of transcription, the drawing evokes the colonial history of Vietnam and, on a more personal level, bears witness to two father-son relationships, separated by 150 years. By appropriating and reconfiguring found, acquired, and bequeathed elements in new contexts, Vo unearths and highlights allusions and memories that form his—and our—past and present.