Danh Vo’s work defies author­ship or cat­e­gor­i­cal belong­ing. He finds iden­ti­ty in the gaps between words in any giv­en social­con­tract. He has exhib­it­ed Joseph M. Carrier’s pho­tographs and objects in exhibits that are labeled as his own, and asks his father Phung Vo to copy out, over and over again, the final let­ter of mis­sion­ary J. Théo­phane Vénard to his father (before he was decap­i­tat­ed at the hands of the Viet­namese). Any time some­one com­mis­sions one of the let­ter-art­works, Phung Vo will sit down to copy one out in pur­ple ink, in his char­ac­ter­is­tic car­ing cal­li­graph­ic hand, and the let­ter is mailed to them. Fic­tion­al and fac­tu­al fam­i­ly fig­ures stand side by side, cre­at­ing a fairy­tale aura around Vo’s work. The son does not com­pete with his father fig­ure. He is the very dear, very hon­oured and much-loved father. The father too is at the mar­gins of pow­er. The father too is the glue that binds.

Arti­fi­cial and pros­thet­ic. The enhanced object and the miss­ing part. Art is often only seen by those who take the time to notice the over­looked. What is beyond the most banal­ly obvi­ous or insti­tu­tion­al­ly nor­mal­ized. Who has time for this? Those with time on their hands—and I do not mean by this the priv­i­leged or wealthy. This type of work is for those who don’t take the world at face val­ue, who are marked by dif­fer­ence. There is an art that is made from what is left over or behind; from what makes no sense ini­tial­ly, but is used for oth­er pur­pos­es lat­er. The same could be said for skills that have become obso­lete. One prefers not to give in to the ulti­ma­tum of start­ing over, again and again, as life’s cap­i­tal­ist rhythms—flexible, effi­cient, and under con­stant scrutiny—demand of us day by day.

Art has been explained as an exten­sion of sex­u­al selec­tion, super­sed­ing the course­ness of nat­ur­al selection—nothing to do with repro­duc­tion and mere sur­vival. It is in the domain of what exceeds or falls short. Like pur­ple prose. Or, the plain undec­o­rat­ed flesh with a miss­ing limb. Or, a part that juts out awk­ward­ly. Serv­ing inten­si­ty rather than exchange­abil­i­ty. It is becom­ing, even when it looks like noth­ing more than the cease­less over and over again of copy­ing. Give it time and it morphs, mutates. The sto­ry advances in unfore­seen ways. One must learn to seem,stealth­ily. Spend time cul­ti­vat­ing sleights of hand. The sub­tle ges­ture that only the most atten­tive will not let pass unno­ticed. The key is not to let the mas­ter know that you know. Not give the game away. Instead, hire some­one to pick the lentils out of the cin­ders for you. Let them think that art comes from the suf­fer­ing body, when in fact it emerges from a mishap, a mis­un­der­stand­ing, a get­ting away with. One day the strug­gling line of fig­ures, as frag­ile as birds, is sub­li­mat­ed into gold.

Not belong­ing, but want­i­ng to. Some­where between the no longer and the not yet. Still, you stake out a space of idio­syn­crat­ic order with­in the chaos, a process of selec­tion. In order to exceed the self, and what already exists. It is in the domain of priv­i­lege, but not in the usu­al sense of mon­ey. Oth­er­wise one could use it. Instead, one is giv­en the floor.



The foot is the basest part of the body. It is in con­tact with the filthy earth. A wreak­ing loaf of fleshy cheese. Chop a lit­tle off, and beau­ty con­sumes it. Its vapours enter the nos­trils, as one mas­ti­cates the tough lumpy chunks. The eyes, their atten­tion direct­ed aloft, are dif­fer­ent in taste and tex­ture alto­geth­er. Lugubri­ous rub­bery orbs for birds.

A wood­en chair, of plain office stock, green, but with a bare foot. Vo had asked Nguyen and Gazen­dam to chop 3 inch­es off one of its legs,  as well as dri­ve a nail into the side of the chair back. Then they are asked to paint the entire chair green, minus the 3 inch­es of sev­ered chair leg, as instruct­ed. Final­ly the sev­ered chair leg is glued back on. What kind of glue? Oh I don’t know, replies Vo. Gazen­dam sug­gests a few options: wood glue, crazy glue… So they use crazy glue. At times the inno­cent vis­i­tor is caught unawares, falling off the chair when attempt­ing to sit on it. The foot of the chair always risks falling off, due to the use of the wrong glue. The foot falls, the but­tocks slide off and hit the floor. Schadenfreude.

Why are the birds so help­ful? They stick togeth­er, a tight flit­ter­ing work­shop of activ­i­ty. Insin­u­at­ed is the idea that they are able to peel back the shab­by garb and bring about the mar­riage of suf­fer­ing, good­ness, and beau­ty. Uncov­er­ing the princess with­in. Just one beau­ty sleep away from reach­ing her fullest poten­tial. Cinderella’s dad­dy didn’t real­ly give a fuck, so she set her sights higher.



I ini­tial­ly got the con­text of the pho­to­graph all wrong by asso­ci­at­ing the rough­ly trimmed pho­to­graph of the artist’s nephew with the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Joseph M. Car­ri­er, who, after his death, bequeathed many of his belong­ings and all of his pho­tographs to Vo. One is under the impres­sion that most of Carrier’s pho­tographs depict the inti­ma­cy of boys. The pho­to­graph in the gallery is not work­ing in this reg­is­ter. Grant­ed, the nephew has his shirt off, and is show­ing off his wing’ for the photographer—his scapu­la juts out, like a Black­let­ter D”. It reads as some­what erot­ic, like a bird in the midst of dis­play rit­u­al. Only weeks lat­er, while look­ing up the word scapu­la’ quite by acci­dent, I dis­cov­er that there is a con­di­tion of the shoul­der blade called winged scapu­la.” It is a rare con­di­tion in which the shoul­der blade sticks out from the back in an abnor­mal way, and this can lead to the inabil­i­ty to com­plete dai­ly tasks, such as wash one’s hair or change one’s clothes.

The usu­al art tasks of trim­ming off  the traces of the pro­duc­tion process are sure­ly lack­ing in this pho­to­graph. This dis­play reads as good-enough.” Details of incom­ple­tion are left behind to snag at vision. This echoes the holes and screws left behind in the makeshift ply­wood wall adja­cent to the pho­to­graph. Unfin­ished, and full of imper­fec­tions, this is not nor­mal pro­ce­dure for an art gallery. This abnor­mal­i­ty is reflect­ed back onto the back of the boy in the photograph.


Head to toe

Avant-garde art, made by artists who believe there is no place left for beau­ty, super­fluity, and osten­ta­tion (due to art’s his­to­ry hav­ing for­ev­er been kept in the hands of the pow­er­ful), can more often than not be char­ac­ter­ized as aus­tere, dema­te­ri­al­ized, quo­tid­i­an, polit­i­cal, tex­tu­al, on the side of pover­ty, look­ing like non-art. Tak­en out of the hands of artists, who are not immune to the costs of liv­ing, this art is sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly sub­sumed by the patrons who use this aus­ter­i­ty and seri­ous aspect as cul­tur­al cap­i­tal. Appear­ing to sub­li­mate their baser instincts.

Out­side the gallery, one dis­cov­ers on the win­dow a man­u­script-style art­work made of taped up sheets of white paper cov­ered with Black­let­ter gold let­ter­ing. The text is in Ger­man, and it glows sub­lime­ly even on the most gloomy of days. It is a pas­sage from the Broth­ers Grimm’s fairy­tale Cin­derel­la. The part where Cinderella’s sis­ters cut either their big toe or part of their heel off in order to fit into the gold slip­per. Their ambi­tion and lust knows no bounds. They muti­late them­selves in order to be mis­tak­en as the woman of the prince’s dreams. Mim­ic­ry is nature’s adap­ta­tion to the envi­ron­ment, for sex­u­al advan­tage and sur­vival… But to delib­er­ate­ly cut off one’s own body part is beyond the pale, even sur­pass­ing the self-sac­ri­fice of the pray­ing man­tis which allows its head to be lopped off, while still man­ag­ing to go through the motions of copulation.

For sev­er­al months in 1860–1861, Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ary J. Théo­phane Vénard lived in a cage, impris­oned for hav­ing exer­cised his min­istry at a time when it was ille­gal to do so in Viet­nam. A bish­op wrote, Though in chains, he is as gay as a lit­tle bird.” He lived his last days as humbly as a lone vio­let. He was hap­py, as his head would soon be plucked, dis­sem­i­nat­ing divine faith to all around him, before acced­ing to the realm of his sov­er­eign master.